Posted on October 24, 2018 by Charles Morris
Is Elon Musk really such a bad guy? Why has the multi-talented entrepreneur gone from being almost universally admired to being one of the media’s favorite whipping boys? Many of the attacks come from vested interests that are threatened by Tesla’s plans to remake the transportation and energy industries. And it has to be said that Elon has done much harm to his own image with his petulant and poorly-thought-out tweets. But the main reason for the recent wave of anti-Musk animus is simply “crabs in a bucket” syndrome - when one crab tries to climb out, the others will surely pull him back in. In our flawed human society, anyone who achieves success and public admiration soon attracts a backlash of envious acrimony. Taking down beloved icons is a journalistic tradition that’s become a staple of the internet age - it’s a reliable way to attract readers, whether the criticism is justified or not.
Above: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shortly after the SES-10 mission successfully completed both its primary and secondary mission. (Flickr: thaddeus cesari)
Now Popular Mechanics has made an attempt to balance the “myopic and small-brained” attacks, with a collection of short essays entitled In Defense of Elon Musk. “Elon Musk is an engineer at heart, a tinkerer, a problem-solver - the kind of person Popular Mechanics has always championed,” write PM’s editors, “and the problems he’s trying to solve are hard. Really hard. He could find better ways to spend his money, that’s for sure. And yet there he is, trying to build gasless cars and build reusable rockets and build tunnels that make traffic go away. For all his faults and unpredictability, we need him out there doing that. We need people who have ideas. We need people who take risks.
“We need people who try.”
Popular Mechanics asked a selection of writers and industry observers why they admire Elon Musk. Some of their answers are highly poetic, and the article is well worth reading in its entirety. We have room here for just a few highlights.
Because I Want to Go to Mars is Tom Chiarella’s answer to PM’s rhetorical question. He compares Musk with Mark Twain. “Not everybody liked Twain,” writes Chiarella. “They still don’t. He could be scandalous and self-indulgent. He smoked too much. Judgmental. [But] he took you somewhere. He spoke past his newspaper editor, directly to the people, to his readers, whether they agreed with him or not. And while he certainly produced outsize, often painful, observations about what we had become as a people, he also offered glaring, satiric propositions concerning what we might want to try to be henceforth. And why. In person, he could be wily, cold, and unpleasant, but Twain stood out as a man who reliably saw the truth of human purpose beneath the weighty mess of human foibles. He had ambitions for humanity. At the very least, he believed that humanity ought to have ambitions for itself.
“And now, Elon Musk walks the earth. The pleasure of his presence on this mantle is similar to Twain’s... Admit it, among your everyday pleasures is the possibility that you might pick up an item in the news feed on your smartphone concerning Elon Musk’s next great idea. Electric cars. The colonization of Mars. Tunnels beneath Los Angeles. Brains linked to computers.
“[Elon Musk’s] ambitions relate to something more than monetizing a good idea. They relate to the obligations of possibility, to our larger sense of self. Musk speaks these ideas to us, the people - straight past the analysts, the corporate boards, the stockholders narcoticized by profit statements - because he knows we will respond. Ambition is an element of our humanity.”
Above: A look Elon Musk's many bold investments (Graphic: BBC)
Because He Keeps Going, says Ashlee Vance, the author of a well-researched biography of Musk.
“It was 2008. People were pulling their money out of banks, titans of finance and industry were going bankrupt, and we all felt sad and lost. Somehow, in the midst of all this, Elon Musk managed to keep his electric car and rocket companies alive. (Think how ridiculous this sounds now.)
“Since then, automakers everywhere have devoted themselves to making electric cars mainstream. Dozens of new rocket and satellite companies have appeared. Humanity’s access to space appears to have been changed forever, filling people with hope and revitalizing our sense of exploration that had been so dulled. You have to credit the man - this South African man - with being a true patriot and a symbol of what is possible when America is at its best.”
Because He Redefines Ambition, says PM Automotive Editor Ezra Dyer.
“Revolutionary technology doesn’t jibe with the car industry’s business model, which is based on incremental improvements, slowly honing a proven product. There aren’t a lot of surprises, simply because the industry doesn’t need them. Why get mired in moon-shot R&D when America’s buying 17 million cars either way? That’s how the car business works. At least, that’s the way it worked before Tesla.”
