Technoking of Tesla, imperator of Mars, and now part of the Nasa Artemis team to land the first astronauts on the moon since the Apollo programme.
Elon Musk, maverick boss of Tesla and SpaceX, has made his career out of dismantling established ideas and ignoring his critics. Both outlier and archetype, he claims it’s the desire to solve technical problems that drives him out of bed in the morning. He is known as gung-ho in his drive to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels and revolutionise the car industry, colonise Mars, build superfast trains in vacuum tunnels (The Boring Company), integrate AI into human brains, and upend the solar power and battery industries.
In his 1947 essay “The Catastrophe of Success” Tennessee Williams urged his readers to apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle and warned everyone that “security is a kind of death”. After his success as a playwright, Williams found worldwide fame and wealth but also profound disenchantment. He lost interest in people, their conversations sounding to him as if recorded years ago. He felt he was walking around, dead in his own shoes. Life, he argued, should entail great effort. Security is always far away from the conditions that compel one to accomplish anything. “It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention and consequently his life,” Williams writes.
“Time to tell the story of Tesla & SpaceX,” Musk tweeted last month, announcing his decision to write a book. Musk sees himself as a visionary but his arrogance is putting a lot of people off, crucially shareholders. Myths and legends suggest that any man who proclaims himself king, is no king at all. Musk’s wild outbursts on social media have stoked controversy while he remains unflappable. His audacity is notorious, if not a hallmark of his personality. A $20m fine by the US Securities and Exchange Commission does not seem to register in his case.
Investors fear Tesla is vastly overvalued with the company no longer having a near monopoly on electric vehicles. Musk, who will turn 50 in June, has said in interviews he does not expect to die rich as most of his fortune will be used building a base on Mars (“I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact.”). It isn’t about the money, he has claimed. By making mistakes, he does not arrest his own development. “If you are not failing, you are not innovating,” he said about his private rocketry company. For time, Williams wrote in one of his plays, is the longest distance between two places.
What happens when we stop creating? Without focus or intensity, life is bound to become dull. “With the conflict removed,” Williams writes “the man is a sword cutting daisies — that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door.” Musk, the outperforming entrepreneur, has intuitively tapped into something and remains as ambitious as ever. He could have stopped many times along the way, cash in and retire. It’s possible he doesn’t know how to be content unless he is an innovator and a disruptor. There is not much depth or texture in spending days on a beach.
It is his solemn privilege never to filter himself. But has Musk made it his job to create the noise that distracts or fascinates us? Is flamboyance ever essential in an endeavour to outrun one’s naysayers? Musk forges ahead, albeit erratically, with his wild heart and his obsessions intact. He is a workaholic, genuinely enjoying every minute of it, not stopping to indulge in his spoils, possibly falling into the vacuity that Williams described. And yet, his own industriousness and credibility are tarnished by his lack of humility and grandiose statements. Playwrights have been warning us about hubris for millennia.
Musk’s decision to set up SpaceX originally stemmed from his frustration that the US Space programme was not ambitious enough. A book needs a different kind of gravity to hold it together but few high-achievers at that level have resisted the temptation “Of Earth and Mars”; “lessons learned”, were his subsequent tweets after the book announcement. He is about to discover that writing can be a terrifying and lonely process but, as in space travel, the rewards can be immense. “The monosyllable of the clock,” writes Williams at the end of his essay, “is loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”
This is the first in a series of Monday columns on where the arts meet the news. Follow on Twitter for our latest stories first