When Robert Downey Jr. was developing Tony Stark’s character for Iron Man, his real-life reference was Elon Musk—partly because Elon is an actual genius billionaire playboy philanthropist (in that order), partly because Elon is the rare sort of industrialist who actually wants to build new and cool stuff himself. Notice also that both characters enjoy their wealth, occasionally in flashy ways, but they clearly care more about the labors than the fruits.
Here’s the essential difference between the two: we would want to trade places with Tony Stark (at some point between the cave and Ultron), but at no point would we ever want to trade places with Elon. Our brains cringe a little bit every time we read his name because the amount of pressure in his life is literally unimaginable to us.
So in commemoration of Elon’s 49th birthday (this past Sunday, June 28), we’re taking three stabs at the Elon question which eludes us most: how on Earth can anybody stand that much stress?
He’s been under pressure his entire life. Let’s just say that Elon didn’t have a breezy childhood. He was always fiercely intelligent, but as a kid he was shy and small—which made him a ripe target for bullies, especially in the “hyper-masculine” environment of 1980s South Africa. He had to be hospitalized after one particularly brutal attack in which he was shoved down a flight of stairs, and the resulting jagged septum left Musk with breathing problems until a surgical correction in 2013.
Elon wasn’t safe at home, either. His parents divorced when he was nine and he chose to live with his father, which he came to regret because his father was abusive (Elon describes his father as a “terrible human being”). Later, as his eighteenth birthday drew closer, Elon knew he didn’t want to stay in his home country, largely because South Africa has mandatory military service and he wanted no part in the enforcement of apartheid. He escaped by getting a Canadian passport (his mother is Canadian-born) and enrolling at Queen’s University in Ontario.
Elon’s way of coping, broadly speaking, has always been to turn inward. As a kid, he would retreat into reading; he loved the wealth of knowledge he could find in books (he literally read the encyclopedia cover to cover), and eventually there was no subject too daunting for him to crack open and teach himself. At some point, he discovered a love of programming and could then retreat into his projects (he wrote his first computer game when he was 12). By the time he was a young adult, he could retreat into his work—which is exactly what he did in 2002 when his firstborn son Nevada died.
He really doesn’t care about the money. Never mind what he says on this subject (even though he agrees). Remember that psychology is the study of behavior, not the study of thoughts or words—so observing a person’s actions tends to give you a clearer sense of who they are.
By that logic, it’s pretty clear that Elon doesn’t care about money because he’s spent most of his career finding ambitious ways to light his own money on fire. If he cared about money, he would have taken his $165M cash from selling PayPal and run completely in the opposite direction of what he actually did, which was dump every penny into SpaceX and Tesla—two of the riskiest business ventures imaginable.
The significance of this is perhaps more obvious than it seems. Namely: most people NEED to care about money (to pay for life), and very few people ever have a chance to escape that need completely. He had that chance and didn’t take it. Not even a little bit—in 2010, he was completely cash-broke and temporarily dependent upon friends for loans—but that’s how much he believed in what he was doing.
He’s unusually good at choosing how to think. Stephen Hawking defined intelligence as “the ability to adapt.” Unpacked slightly: as we accumulate facts and skills and understanding, we have more ability to solve problems, including those we haven’t encountered before. This definition accounts for the (stereo)typical picture of intelligence—think “nerds” and subjects we learned in school—and in this respect, Elon’s intelligence is unusual but not entirely unique. What truly sets him apart could be dubbed “meta-intelligence.”
To be clear, we’re not talking about emotional intelligence; Elon’s oddball blend of bluntness and ineloquence doesn’t match that profile (even if it makes him immensely fun to quote). When we say he’s “meta-intelligent,” we mean that he’s really smart AND he’s really good at adapting that intelligence to bigger-picture thinking.
The conclusion of Tim Urban’s excellent profile of Musk is entitled “The Cook and The Chef” because that’s the analogy he uses to illustrate Musk’s intellectual rarity. The huge majority of people are “cooks” because, no matter how smart, they ultimately stick to existing recipes rather than invent new ones; what makes a “chef” special is their ability to see and create new possibilities. Cooks make pizza; the chef is whoever invented pizza.
Elon seems like a prime candidate for “alien/robot living among us,” but precisely because he sees the world through his own piercingly left-brained and logical lens. The people who think he’s crazy only hear the conclusions of his arguments, like “therefore we should colonize Mars” or “that’s why I’m picking a fight with the entire auto industry.” But you can understand why he’s a visionary when you let him start from the beginning—and when you realize that his thinking digs way deeper than most, aims way higher than most, and severs a lot of faulty assumptions in the process. (For example: if SpaceX has done nothing else, it has convinced the world that “oh yeah, it is kinda dumb to needlessly throw away the most expensive part of the rocket after one use.”)
It’s hard to say how long Elon will last, especially since he’s always burning at both ends. Two thoughts in parting, both requiring movie references:
Per The Dark Knight, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Elon seems genuinely invested in helping humanity long-term, so we hope he dies a hero—just not too soon.
In Doubt, Meryl Streep’s character (a nun) says that, in the pursuit of wrongdoing, one must step away from God, but in His service. If Elon is to be a hero, then his fate probably follows suit: in the pursuit of his true philanthropy, he must step away from humankind, but in our service.
Godspeed, Mr. Musk. And happy (belated) birthday.