“The amount of attention on me has gone supernova, which super sucks,” lamented Elon Musk last week. “Will try my best to be heads down focused on doing useful things for civilization.”
“May you live in interesting times,” is a toast idly tossed around during graduation ceremonies and at the White House correspondent’s dinner. It’s one of those pithy sayings which sounds polite and encouraging until one lives through something like a world war or global pandemic.
“Interesting,” is certainly one descriptor, though one hardly covers it.
In 2022, after 2.5+ years and counting of two-weeks to slow the spread, the sentiment seems rather ominous. New brides and grooms, new grads and students of journalism might appreciate a more sensitive, updated toast: “May the times you live in send historians into a stupefied coma of uneventful ennui.”
In myth, the ancient Greek hero Achilles is given a stark choice by the gods: Live fast and die a young hero or achieve old age in peacefully boring obscurity.
The Achilles of myth chooses the former, though regrets it later, if Milton is to be believed. When Achilles is discovered on one level of the afterlife in Paradise Lost, he laments missing out on the pleasures of a long and fruitful life and wonders what good dying a legend was supposed to do him.
That and a $10 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks, after all.
Like Achilles, Elon Musk was born into very interesting times. Like Achilles, Musk too has opted for a legendary life. Unlike the Achille’s myth, however, Mr. Musk’s destined greatness was probably not as straightforward a choice as Achille’s was forced to make.
But visionaries, like legends, don’t get to choose the time into which they are born; but they can choose to forge a new path through some unchartered frontier as opposed to following the well-worn tracks others have laid.
After all, we humans, though we are at loathe to admit it, sometimes crave nothing so much as some higher authority to which we can cleave; some trusted visionary leader or unimpeachable religious authority or social zeitgeist to tell us exactly what to do and how to do it.
For those who do manage to throw off that yoke, who must each day discern for themselves what needs doing and how best to do it- making about a million mistakes along the way- the stakes are very high.
That has certainly been the case for Elon Musk. He has gone the gamut over the past few years; a fallen icon to some, a rising star to others. Pre-covid, Musk was considered a rock-star of the left, a green innovator credited with near god-like knowledge of foresight.
A new economic frontier of electric vehicles was being born and Elon Musk was on the forefront.
Then, of course, COVID19 hit U.S. shores and everything changed.
Or rather, everything started changing, and it hasn’t stopped yet. How many of these changes will be permanent, no one knows. No one really knows what the future will look like, either. Most people are coming to accept the fact that things may never return to “normal” and that the near-term future will look, at minimum, like a Frankenstein’s monster of patchy policy changes, new normals and a reemerging status quo.
For innovators like Elon Musk, changing with the tides- more importantly, anticipating the directions of those tides; most importantly, shaping the direction of those tides- periods of great change and upheaval provide the best opportunities for advancement.
Some areas and avenues are closed off; but brand new ones are revealed. In his field, Elon Musk is like an elite runner or athlete. Plenty of race participants can shine on a flat road in ideal conditions; the steep hills reveal the forerunning standouts.
Elon Musk’s focus seems to have shifted over the past two years; he has adapted to the changing environment around him and it is worth noting the ways he has chosen to do this.
What economic and social undercurrents prompted Musk to suddenly move Tesla’s operations from California to Texas? Why is Musk so determined to be on the forefront of space exploration? What is his interest in a flailing social media company like Twitter?
None of these things are happening in a vacuum. As such, examining the world around Elon Musk can be helpful in understanding some of his recent actions.
Consider the highly-publicized move of Tesla from California to Texas. Mainly, Musk fell afoul of California lawmakers when he agitated to keep his Tesla factory open during COVID19 pandemic shut-downs.
His employees, Musk argued, were essential workers who essentially needed their jobs. His product, according to Musk, was also essential, and couldn’t be sidelined. Even COVID19, by his thinking at the time, did not change the reality of mankind’s over-reliance on fossil fuels, the dangers therein and the urgency of a shift to more sustainable energy sources.
Who was right?
It doesn’t matter: It wasn’t a question or right or wrong. It was a labor dispute and should have been mediated as such. The situation didn’t require a judge to find on behalf of one aggrieved party or another; it required the sensible, dispassionate mediation demanded by a labor dispute- compromise, cooperation, negotiation.
Instead, some local lawmakers in California reacted to Elon Musk’s threats to relocate Tesla from California to Texas much differently.
Musk actually referenced the above Tweet as the impetus for his final decision to ultimately make good on his threats to take Tesla and leave the state.
By elevating what was basically a labor dispute into a personal Twitter war of words, city and state lawmakers and leaders ignored the realities of what losing a company like Tesla would mean for local economies.
It also resulted- eventually and when compounded with other similar factors- to Musk very publicly renouncing the Democratic Party and announcing his intention to vote Republican in the upcoming election.
Of course, that was all months ago; a great deal has changed since then, and much more is likely to change between now and the Election Day referendum barreling our way.
Musk is a bit mercurial on an average day, even during normal economic and social business as usual; most geniuses are. He might change his mind, even vacillate back and forth, several times between now and filling out his November ballot.
He, like everyone else, is under no legal obligation whatsoever to reveal his voting preferences. On Election Day 2022, Musk, just like everyone else, will step into the voting booth and pull the curtain- or fill out his mail-in ballot in some equally private setting- and make his choice.
In November, Democrats don’t know how voters like Elon Musk- and millions of independents like him- intend to vote. If polls are to be believed- and we’ve seen little evidence they are over the past few election cycles- the Democratic Party is in moderate to severe trouble come November.
While the journalistic class struggles to wrap their keyboards around that, sounding it out in their carefully curated Twitter echo chambers without success, it is worth looking at Elon Musk as a case study in why there is more to politics, and to life, than polls, primaries and midterm elections.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)