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Elon Musk is a genius. He's also an idiot.
You need to accept both of those things as true
Elon Musk is smarter than you
Probably the single biggest piece of cope running in left-of-center political circles today is the idea that Elon Musk isn’t a genius. He’s just lucky, or evil, or he’s incredibly rich, famous and successful for some other reasons. He steals other people’s work and takes credit. He was born to rich parents. He was just in the right place at the right time. His father owned an emerald mine!
This is an incredibly sad exercise. Every single person who contorts themselves to explain how Elon isn’t brilliant ends up making themselves look like a jealous idiot. Musk helped create not one, not two, but THREE separate businesses worth more than $100 billion. That does not happen just because you’re a mustachio-twirling villain who steals other people’s ideas. If founding billion dollar companies was as easy as finding a cool idea and swindling someone else while they do the work for you, everyone would be doing it.
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That does not happen because of ‘luck’. It does not happen because your parents had a few million dollars. It does not happen because of ‘emerald mines’, which is probably the saddest expression of this phenomenon (and mostly fake news).1 It does not happen because you were ‘in the right place at the right time’. Electric cars and space were typically thought of as terrible industries where profits were impossible before Elon revolutionized them.
If you’re not willing to accept the end results as proof of Elon’s genius, then consider the personal anecdotes people tell about him:
What's really remarkable to me is the breadth of his knowledge. I mean I've met a lot of super super smart people but they're usually super super smart on one thing and he's able to have conversations with our top engineers about the software, and the most arcane aspects of that and then he'll turn to our manufacturing engineers and have discussions about some really esoteric welding process for some crazy alloy and he'll just go back and forth and his ability to do that across the different technologies that go into rockets, cars and everything else he does.
Elon is brilliant. He’s involved in just about everything. He understands everything. If he asks you a question, you learn very quickly not to go give him a gut reaction.
He wants answers that get down to the fundamental laws of physics. One thing he understands really well is the physics of the rockets. He understands that like nobody else. The stuff I have seen him do in his head is crazy.
He can get in discussions about flying a satellite and whether we can make the right orbit and deliver Dragon at the same time and solve all these equations in real time. It’s amazing to watch the amount of knowledge he has accumulated over the years.
Most of all, he was impressed with Musk, who was surprisingly fluent in rocket engineering and understood the science of propulsion and engine design. Musk was intense, preternaturally focused, and extremely determined.
Throughout the day, as Musk showed off mockups of the Falcon 1 and Falcon 5, the engine designs, and plans to build a spacecraft capable of flying humans, Musk peppered Sarsfield with questions. He wanted to know what was going on within NASA. And how a company like his would be perceived. He asked tons of highly technical questions, including a detailed discussion about “base heating,” the heat radiating out from the exhaust going back up into the rocket’s engine compartment—a particular problem with rockets that have clusters of engines next to one another, as Musk was planning to build.
Anecdotes like this are incredibly common from everyone who’s ever worked closely with him. But does he actually get involved in the work himself? Is he just showboating? No, he’s actually in the weeds:
The absolute worst thing that someone can do [at SpaceX] is inform Musk that what he’s asking is impossible. An employee could be telling Musk that there’s no way to get the cost on something like that actuator down to where he wants it or that there is simply not enough time to build a part by Musk’s deadline. “Elon will say, fine. You’re off the project, and I am now the CEO of the project. I will do your job and be CEO of two companies at the same time. I will deliver it,”’ Brogan said. “What’s crazy is that Elon actually does it. Every time he’s fired someone and taken their job, he’s delivered on whatever the project was.”
-Aeronautical engineer Kevin Brogan
It’s not just people who current work for Elon saying this. It’s also common for people Elon has fired and treated like shit to basically say the same things in the same adoring tone. He was known to be highly gifted as a kid, and was coding and publishing short video games before age of ten (well before that was a normal thing to do).
In short - there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that Elon is an incredibly intelligent outlier of a person. Ignoring all that evidence is cope.
Elon Musk is an idiot
On the other hand, Elon is frequently an idiot. He is constantly making confident proclamations about subjects he seems to not understand at all:
He opined in early 2020 that COVID cases would soon be zero.
He founded X.com which became PayPal - but then nearly ran PayPal into the ground chasing an incredibly stupid plan to be the ‘everything service’, and was booted from the company for his abject failure.
