Regardless if Tesla succeeds or fails, Musk has changed the auto industry more than any person since Henry Ford.
August 20, 2018 5 min read
Arianna Huffington has tried, in the kindest possible prose, to convince Elon Musk to go to bed.
“You’ve come up against incredible challenges, and you’ve met them by being ever more rigorous and determined about applying the latest science,” Huffington wrote in a open letter to Musk in response to his New York Times interview in which he admitted to being exhausted working 120 hours per week. “But at the same time, you’re demonstrating a wildly outdated, anti-scientific and horribly inefficient way of using human energy.”
The letter is clearly from one friend to another friend she admires, but it is also in a way a letter from everybody on Earth freaked out by the world’s existential problems who is rooting for Musk’s outsized ambitions to solve each one. “Tesla — and the world (not to mention you and your beautiful children) — would be better off if you regularly built in time to refuel, recharge and reconnect with your exceptional reserves of creativity and your power to innovate,” Huffington wrote. “Working 120-hour weeks doesn’t leverage your unique qualities, it wastes them.”
Unhappily, Musk seems much too closely in touch with his exhausted inner child to take Huffington’s advice and told her so in a tweet posted Sunday morning when most of humanity not consigned to the swing shift is asleep.
Ford & Tesla are the only 2 American car companies to avoid bankruptcy. I just got home from the factory. You think this is an option. It is not.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 19, 2018
Superlatives are terribly overused these days — everything is “great” or “incredible” and anyone whose name you can remember is an “icon.” Musk, however, really might be an icon. But of what? Does working 120 hours a week (key fact: there is just 168 hours in a week) make him a icon of productivity, or just the world’s premiere workaholic? Does the scale of his ambitions — colonize Mars, save Earth from climate catastrophe, unknot traffic jams with tunnels and vacuum tubes, radically alter the economics of space flight, etc. — make him an entrepreneurial icon, or just somebody brilliant who can’t focus?
Toughest of all, is Musk an icon of success? He certainly didn’t sound like he thought of himself as a big success in his recent New York Times interview, in which he described a life with almost no room for the seminal pleasures of family and friends, human connection and, as Huffington inevitably pointed out, sleep. (Can anyone remember what Arianna Huffington was known for before she was a slumber crusader?)
“Success” is a slippery and malleable term. Consider Musk’s own icon, Nikola Tesla. He died an obscure and penniless eccentric who loved the pigeons of Bryant Park more than any person in his life, but at his zenith he profoundly influenced civilization with alternating current and the basic design of the electric motor. Was he a success, a martyr or some combination of the two?
Musk is revered by entrepreneurs, but he doesn’t really have that much in common with either the typical entrepreneur who owns a business that only employs him/herself or the celebrity entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos, who is fantastically wealthy because he is the most successful of the millions of people in the world selling stuff on the internet. We would all likely be shopping online even if Amazon had never come into existence.
Musk is perhaps more like Steve Jobs, but even there the comparisons are limited. For all of Jobs’s brilliance, the world would not be fundamentally different if we didn’t have Apple’s version of computers and cellphones. Tesla, the company, is not really about making a fortune selling a cooler car, although that is very much the focus right now. Tesla is about Musk’s fundamental ambition to get the global automobile industry to build electric cars fueled by renewable energy because endlessly burning gasoline in billions of cars has to end or Earth risks becoming Venus.
By that measure, it is possible Musk has already succeeded. It’s been four years since Musk, explicitly citing the urgent need to stop production of gasoline fueled cars, made all of the Tesla patents public.
“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport,” Musk wrote in June 2014. “If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal.”
While the sleepless Musk ceaselessly flogs himself and Tesla to meet production goals, the global auto industry is producing about 100,000 electric vehicles per year. Fueled by $150 billion in investments, the auto industry is on track to produce 13 million electric vehicles annually by 2025. Like the genius for whom he has named his troubled car company, Elon Musk may ultimately be remembered, and quite possibly revered, not for the fortune he made but for the history-changing knowledge he donated to humanity.