Elon Musk has been in the news pretty much every day. He’s a busy man on many fronts. And he’s not shy about courting controversy. But in a troubling move, he recently purchased one of the most prominent social media platforms in the world out of his pocket money. And he made no half measures about the changes he’s been instituting. Let’s look a little closer.

Chaotic illustration of Elon Musk in a style inspired by Ralph Steadman's work.

The (Allegedly) Self-Made Wealthiest Person Ever

Depending on who you ask, Elon Musk is either a self-made hundred billionaire that came to America as a broke overseas student, or he’s a walking example of privilege having been the heir of wealth from conflict zone emerald mining. The facts are amazingly murky and opinions are everywhere.

But however he started, he ultimately followed the tried and true techbro path to billions: he got involved early in tech companies, and built their value until he could cash out. Zip2 and X.com, leading into Paypal, gave him the buffer he needed to get started with Tesla (which, by many accounts, very nearly cleaned him out before it became wildly successful).

I’m not going to go into depth on how he got there, but in his own words:

“My proceeds from PayPal after tax were about $180 million. $100 million of that went into SpaceX, $70 million into Tesla, and $10 million into SolarCity. And I literally had to borrow money for rent.”

Ultimately, Musk’s company SolarCity became part of Musk’s other company, Tesla. To say the least, this was controversial.

One of Musk’s other company’s, SpaceX, went on to win a number of really lucrative US government contracts.

But we almost never hear about Musk’s other companies, like Neuralink and The Boring Company.

The man has a broad portfolio of companies that he runs. Any single one of them would be more than a full-time job to operate. It’s not clear to me how he can do a good job of running any one of them when his responsibilities are spread too thin.

The Bad Deal

Elon bought Twitter. We all know about that by now. I won’t rehash the details.

But here’s the thing… he took it private. He basically owns it himself. And he runs a number of publicly traded companies that aren’t just his, but are co-owned with many shareholders.

And yet he’s treating them all like his personal holdings. Minor headlines are being made right now about how he’s pulling staff from his other companies to work at Twitter. How this isn’t resulting in a massive FTC and/or SEC investigation, criminal charges, etc. is beyond me. Or maybe that is happening and we just haven’t heard much about it yet.

Corporate reorganizations (including layoffs and contractor cuts) are super common any time a new CEO comes on-board. Twitter is no exception. Over 90% of Twitter’s India staff was reportedly fired, leaving only about a dozen people behind. So many were fired in haste, the company is now having to navigate the tricky waters of hiring some staff back. But mass layoffs require advance notice, and Musk didn’t comply with these laws, so now he’s being sued. He seems to have a track record of regularly getting in trouble with regulators over his casually negligent approach toward responsibilities to society.

Rendering of Elon Musk with bold techno colors and a pixelated 3D texture.

Elon is an openly neurodivergent genius.

If you follow Elon’s career path, you may wonder how any person can do what he does.

As a neurodivergent business leader myself, I recognized something in him immediately: Elon Musk was almost certainly Neurodivergent himself.

As it turns out, outlier brains are over-represented in any list of the most successful people in any field compared to our representation in the general public. While the difficulties inherent in being neurodivergent and getting on in society are well-publicized, it’s also true for many Neurodivergent folks in the workforce that our minds are capable of producing outsized results when we’re given an environment that foments the natural strengths of our cognitive profiles.

For any faults he has, Musk is a highly accomplished genius. And part of his genius is inextricable from the fact that he’s Neurodivergent.

In 2021, he confirmed the suspicions of so many when he disclosed openly in his SNL monolog that he was “the first person with Asperger’s to host—or at least the first to admit it.” But as Sara Luterman reported:

Musk’s “coming out” is self-serving and hollow, a poor attempt at laundering his image as a heartless billionaire more concerned with cryptocurrency and rocket ships than the lives of others.

It’s important to point out that Luterman is an accomplished and respected openly Autistic member of the journalism community. She’s not picking at Musk’s “coming out” from an outside perspective. Yeah, Musk is Autistic. So what? He’s still a jerk.

Rendering of Elon Musk being kissed passionately by Donald Trump.

Elon is a jerk (who loves other jerks).

There’s a trope about “Autistic jerks” that might have some truth to it. I don’t know that jerks are necessarily overrepresented in the Autistic community, but it’s almost like being Autistic can act as an accelerant to jerk behaviors. The kinds of toxic behaviors that are mildly problematic in most might become highly damaging and insufferable when fired through the brain of a Neurodivergent genius.

But here’s the thing: being Autistic doesn’t make someone a jerk. Being a jerk happens well enough on its own. There’s probably more to say about growing up white and wealthy in Apartheid-era South Africa. A sort of hubris, an entitlement, that only got worse as Musk aged and learned that being a jerk has gotten him farther in life than being a nice guy.

And he’s on-record as having an early life filled with bullying. Both at school and at home.

Like father, like son, Elon doesn’t speak highly of his own father.

“[…] a terrible human being … almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done.”

So the only joy he apparently feels in life come from being in power, from protecting himself against bullying, and from hearing people talking about him in some notion that they envy him and his life. I’m not a psychologist. I can’t diagnose narcissism. But if it quacks like a duck… Robert Reich has observed the commonalities between Musk and the strange entanglement he’s created with Donald Trump.