His plans to rescue the Thai cave kids were Looney Tunes level of impractical and stupid.
His plans to build HyperLoops are remarkably dumb.
His plan to purchase of Twitter was stupid from the beginning, which he realized when he repeatedly tried to get out of buying it. And his management of the company has been an abject failure thus far - it’s lost 90% of its value since he’s owned it, by his own admission.
For as much as people praise his genius ability to understand hard physical sciences, he seems alternately bumbling, naïve, and idiotic when trying to deal with softer or more human fields. His views of the war in Ukraine are childish. He’s terrible at PR to a comical degree. He doesn’t understand social dynamics and keeps scaring away advertisers from Twitter despite desperately needing them for the company to survive.
I don’t want to get too deep into Red Tribe vs Blue Tribe politics here. But it’s pretty clear that Musk’s understanding of politics is simplistic at best, that he’s fallen hard into the worst kind of brain-rot tribalism, and that it now dominates much of his thinking. He’s impulsive and rash and reckless. He’s known for being socially clueless - to pick one example among many, he apparently didn’t understand why Grimes was upset that he sent graphic pictures of her mid-childbirth to friends and family.
In short: Elon is an idiot of the highest order. If you treat him as a genius, you’re going to be constantly scrambling for explanations for the many, many moronic things he says and does.
Both of these things can be true at the same time
Let’s talk about Ben Carson, because he’s one of my favorite examples of this in practice.
Ben Carson is a brain surgeon. He is literally the stereotype of what we imagine smart people to be. And more than that, he’s a superstar brain surgeon. He became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at John’s Hopkins at just 33 years old, making him the youngest chief of neurosurgery in the United States at the time. He was the lead surgeon for some of the most complex surgeries ever attempted like the ground-breaking separation of conjoined twins in 1987. He has more than 100 publications. He essentially invented the functional hemispherectomy! He may be one of the best brain surgeons to have ever lived.2
Ben Carson also believed that a bunch of dietary supplements cured his prostate cancer. He believes weird conspiracies about how the Egyptian pyramids are big grain silos. In true moron form, he’s got weird ideas about the Holocaust. His policy ideas when he ran for President were hilariously half-baked and basically pulled out of a hat. He would routinely throw out incredible quotes about how America under Obama was a ‘Nazi Gestapo state’ or how Obamacare was a form of slavery. Carson peddled all sorts of conspiracies on everything from communism to Putin that even other conservatives thought were off the deep end.
Ben Carson was a brilliant neurosurgeon and a complete nutjob at the same time. You can’t erase one part to focus on the other. You have to be comfortable accepting both. People can be geniuses in one field or one type of intelligence and drooling idiots in another.
There are a lot of reasons why this is true. Intelligence isn’t a single thing. Intelligence can mean ability to understand people, it can mean pure mathematical and logical ability, it can mean creative and artistic ability, etc. While many forms of intelligence are correlated, they’re not as correlated as you might think, and it’s fairly common for people to be great in one area but poor in another. It’s also possible to have deep understanding of some fields (rocketry, physics, business) while having a poor understanding of other areas (social dynamics, philosophy, politics).
And even more important are the non-intelligence factors that typically get grouped with intelligence. It’s fully possible to be intelligent without being wise. Intelligence is not the same as wisdom, discernment, judgment, or common sense. Elon Musk is startlingly intelligent in many obvious ways while also displaying a breathtaking lack of good judgment in many other ways. He’s accomplished amazing things that could potentially change the course of human society - while also lacking incredibly basic common sense and doing things obviously counterproductive to his own stated goals.
We’re all talking about Elon all the time now, because he’s learned to out-Trump Trump in the game of ‘flood the zone with shit’. I think he’s likely to fail at Twitter despite his previous successes. The challenges he’s facing at Twitter are problems of social capital and social dynamics, rather than the hard physical and material science problems he’s conquered before. But while I think he was stupid to buy the company and stupid in the way he’s running it, he’s also a genius. And we’d all be better at understanding our politicians, businessmen and cultural heroes if we were able to keep both those ideas in our heads at the same time.
The mine wasn’t even in South Africa and thus wasn’t ‘under apartheid’ as sometimes is claimed. The entire thing was a side investment for Musk’s father, not a main source of income, and it never actually paid much and eventually went under.
Disclaimer - I’m no doctor and don’t have any real way to judge brain surgeons. But he is *highly* accomplished.