Those indulging in the popular recent media obsession with ‘getting into the mind’ of Elon Musk have their finger on the reader’s pulse alright. But some very woke justifications for painting him as Enemy Number One for his Twitter purchase are off the chart. Like saying his growing up in apartheid South Africa contaminated his mind, and that he was the beneficiary of a strict old-fashioned exclusive all-boys white school (for two years). Well, so was Judge Edwin Cameron … as if those facts predetermine anyone’s future and character. Alan Paton, of Cry the Beloved Country fame, went to Maritzburg College, a similar school. The writer cites several other South African examples that further render The New York Times’ contention a parody. Jonathan Katzenellenbogen, writing for the Daily Friend, does a far more even-handed – and fascinating – job of explaining the mind of Elon Musk. – Chris Bateman
The mind of Elon Musk
By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen*
For some reason, the woke have a deep dislike of Elon Musk.
The reason might well be that, for the woke, Musk’s attachment to free speech in the traditional sense is an unforgiveable thought crime.
Musk is also, of course, insanely rich and arrogant and not exactly apologetic about being a white male. That’s one of the reasons why the woke suffered apoplexy when it emerged that Musk was planning to buy Twitter for $44bn.
A week or so ago, The New York Times added a new count to Musk’s charge sheet, in a piece headlined, ‘In Musk’s past, a South Africa rife with misinformation and white privilege.’ The facts of the headline cannot be disputed, but the same is not true of the body of the article, which insinuated that Musk’s South African childhood must have contaminated his mind to the extent that his views posed a threat to democracy.
There has been much comment on this, including from Palesa Marudu in the Daily Maverick, who wrote that ‘being a white South African is surely not a credible starting point for a takedown’. Others have noted that The New York Times’ conclusions about Musk drew heavily on Critical Race Theory, which holds that black people everywhere are oppressed by systemic racism. Those who disagree are found by the theory to be ‘guilty as charged’ of racism.
The article was not among the finest run by the Old Gray Lady. Yes, it is true that Musk’s high school, Pretoria Boys’ High School, was old-fashioned and conventional, with a strict dress code, haircut regulations and probably corporal punishment. So what?
Going to a strict school hardly guarantees that one would grow up to be a militarist or fascist. In fact, the converse is often true. I know racists and staid individuals who have emerged from such schools. But I also know revolutionaries, drug addicts, people who are impossible to manage and brilliant scientists (and have heard of fraudsters and serial bankrupts) who did their time at these schools.
Such schools often equip graduates with the necessary economic survival skills, but this does not mean they will be successful in their adult lives.
Growing up in apartheid South Africa can be a wake-up call to action. Patrick Soon-Shiong grew up in Port Elizabeth and went to Wits Medical School. He later made a fortune from vaccines in the US, and bought the Los Angeles Times – saying he understood the importance of free speech from the role played by the Rand Daily Mail during apartheid.
The magazine, Popular Mechanics, tried to ‘Peer inside the Mind of Elon Musk’, drawing on one of his TED talks. Musk says his Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, meant he was anti-social and highly focused. “Social cues were not intuitive, so I was just very bookish,” and it often took him a while to work out what people were saying, he said in a TED interview.
Because of the way his mind worked, Musk said he was bullied and unable to connect with other children. Musk does believe that his Asperger’s syndrome contributed to his later success by helping him focus and build his interest in science. It also meant he made an early start in computer programming, while most of his classmates might have been doing other things.
During his childhood, Musk read a great deal of science fiction, which is likely to have contributed to his ability to generate big ideas, like how to get to Mars. At the age of 12, he created his own video game, Blastar, which he later managed to sell. His early introduction to programming, and the ability to focus intensely for long hours, have served him well as a problem-solver. In many ways he is a veteran at what he does; coming up with ideas, managing projects, and showing persistence in solving problems. Had he experienced ADHD, he might not have got such an early start.
His majors at university – physics and economics – have given him a good grounding in problem-solving and thinking about the issues he now deals with on a daily basis. But he has not had an easy ride in starting his new ventures.
In establishing his first venture, Zip2, an online directory, he did the programming, lived in the office, and ate takeaways. He used his portion of the cash received from the sale to start what ultimately would become PayPal. This was then sold and some of the proceeds used to start SpaceX. From there, he bought into what emerged as Tesla and ultimately ousted one of the founders.
Without driving ambition, persistence and willingness to take on substantial risk, Musk would not be where he is today. With that determination comes, by some accounts, a brusqueness. Key to understanding the Musk mind is grasping his ability to just carry on, no matter what.
By his own account, Tesla was close to bankruptcy many times, due to poor design and engineering decisions. Many entrepreneurs might have run out of cash or just given up out of sheer frustration. Musk pushed on despite all the setbacks.
Way to the heavens
SpaceX experienced a number of explosions on its way to the heavens, but he persisted. And ultimately, they got the NASA contracts for launches. His wealth had given him a great deal more runway in starting new projects, but persistence was still key.
Had the large car companies been more agile, they would have killed off Tesla shortly after its first product launch. It was only once they saw their market shares threatened that they really woke up to electric cars. By then, Tesla had solved its initial design and production problems and was gaining traction. So, there is an element of luck behind his success but this comes more easily to the brave and the persistent.
It’s Musk’s ability to keep multiple balls in the air that really makes him exceptional. Apart from SpaceX and his stake in Tesla, Musk owns Neuralink, a company developing brain-machine interfaces; Boring, a tunnelling company; and Starlink, which provides internet services to remote areas. While trying to solve big production and supply chain problems at Tesla, he is thinking about space launches and interfaces with brains, and generating ideas for the future.
While genetics, Asperger’s syndrome, his childhood, his problem-solving ability, an enormous bandwidth, persistence, and determination are all part of what produced the mind of Elon Musk, it is simplistic to say it was formed by white privilege.
This does not explain the complexity of Musk and the uniqueness of all individuals.
- Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist. His articles have appeared on DefenceWeb, Politicsweb, as well as in a number of overseas publications. Jonathan has also worked on Business Day and as a TV and radio reporter and newsreader.
- The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR. If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend.