The Musk mystery: maverick visionary or mirage-seller?

Extraordinary persistence and courage back his conviction as his free spirit shines in success and failures, writes Raja Murthy

The Musk mystery: maverick visionary or mirage-seller?
Elon Musk celebrates after the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020. Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images / AFP

Electric-car company Tesla’s valuation soared by US$14 billion daily in five trading days in July – amid a pandemic-devastated global economy. Call it just another strange chapter in the maverick career of its chief executive officer, Elon Musk.

That $14 billion figure drips with irony, with the mercurial drama filling Musk’s life. 

On May 1 Musk had tweeted, “Tesla stock price is too high.” Next, $14 billion was wiped off the company’s value and $3 billion vanished from Musk’s stake. Just two months later, Tesla’s value was soaring by $14 billion a day.

“Tesla’s valuation doesn’t make sense by any traditional measure,” Ivan Feinseth of Tigress Financial Partners told Bloomberg. “However, it is not a traditional company, so how do you put a traditional measure to it?”

How indeed? “Not traditional” are the key words in the DNA driving Elon Musk.

In the fickle perceptions of fellow beings, some see Musk as a maverick visionary. Others call him a cheating charlatan, of being reckless and dangerous. But as computer prodigy, engineer, entrepreneur, philanthropist and foot-in-the-mouth expert, he rollicks as a rare breed in our young 21st century.

No man in our lifetime has converted so many outlandish ideas into varying degrees of reality. 

Founding the world’s most successful private space company SpaceX alone would have been sufficient glory in a lifetime. Not in a Musk lifetime.

His remarkable entrepreneurial projects popped out like techo-wonder rabbits out of magician’s top hat. They were diverse as the million-mile car battery and the Starship to take us to Mars.

His SolarCity appeared in 2006, then OpenAI (2015) for non-profit research in artificial-intelligence. He created Neuralink in 2016 to integrate the human brain with artificial intelligence.

His unique projects shout the mystery. Is Elon Musk a maverick visionary or seller of mirages?

The Nicola Tesla spirit

Musk last week, at age 49, became the world’s seventh-richest person. He overtook Warren Buffett, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

But rating Musk merely through mountains of money would be like measuring Michelangelo with pots of paint.

In spirit, Elon Musk is a mini Nicola Tesla of our times. The Siberian inventor and extraordinary genius Tesla invented alternating current (AC) among his  300 patents and inventions influencing our lives.

Musk is a similar enigma, an unsolved mystery. He combines the creative restlessness of Tesla or Leonardo da Vinci. Like a buccaneer, he braves stormy seas of whimsical ideas and civilization-changing fancies.

Stuck in traffic one December day in Los Angeles in 2016, Musk tweeted, “I am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging….”

So he dug a 3.2-kilometer tunnel in Hawthorne, California, with his Boring Company. He wanted to “solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic.” Roads must go 3D, he said, which means either that cars fly or that they run in subterranean tunnels.

Underground roads, hyperloop transport solutions and reusable Falcon rockets – all in Musk’s day at work.

His is the irrepressible never-say-die spirit propelling civilizations to newer frontiers. For visionary ideas are daring seeds of salvation from fatal stagnation.

From being bullied to being a billionaire

Elon Reeve Musk was born on June 28, 1971, to Errol and Maye Musk in the South African city of Pretoria.

Musk was bullied in school, in “difficult days in South Africa.” Musk lore says he had read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica by age nine. He gorged on science-fiction literature 10 hours a day.

By age 12 he had invented a video game called Blastar and sold it to PC and Office Technology magazine for about $500.

His diverse curriculum vitae grew. At 17, he resettled in Canada and then the US. In 1995, Stanford University enrolled him to begin a PhD in applied physics and material sciences. But he quit after two days. Instead, at age 24, he turned entrepreneur in the Internet’s infant days. He set up Zip2 in 1995, an Internet city guide for the newspaper industry.

By age 27, Musk had become billionaire. Selling his startup X.com in 1999, the forerunner to PayPal, had launched his mercurial world.

Musk ‘master plan’

Elon Musk could die as the world’s first trillionaire or as another mirage seller. Boom-to-bust crashes litter corporate history and life of maverick geniuses. Nicola Tesla died a pauper.

Like Tesla, Musk’s life speaks of no idea being impossible to chase. Extraordinary persistence and courage backed his convictions. His free-spirited work shines as success through failures.

Musk’s master plan for life may have been born out of his favorite science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov. “You should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization,” Asimov wrote, “minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one.”

Musk had become electric-car maker Tesla’s chairman in February 2004. Two years later he outlined his “master plan” for Tesla: “Build [a] sports car. Use that money to build an affordable car. Use that money to build an even more affordable car. While doing above, also provide zero-emission electric power generation options.”

That “master plan” has fetched Tesla $170 billion so far this pandemic-troubled year. 

But Musk being Musk, another blurted remark or high-risk project could vaporize his wealth like ice in the Sahara sun.

He could be wrong or right or both right and wrong in chasing strange dreams. He could be both maverick visionary and mirage seller. But Musk will remain an unique, exhilarating story of our times. 

“I’d rather be optimistic and wrong,” he said, “than be pessimistic and right.”

Raja Murthy has been a Mumbai-based contributor to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and earlier for The Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com, The Hindu and others.