Why Elon Musk isn’t ‘deeply flawed’ in his personality

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A sprawling interview with Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, was published in GQ on Friday.

In it, Chris Heath recounts an exchange with Musk about Steve Jobs.

“I point out that there seems to be a kind of popular stereotypical narrative where figures like Jobs — and, more recently, Musk — are seen on one hand as visionary geniuses, but on the other as deeply flawed in their personalities.”

Which Musk doesn’t entirely accept. With good reason. Although Musk isn’t exactly a perfectly normal human being — it would be hard for the twice-married, twice-divorced, billionaire father of six to be seen as middle-of-the-road — he’s not obviously flawed in the way Jobs has been described.

What I’ve heard, following Musk and his story for a decade, is that he’s impatient and demanding and doesn’t accept that problems can’t be solved.

But he’s also admirably nerdy. It’s as if you took the demanding nature of Steve Jobs and altered his mercurial personality to be more like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Nothing makes Musk happier than dealing with technical issues and big-picture challenges that require complex engineering solutions.

My snap impression when I met Musk several years ago was that he is a very goofy, technically astute guy who kind of can’t believe how far this little electric-car idea has come.

And in retrospect, his attitude made perfect sense, as he has recently stressed that Tesla wasn’t supposed to succeed. Musk thought its chances of failure were high. In mid-2008, Tesla had several crises on its horizon, but at the Tesla store event, Musk was the very picture of a jovial geek.

The thing that, in my mind, distinguishes Musk from Jobs, is that Jobs was trying to bring experiences to the world that people had never fully enjoyed before. In this sense, he always struck me as being a lot like Walt Disney, which is appropriate given Jobs’ second career at Pixar, which was acquired by Disney.

Walt disney
Walt Disney. Disney

He wanted us to be happy, and his drive to achieve that may have accounted for why he didn’t always seem happy himself, or why he had plenty of difficult encounters with other people.

But Musk wants us to survive — to not be done in by global warming, or by a wayward asteroid that makes planet Earth uninhabitable. And what’s refreshing is that these massive goals don’t seem to have highlighted personalities flaws that are any more severe that an unusual preoccupation, for a CEO, with the minutiae or automotive engineering and rocket science.

Is he nice man? I have no idea, really.

But for someone who says he wants to retire on Mars, he seems about as devoid of catastrophic personality flaws as is possible.

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