I find criticisms of Elon Musk to be really annoying. They normally lie along two lines:
- Elon Musk is really mean and pushes workers too hard
- Elon Musk’s companies are not very profitable/they miss his crazy targets
These criticisms are expressed in a sort of triumphant way, as if to say, “Checkmate! You cannot escape my flawless logic”, the emotional content of which might be the source of my frustration.
This post is talking about Elon Musk by name, but it is less about him as an individual as it is an illustration of the way people confuse their own worldviews with the worldviews of others. Like a typical mind fallacy on a big scale.
Here are some things that seem obvious to me about our example Elon Musk:
Elon Musk doesn’t give a shit what you think.
If you say he did mean thing, he doesn’t care. If mean people did care, they wouldn’t be as mean. This opinion is just someone signalling to their friends that they can spot a meanie. Well, good for them, but I don’t care, so stop saying it. Also, that person is an idiot, as I’ll point out below.
Elon Musk is not playing by the rules.
If someone makes a comment along the lines of: “Elon Musk’s companies are not successful” then what that comment actually shows is which rules that person thinks are important. This comment is saying “according to the basic rules of capitalism and business, success is defined as increased profits, increased turnover or increased market share, including being ‘top’ of league tables versus competitors. Under these criteria Elon Musk’s companies are not always ‘top’, as he claims to be.”
The smugness of this opinion annoys me, because it’s so clueless. It’s true that under those rules, Musk’s companies are a bit up and down (although still pretty wildly successful, on balance), but maybe, just maybe, Musk’s definition of success has nothing to do with capitalistic profitability? If we imagine for a moment that Musk’s goal is to make Earth more like the scifi we imagine for ourselves, to leverage technology to realise some of the fun dreams of the future as well as the more mundane ones, does he seem more succesful?
Musk’s purpose in life is not to run successful companies (he’s already done that, jeez), his purpose in life is to shift the Overton window of what is thinkable, so that ‘what is thinkable’ starts to become possible, and then also to hack all the stage 4 systems we live under (capitalism/government) to do things that they have so far utterly failed to do (IE give us more from Star Trek than just self-opening doors).
Elon does not need to be defined by particular rules, and almost certainly does not define by anyone else’s rules. However he does perfectly understand how to appear to be playing by all the correct rules, to get people and institutions to do what he wants.
Let’s take the example of electric cars. I think most of us remember a time when it was “common knowledge” that we will never have electric cars, because even if the genuinely hard problems are overcome and someone invents a usable electric car, the invention will be actively suppressed by the government and oil companies because it is too challenging to these powerful companies and the governments who receive their kickbacks. It was a conspiracy theory that everybody believed in. Electric cars were unthinkable.
But now, over the course of less than two decades, we live in a world where nations are making it illegal to produce new combustion engine cars, where infrastructure for charging cars has been installed nationwide in many countries and affordable, long-range electric cars are produced by every major car manufacturer on the planet. This wasn’t all Elon Musk, but it mostly was. Musk did the ideological leg-work, and brought the whole world with him. How?
Musk is capable of spotting when a system is a system (stage 4) and then make it look like he is operating inside of it. Founding Tesla was in many ways playing by the system’s rules. Our stage 4 institutions only understand things like companies and investors and legislation, so he forms a company, gets investors, sets targets, purchases buildings, sets up factories and all that jazz. Tesla is serving the stage 4 purpose of being a company that produces electric cars. Musk tells investors everything will be great and sets targets for employees to meet.
But Musk uses these stage 4 companies to achieve stage 5 goals as well. He’s not trying to be rich (he’s already rich), he’s trying to change the world. Musk used Tesla to shock all the other car companies into thinking that electric cars were a thing now, so they all started scrambling to make their own. He used Tesla infrastructure programs to shock governments into thinking that electric car infrastructure had sufficient demand now, so they all started scrambling to build their own.
Tesla operate a huge company doing real commercial things, of course, but many of their actions are towards ideological change. For example, I noticed Tesla rent expensive showrooms in the most expensive malls in town, certainly in London. These must be a huge cash drain. Their purpose might be to sell Teslas, but it is also to make electric cars seem cool, and REAL. Science fiction is now science fact. Tesla have also spent a large amount of money on charging infrastructure, because everyone was caught in a catch-22 of no infrastructure/no demand. Tesla artificially created both infrastructure and demand, and now the avalanche is really starting to fall.
