The storm brewing inside Elon Musk’s mind gets out | Mint

The storm brewing inside Elon Musk’s mind gets out

(Emil Lendof/The WSJ)
(Emil Lendof/The WSJ)

Summary

His giant F-bombs overshadowed his Israel trip and Cybertruck launch.

The complicated mind of Elon Musk has taken center stage—intentionally or not.

This could have been—should have been—a week all about Musk’s goodwill trip to Israel that he made Monday after an outcry followed his tweeting in support of antisemitic vitriol.

Or, it could have been—should have been—all about Tesla finally delivering his promised Cybertruck pickups Thursday after years of delays and pent-up excitement.

But Elon did Elon. He overshadowed that all when he publicly told advertisers—jittery over that infamous tweet of his—to go f— themselves while at the same time conceding his controversial tweet was foolish.

A calm mind might have picked an approach: defiant, or sorry. But both?

“My mind often feels…like a very wild storm," Musk said Wednesday in the same interview. “I’m a fountain of ideas. I mean I have more ideas than I could possibly execute. So I have no shortage of ideas. Innovation is not a problem, execution is a problem."

He was speaking at the New York Times DealBook Summit on Wednesday in New York City, a high-profile event run by one of the media juggernauts he has been openly needling.

He was only there, Musk said, because of his friendship with the host, Andrew Ross Sorkin. Or, as Musk called him on stage, “Jonathan."

“I’m Andrew," Sorkin said.

For years, Musk has both dazzled fans with engineering feats at car company Tesla and rocket-maker SpaceX, while also confounded them with his personal antics like getting into nasty fights with randos on Twitter-turned-X.

Musk has been hinting at the challenge of balancing it all in his own mind.

“Context switching is the mindkiller," he tweeted the day after Thanksgiving, a favorite axiom of his that mixes a quote from the sci-fi book “Dune" with computer lingo for multitasking.

In “Dune," fear is the mind-killer—the idea that the primal reaction to fear is to recoil rather than go forward. In essence, fear is an obstacle to be overcome to reach success. For Musk, the challenge to overcome is being able to handle switching between rockets and tweets and cars and brain computers and drilling machines and superhuman artificial intelligence.

Musk has developed a reputation for a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality—intense mood swings between charming visionary and raging tyrant.

On Wednesday, during the roughly 90-minute appearance on stage, Musk cycled through angry Elon, aggrieved Elon, vulnerable Elon, jokester Elon, philosopher Elon, grandiose Elon.

He touched on suicidal thoughts he had as a child and talked about the importance of searching for meaning in reaching for life beyond this planet; he stated that he has no problem if people hate him while complaining how hurtful it was that President Biden snubbed him at event honoring the electric-car industry.

In the moment that ricocheted around the world, Musk told advertisers unhappy with him to go f— themselves, saying he was unwilling to pander to their “blackmail" and warned they threatened to bankrupt the social-media platform he acquired slightly more than a year ago. And if they were successful, he warned, “See how Earth responds to that."

Earlier in the day, Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger, on the same stage, carefully expressed respect for Musk’s accomplishments as he explained why his company recently stopped advertising on X.

“Elon is larger than life in many respects and his name is very much tied to the companies he either has founded or he owns," Iger said. “By him taking the position that he took, in quite a public manner, we just felt that the association with that position and Elon Musk and X was not necessarily a positive one for us."

To Musk, the likes of Disney are trying to squelch his freedom of speech. To others, they are simply exercising their rights to walk away.

“Go. F—. Yourself," Musk said on stage to a stunned audience. “Is that clear? I hope it is. Hey, Bob, if you’re in the audience."

What’s been so jarring for so many watching Musk over the past 18 months has been his seeming self-inflicted mistakes as he tried to remake X into his liking and struggled at it so publicly, all while undercutting successes at his other companies.

For Musk, the problem may well be that what made him successful with SpaceX and Tesla required a different mindset than running X. With space and cars, there have been painful, public failures as he learned, adjusted and tried anew. Rockets exploded. Production lines snarled. And through it all, he has developed a guiding principle.

“Physics is the law and everything else was a recommendation," Musk reiterated this week. “You can break any law made by humans, but try breaking a law made by physics—it is much more difficult. If you’re wrong, and persistent being wrong, the rockets will blow up and the cars will fail."

To emphasize his point, Musk added: “We’re not trying to figure out what flavor of ice cream is the best flavor."

In the end, clearly, Musk doesn’t want to be judged by an errant tweet. He wants to be judged by his engineering: what he has made, what he sends to the heavens.

“The track record of the rocket is the best by far of anything. You could hate my guts, you could not trust me—it is irrelevant," Musk said of SpaceX. “With respect to Tesla, we make the best cars whether you hate me, like me or indifferent. Do you want the best car or do you not want the best car?"

Moreover, Musk suggested, the swirling storm in his head has helped make him who he is—good and bad. “These demons of the mind…are, for the most part, harnessed to productive ends," he said. “That doesn’t mean, once in a while they, you know, go wrong."

Write to Tim Higgins at tim.higgins@wsj.com

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