“Taunting opponents. Treating employees like dung. Bullying adversaries. Demeaning critics. Craving attention. Refusing to be held accountable. Attracting millions of followers and gaining cult status. Spreading misleading information. Making gobs of money.

Impetuous. Unpredictable. Ruthless. Autocratic. Vindictive.

Remind you of anyone?”

The parallels don’t stop there. Axios has observed that Musk’s management style of Twitter has parallels to Trump:

“Musk’s first days as Twitter CEO have such a familiar feel because the world’s richest man is leading his new company from the same playbook Trump used as he tried to change the U.S. government’s direction after his 2017 inauguration:

  • Rely on an inner circle chosen for loyalty more than expertise;
  • seize and hold the public’s attention by rolling out new proposals and ideas on Twitter first before they’ve been widely vetted internally;
  • Keep the existing organization in a state of uncertainty and fear.”

My take? Musk let his success with industries that he’s better understood go to his head. Hubris has taken root. Unlike SpaceX, Tesla, Solar City, The Boring Company, or even Neuralink… Musk really has no vision this time. By all appearances, he bought Twitter just to show us that he could. But like a cat that’s caught a bluebird, he didn’t really think through what to do after he’s actually caught it. What we’re seeing now isn’t genius; it’s panic and improvisation, a public spectacle of professional incompetence.

But for all of his talk of free speech and easing bans on truly horrible people saying truly horrible things on the platform, he’s now done a 180 once he realized how free speech might apply to his own critics. The bans are rolling out again, this time against parody imerpersonators. He’s banned Kathy Griffin, a well-known comedian, for making Musk the butt of embarrassing jokes through the art of social parody.

Meanwhile, he wants to reinstant… Donald Trump. Trump was famously removed from the platform for life in 2021 after Twitter found that Trump’s tweets as a sitting US president seemed to encourage riots and insurrection to interrupt the peaceful handover of power to Trump’s elected replacement, Joe Biden.

This seems entirely in line with Sarah Luterman’s take that I shared earlier. “self-serving and hollow, a poor attempt at laundering his image as a heartless billionaire more concerned with cryptocurrency and rocket ships than the lives of others”

Watercolor image of Elon Musk all alone, looking isolated and exhausted.

Elon is all alone.

And he has only himself to blame.

Elon’s bad behavior and impulsive decisions have driven the more grounded advisers further from his immediate orbit. Chris Sacca, someone with deep ties to Twitter and to Musk, shared a damning thread filled with both warnings and encouragement for Musk to change course in the immediate days ahead.

Note

Tweet removed from this article as its privacy settings have since been changed

He’s the richest man in the world and his fragile ego can’t suffer Kathy Griffin mocking him through parody. He’s the most powerful person at Twitter and he can’t deal with people criticizing his decisions about how to run it, even when it’s clear he is realizing he’s in over his head with this one. Rather than pulling smart, experienced people closer and asking for advice, the walls are going up and his voice is standing alone.

stylized illustration of the late Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was a shitty father. So is Elon.

It’s no mistake that Elon Musk is compared to famous business leaders like… Steve Jobs and Howard Hughes. But let’s look a little closer at that.

Steve Jobs was a notoriously shitty father. It’s been the stuff of books and movies how he fathered Lisa Brennan-Jobs, named an Apple product after her (and denied it), and spent years rejecting all responsibility for Lisa and any notion that he was the father. He was such a shitty father, his daughter wrote a book about it.

How many kids does Musk even have? Some sources say nine, others say ten. He’s going up against the Duggers for a high score. But it’s really easy to be a dad when your responsibility ends at donating sperm to the mother.

But where does he actually spend time raising children? His daily routine “can be summed up as work, eat, sleep, with work taking up a bulk of that time.” When he’s confronted directly about his parental responsibilities, his approach seems to be one of deferral.

“Right now there’s not much I can do. Grimes has a much bigger role than me right now. When the kid gets older, there will be more of a role for me.”

Elon Musk

Though given what we’ve learned about Musk, perhaps the kids are better off without him in their lives.

stylized illustration of Elon Musk with the late Howard Hughes

History repeats itself

I won’t be the first or the last person to compare Elon Musk’s character arc to the cautionary tale of Howard Hughes.

“On the whole, it is to be hoped that Howard Hughes will never again be able to exercise the absolute power he once held over TWA. The hope is not expressed from any high-flown considerations of economic morality or national interest. Rather, it is because Hughes is basically a distraction: No rational analysis of TWA and its prospects seems possible without soon being perverted into a discussion of this mysterious, magnetic, remarkable man.”

They aren’t the same, there are clear differences between these two men. But the similarities are also uncanny. And with the parallels remaining strong between their respective arcs, I think that we’ll need to brace for the “Musk jumps the shark” moment, and the instability that will surely follow. Will the failure of Twitter represent that turning point? Perhaps. Early signs point in that direction, but Musk can turn this around if he can get his ego out of the way long enough to bring smarter people in to help figure it out. Barring that, we’ll be able to look forward to stories of Old Man Elon hiding in isolation and storing up a cache his urine for some future endeavor.

Musk can’t be blind to the comparisons between himself and other brilliant-but-damaged leaders who came before him, like Hughes… like Jobs. The question is, will he show the humility to put in the work and improve as a human being before its too late? Or will he exhibit hubris in believing his story will somehow end better than those who’ve trodden this path and ended badly before him?