They say there is a fine line between genius and insanity. Elon Musk is one in a long line of eccentric inventors and nutty professors who prove the saying is true.
The man who is the face of tech companies Tesla and SpaceX seems to live a charmed life; one he is happy to share on social media platforms such as Twitter. Then again, he is also notorious for tweets that belittle, insult, and mock others, or, in one instance, send share prices soaring. In reports that quote an awful lot of anonymous sources, he is painted either as a dedicated, caring individual with a good sense of humour, or as a ferocious, maniacal tyrant.
I’ve never met the man, and probably never will, so all I’ve got to go on are the articles, reports, and, of course, his Twitter account. Anything I write about him is conjecture, but I suspect that the truth of his weird, wonderful life is somewhere between those good guy-bad guy extremes.
From South Africa to Silicon Valley
Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1971. He would have been conscripted for mandatory military service by the country’s apartheid-era government, had he not moved to Canada as soon as he completed his final year of high school.
In those days, he was a dreamer with $2000, a willingness to take on odd jobs, and a desire to study further. After studying at a college in Canada, he moved to the University of Pennsylvania, after which he, along with his brother and a friend, founded a small company. It sold for millions. He got $22 million, but rather than retiring early, he pumped the money into starting up the company that would become PayPal. eBay bought that company for $1.5 billion in 2002, when he was just 31 years old, but even that did not inspire thoughts of early retirement.
In 2004, he invested $6.3 million, which probably seemed like small change, and became Tesla’s chairman. From there, it was a small step to CEO.
I suspect Musk has a clear vision of a better world. What’s more, I think that, while for many people such as world is somewhere in the distant future, for him, it is within reach – and he wants to make it happen. His life before Tesla obviously gave him the vision and self-confidence he needed to continue his trajectory.
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A Maniacal Messiah, Maybe?
As impressive as those early successes were, they only set the tone for Musk’s later life. His dream electric car dreams are being realised on Tesla Motors production lines, and are inspiring others to follow in his track marks.
His dreams of a better world made him shift his eyes from the roads to the skies and beyond. A project that was sneered at a few years ago has become SpaceX, which envisions building a 1000 craft-strong Mars Colonial Fleet. If hints are to be believed, the fleet could make its first boarding call as early as 2022. If I were a fan, I think this is the part where I start gushing that Musk really could be the man to save the world.
Thing is, as potentially wonderful as this kind of stuff is, I’m not a fan, and I can’t ignore all the stories that describe Musk’s volatile temper and career-ending outbursts. Whose career? Not his, obviously. The career of whoever happened to get in his way at that moment.
My mom likes to say that, where there is smoke, there is fire. There are just too many stories of personnel, whether they be engineers or executives, who have been belittled, berated, and then fired in full view of their colleagues. Of course, company spokespeople are quick to deny or explain away the incidents, but, really, some of those explanations read like the biography of some old saint.
Anonymous sources claimed Musk called an engineer a ‘f***ing idiot’ before telling him to ‘get the f*** out’ and to not come back. Another claimed he got so upset during a meeting, he broke a phone. Yet another claimed he called an executive and berated him for taking paternity leave.
A former executive told a reporter that he was told to hunch in his chair at meetings, because Musk reacts better when he is positioned higher than others. Maybe those are just his foibles. After all, Nikola Tesla claimed to have been in love with a pigeon, and Howard Hughes never cut his fingernails and enjoyed watching movies naked.
Oh, the Humanity
Justifying Musk’s fiery behaviour, the company claimed some of the firings were because those employees put the company’s future in jeopardy. It basically claimed he fires people because he loves humanity.
Detractors point out that whatever he feels for humanity, he does not care much for individuals, and I’m inclined to agree. I don’t know about you, but I can’t be a fan of someone who despite his fantastic tech inventions, doesn’t realise that humanity is made up of individuals.