Dyer recaps the Elon Musk origin story, noting that Musk has had many opportunities to retire to a private island or an English manor, but has always plowed his billions back into new projects. “Self-made wealthy people all have ambitions, but Musk’s are on a different level from everyone else’s. His PayPal chum, Peter Thiel, dreams of building a floating city where nobody cares if you jaywalk. Musk wants to colonize Mars and completely change the world transportation infrastructure. And he knows there will be colossal setbacks and nonstop smug punditry and platoons of People Who Know telling him that he shouldn’t bother. Why not just go hot-air ballooning with Richard Branson and call it a day? Because he’s pulling it off, that’s why. Here we are, six years after the Tesla Model S debuted, and that car still has no competition. In about a year, the Porsche Taycan will become the first EV to directly challenge the Model S, and even Porsche isn’t promising it will get near the P100D’s 2.5-second zero-to-60 time and 315-mile range. This is crazy, really. Porsche can’t just blow this tiny American company off the map?”
“Zoom out, people,” Dyer admonishes us. “We’re talking about a guy who thinks on a cosmic scale, who wants to push civilization as far as he can while we still have one. But go ahead and scoff at what he said on the quarterly conference call.”
Above: A look at Elon Musk's tenacity and determination as he pushes Tesla to succeed against all odds (Youtube: Chris Collins)
Because of the Cars Alone, says Robert Bollinger, whose company is building a heavy-duty electric work truck.
“Musk reversed what everyone thought of electric cars. Tesla started when there were basically no vendors in the field. There still aren’t many options, but it’s growing. All thanks to Tesla. For Elon to find a way to keep the company going through so many obstacles is incredibly more difficult than anyone can imagine.”
Because They All Made Mistakes, says PM Senior Home Editor Roy Berendsohn, and compares Musk to George Westinghouse. “George Westinghouse has as spotless a reputation as any luminary in American history, writes Berendsohn. “He invented the air brake that dramatically increased the safety and efficiency of train traffic, successfully championed alternating current, and built the first safe, high-voltage distribution system. The Westinghouse geared turbine engine improved marine shipping, and he was granted patents that safely advanced natural-gas-well drilling, metering, and distribution.
“But even Westinghouse didn’t always get it right. Natural gas was so plentiful in the point breeze section of Pittsburgh where he made his home that he put down a natural gas well in his yard. There was just one problem...the gas pressure was so great that in the middle of the night it blew the head off the well and blasted the primitive drill rig to smithereens. For the next several days, a hurricane of natural gas escaped through the hole until it was brought under control by a valve that Westinghouse himself invented. That near disaster didn’t prevent Westinghouse from running his own experiment on gas illumination by erecting a 60-foot-tall pipe on his property and lighting off the gas plume. Contemporary accounts describe a king-size gas torch with a 100-foot-tall flame. Think of the kind of notoriety that would bring today.”
Because He’s More Entrepreneur Than CEO, says Mark Cuban.
“When you invest in a company run by an entrepreneur like Elon, you are investing in the mindset and approach that an entrepreneur brings to the table as much as you are valuing the net present value of future cash flows. That is not typical for public companies that are overwhelmingly run by hired CEOs. My advice for Elon is simple: Be yourself. Be true to your mission. Respect your investors. Ignore your critics.”
Popular Mechanics Editor-in-Chief Ryan D’Agostino concludes the essay collection with a piece entitled Because of the Attempt. It’s an evocative bit of writing that contrasts the press coverage of Elon’s latest antics with the scene at the Tesla factory, where highly dedicated employees are working around the clock to turn out technological marvels.
“Musk himself probably prompted the latest round of Tesla nay-saying by promising specific production goals,” D’Agostino writes. “But that’s what the guy does, and it’s not about pumping up the stock price for this quarter. Musk, desirous of everything at the same time, says: we’re gonna do this impossible thing. And then sometimes he does it - he and the thousands of people working for him, using the engineering accomplishments and the inventions of generations of thinkers who came before them. And when they do it, when Musk’s promises come true, like Dean Moriarty he burns like a fabulous yellow roman candle exploding across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes awww, while the rest of us just shamble on after him.
“And when he doesn’t do it - when the employees of Tesla or SpaceX set out to do some task he said they could do, but they make only 4,000 cars a week instead of 5,000, or the massive rocket doesn’t quite land on the tiny barge in the middle of the sea - Elon Musk can say the one thing no one else can: I tried.”