Tesla itself doesn’t actually make electric cars very well, the thing they do well (because of heavy investment) is the battery. It’s maybe still inefficient and heavy, but it’s better than before, and only exists because of throwing huge amounts of money and passion at it, against the direction of market forces. Tesla’s most costly and most valuable asset is the battery, so what does Musk do? He shares the patent for the battery with rival companies. Under stage 4 capitalism, this makes no sense, but in stage 5 fluid mode, sharing knowledge will get the job done. And what is the job? Get rich? Or is it “accelerate the advent of sustainable transport”.
So, was Musk’s goal to make Tesla profitable? Or was it to make electric cars not only exist, but be a ubiquitous, obvious feature of human life like it is in the movies? How successful has that project been?
When people say that Tesla is not actually that profitable, I think they are totally missing the point of what Tesla is, what Tesla is for and what Musk’s aims for Tesla actually are. If someone says “Tesla’s profits are dicey” my reaction is, “so what?”
Elon Musk deliberately sets unreachable targets
When people criticise Musk for his companies failing to deliver on his silly targets, they do not seem to understand the purpose of those targets. Musk sets them deliberately high, knowing that they will be missed. However, his companies or employees manage to go much further than they ever thought possible because they were aiming for a ridiculous target.
Musk has to sound like he believes in the target, otherwise people might not try so hard. He bigs these targets up on TV and everywhere to “show” he is serious about these goals. He has to, in order to get the most out of the people working for him. He is like the instructor in the gym yelling “10 more seconds” when you’ve already planked longer than you had in your entire life.
Yet I think he obviously understands that those targets will not be reached, rather that the point is for people to stretch themselves and the media are just a tool for his use in this strategy. So lambasting him for a failure to hit a target in a public forum, simply because he said the target a few weeks back and now it has failed, is not a huge win for the opinion piece, it’s just a side effect of this strategy that he obviously ignores.
Musk’s companies’ failure to hit a target is not proof of his ‘failure’, but in fact proof of his success.
Elon Musk Is (Probably) A Sociopath
I must stress this is completely unconfirmed personal speculation and is also not intended as an insult. I have respect for the effort it takes for non-typical people making their way in the world. But yeah, Musk seems to be a very-low-empathy kind of guy. I’m not the first person to speculate this and really it should be no surprise.
There is a continuous stream of anecdata on the web about Musk’s interpersonal behaviour from his wives and workers about fairly outrageous things, such as allegedly criticising an employee for missing work to attend the birth of their child.
When people seem to do this a lot, we should not be surprised when it happens again. If someone wants to say “Musk says or does horrible things”, well, they’re not wrong, but it’s not news. I would like to see more people internalising what this observation really means.
It means Musk will not be constrained the way other people are by the rules that empaths use to not hurt other people’s feelings. I’ve recently been reading some of the literature on sociopaths and it has given me a fascinating insight into the potential goals and behaviours of low-empathy people. While sociopaths are normally having to spend lots of effort to “pass”, there are some advantages too. Empaths can be so easy to con. One can say and do outrageous things and be forgiven over and over. So, sociopath or not, this is another way that Musk is not playing by ‘the rules’. And if it’s an advantage that Musk has, then I’m sure he will use it.
As an aside: having goals to benefit the human race is not incompatible with being a sociopath. It’s perfectly possible to seek advantages for an entire race – humans – without having very strong empathy for individual examples of the species.
I’m not seeking to condone or criticise Musk’s behaviour, but when someone triumphantly criticises an individual act, thinking this is a checkmate move, rather than see this as expected behaviour that everyone should not be letting him get away with, then they’re just playing into his hands.
If he’s playing this game, he doesn’t care if people think he’s a meanie, he’s consciously and deliberately subverting all the “empath” rules that he can get away with breaking. Deliberately being a meanie (and getting more output from his workforce) but otherwise suffering no other consequences is the sweet spot he has always intended to be in.
If someone says “Elon Musk did a mean thing” without spotting that this might be a deliberate ploy on his part, then they are trying to signal that they are good at spotting meanies, but actually the opposite is true and they are a gullible idiot.
Elon Musk Is Not Playing By The Rules
Let’s take a moment to reiterate that Musk is not playing by the (standard) rules. Once I’ve made my points above, most people are still clinging to the idea that criticising some structural specifics of his empire is a point that can’t be ignored.
For example someone might say “but he must be telling his shareholders that the company is going to be financially successful” or “his new factory layout won’t work as well as he says” and I’m like “and….? What’s the problem?” and they say “well he must believe it on some level…” and there we get the crux.
He does not have to believe it on some level. He is not playing by those rules. He’s a stage 5 maybe- sociopath! He says things to make the shareholders believe everything is fine. He’ll say things to make investors invest in him. It doesn’t matter if he “believes” what he is saying or not. It just matters that other people are convinced. He’ll do whatever is needed to keep the gears of the system turning.
