Has Elon Musk secured his legacy as a visionary innovator?

Elon Musk has been widely praised by his innate innovative spirit and improbable risk-taking appetite. Walter Isaacson, the author of Musk’s most incredibly fascinating and provocative portrait of one of the most influential and controversial innovators of our time, doesn’t stop short of pointing out both examples of his extraordinary talent and unhinged behavior, as this excerpt demonstrates:

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson
Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson

“Do the audaciousness and hubris that drive him to attempt epic feats excuse his bad behavior, his callousness, his recklessness? The times he’s an asshole? The answer is no, of course not. One can admire a person’s good traits and decry the bad ones. But it’s also important to understand how the strands are woven together, sometimes tightly. It can be hard to remove the dark ones without unraveling the whole cloth. As Shakespeare teaches us, all heroes have flaws, some tragic, some conquered, and those we cast as villains can be complex. Even the best people, he wrote, are “molded out of faults.”

During launch week, Antonio Gracias and some other friends talked to Musk about the need to restrain his impetuous and destructive instincts. If he was going to lead a new era of space exploration, they said, he needed to be more elevated, to be above the fray politically. They recalled the time Gracias made him put his phone in a hotel safe overnight, with Gracias punching in the code so Musk couldn’t get it out to tweet during the wee hours; Musk woke up at 3 a.m. and summoned hotel security to open the safe. After the launch, he displayed a touch of self-awareness. “I’ve shot myself in the foot so often I ought to buy some Kevlar boots,” he joked. Perhaps, he ruminated, Twitter should have an impulse-control delay button.

Errol, Maye, Elon, Tosca, and Kimbal Musk
Errol, Maye, Elon, Tosca, and Kimbal Musk – Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson

It was a pleasing concept: an impulse-control button that could defuse Musk’s tweets as well as all of his dark impulsive actions and demon-mode eruptions that leave rubble in his wake. But would a restrained Musk accomplish as much as a Musk unbound? Is being unfiltered and untethered integral to who he is? Could you get the rockets to orbit or the transition to electric vehicles without accepting all aspects of him, hinged and unhinged? Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training. They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.”

Musk’s life has indeed been a mix of groundbreaking achievements and wild impulses turned sometimes into colossal failures. Knowing the imperfect nature of the human condition, it would be utterly unjust to expect a Mother Theresa-like empathy from any man, let alone from one who has made significant contributions to the fields of space exploration, electric vehicles and renewable energy. He has founded or co-founded several companies that have revolutionized their respective industries, such as SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity, and Neuralink. He has also inspired millions of people around the world with his bold vision and ambitious goals, such as colonizing Mars, creating a global internet network, and merging humans with machines.

Elon Musk and Bill Gates
Elon Musk and Bill Gates – Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson

How does he stack up then against the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg? This is a more difficult question to answer, as it depends on how we measure and compare their achievements and impacts. Each of these innovators has his own strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, admirers and critics. They have also operated in different domains and contexts, facing different challenges and opportunities. Musk has innovated in more industries and domains than any of them, ranging from aerospace to automotive to energy to biotechnology. He has also created or improved some of the most useful and beneficial products and services for society and humanity, such as reusable rockets, electric cars, solar panels, batteries, neural implants, etc. He has also reached or served millions of customers and users around the world with his products and services. Moreover, he has addressed or contributed to some of the most pressing global challenges and issues, such as climate change, space exploration, human enhancement, etc.

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk – Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson

Of course, this is not to say that Musk is superior or flawless. He has faced many difficulties and controversies throughout his career. He has been accused of being arrogant, erratic, reckless, abusive, dishonest, etc. He has also been involved in several lawsuits, investigations, scandals, etc. He has also faced criticism or opposition from some groups or individuals who disagree with his vision or methods.

Richard Branson and Elon Musk – Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson

Musk is ultimately a complex and contradictory figure who defies easy categorization or evaluation. He is both a hero and a villain, a genius and a fool, a visionary and a madman. He is both admired and despised by many people around the world. He is both praised and criticized for his achievements and impacts. He is both celebrated and condemned for his actions and behaviors. History’s verdict will still need to wait, though, as Musk has a few decades to go to achieve his full potential. Only time will tell how Musk’s visionary approach will ultimately unfold.

Sam Altman and Elon Musk – Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson

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