Some people are shocked by this idea. It means that Elon Musk is a liar. Well yes he’s a liar. What do you think the benefits of being a sociopath are? Everyone else might think it’s bad for people to be liars, but he doesn’t, which is why he wins. Except he’s not lying most of the time, the majority of his businesses are highly profitable, even with these extra non-commercial goals. And if he is lying, could you tell the difference? Does it even matter if it gets the job done?
When someone says “Elon Musk’s businesses are not as profitable as he claimed they would be”, what they’re essentially saying is “Elon Musk is a very successful sociopath and we all keep falling for it”.
Elon Musk Is A CEO playing an infinite game
Hard not to link to The Gervais Principle entire here, but one of my takeaways from that piece is that for sociopath (or sociopath-like) CEOs, the game they are actually playing is a based on a form-rule-exit cycle of businesses, where one forms new companies, runs them for a while and gets out before it crashes and burns, or when its success becomes too boring. This company-forming game is an infinite game. Unlike finite games which have strict rules, fixed players and a definitive ending, the purpose of an infinite game is to be able to keep on playing. An individual company is itself a finite game, with a win/lose criterion, but the company-formation cycle is infinite.
What one must do in business to keep being able to play the “company” infinite game is to make sure people one level below you, the ones playing stage 4 individual games, still believe in your “ability” to lead companies, or still invest in you. It is also to convince other stage 5 infinite players (such as some investors and C level folks) that you are still fun to play with.
Seen on this scale, criticising the success of an individual company of Musk’s is missing the point. When people criticise Musk, they are normally commenting on some detail of one of the finite games, without being able to see the larger infinite game that is going on. Even if a company that Musk technically founded utterly fails and drops out, this is not a “gotcha” moment against Musk, indeed the failure of any one company is an intended part of the game.
What probably really matters to Musk is still being a person who can found companies, still being a player at the table of the infinite game.
It’s much harder to speculate about Musk’s success at this infinite game, as I don’t play it and news of it is much more in the shadows, because it is a highly personal game between a relatively small number of players and not many people understand it. In many ways he seems to be doing really well. He’s founded a bunch of companies and people are still cluelessly chasing their tails over specifics at each company rather than catching on to him as a whole. He can also do a lot of self-funding if investors are temporarily unwilling to join in.
However I would guess that he is far too famous for the comfort of most other people playing these games, as it exposes one to annoying and sometimes game-ending scrutiny, whether from government, companies or other players. He also seems to have relaxed his guard too much with allowing to be exposed his (possibly) sociopathic mistakes. This risks alienating the Stage 4 actors, the competent employees and directors of his companies that do the leg work to keep the systems going.
He is also exposing himself to risk by actually caring about his goals (the betterment of humans). I think this makes him an unusual player with exposed weaknesses and one day he will not be able to keep playing the game, through whatever error or confluence of events. The players that don’t want to be exposed will slip away.
That might be a big loss to the rest of us humans, or maybe we’ll be inspired to keep all this going. I hope so.
Elon Musk Gets Away With It Because His Goals Are Aligned With Ours
The Tesla in space says “Made By Humans”. I fucking love it. It may be shocking to realise that people like Musk might be unempathetic cheating capitalist liars, but let’s face it, we let him get away with it because the outcomes are pretty great. Electric cars, solar panels, home battery storage, mass transit, making space cool again and unifying the human race are all pretty damn refreshing.
In the mean time we can try to make up systems that are less susceptible to cheating or try to facilitate cool, useful changes in the world without having to totally hack every system we have.
All of this is pure speculation, but the point of the post is to outline why I think common criticisms of Elon Musk (and others like him) are basic bitch boring and probably missing the point.
If someone wants to criticise the ins and outs of individual businesses that Musk founded that’s their call. They are thinking at the appropriate systems level in order to comment on the finite game currently in play. But oh lord please stop thinking that this means Musk is a failure and your argument is the ultimate smack down to his whole life. If people saying this kind of thing are not aware of the wider picture, joke’s on them.
And stop saying Musk is mean but continue to work for him, or think that he’ll change, or think that he gives a shit. That’s not a checkmate, that’s just being an idiot.
I would love to hear refreshing criticisms that take into account a possible wider picture of anyone’s infinite game/stage 5 crossovers/unknown intentions.
What Musk is showing us is that we need to criticise ourselves. We need some stage 3 and stage 5 intervention pretty badly because currently the impersonal monstrous edifice of our Stage 4 institutions can only be penetrated for the common good by lucky, brilliant (possible) sociopaths whose goals happen to align with ours. If we manage to build such things, I suspect some of them will be based on what Elon Musk leaves behind.
Featured image credit to Twitter user:@Kenetor