Elon Musk’s Innovator’s Dilemma

I once asked Elon Musk if he ever felt he was spreading himself too thin. This was years ago when we were both speakers at the Economist Innovation Conference at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Musk had already gained a reputation for being a serial entrepreneur, and for an incredible work ethic. Seventy-hour weeks were not uncommon. But Musk waved off my question. He mumbled something about capacity being a state of mind. And over the years since, he’s proven that point true.

But Musk is under fire right now from all sides for spreading himself too thin. He’s created disarray at Twitter. His flagship company, Tesla, faces multiple challenges. Would-be car buyers and stockholders are fleeing. He’s destroyed billions with his Trumpian antics and unforced errors. His capacity to right the ship is in doubt.

For over 30 years I have interviewed and studied innovators like Musk, seeking the secrets of their success. I’ve attempted to distill the essence of what it takes to play the long game as an innovator. And I’ve reported on the rewards and the pitfalls, the successes and the messes, of playing the innovation game.

Through it all, I have tried to answer fundamental questions about this rare and special breed: Entrepreneurs start up new businesses. Visionaries envision a different future. Inventors invent, and manufacturers make. But innovators like Musk put all the pieces together. They turn visions into reality. In the words of innovation expert Gifford Pinchot, “Innovators are dreamers that do.”

Of all the practical dreamers that I have interviewed and studied, Musk’s accomplishments stand out. He has disrupted every industry he’s entered: money transfer with PayPal, renewable energy with SolarCity, electric vehicles and batteries with Tesla, space entrepreneurship with SpaceX.

Musk and his ilk do society a big favor. They encourage us to assault our assumptions about what is possible: personal, organizational, cultural, industry, and even planetary assumptions. “There’s got to be a better way,” they seem to say to the world, and then they proceed to go out and find it. By asking different questions they upend conventional wisdom and create new value and wealth. They open new opportunities for others to prosper and benefit from.

But now Musk’s magic seems to have run out. His foolish behavior has evaporated billions of dollars of investors’ wealth. He seems to have lost his bearings. But Musk’s contribution to the field of innovation will long remain. And based on this track record, he may yet pull a rabbit out of his hat at Twitter, although at this writing it seems doubtful.

One of Musk’s success strategies is that he is an avid reader. He began devouring encyclopedias at a young age. Asked by a reporter how he knows so much, he replied: “I read books.” He draws ideas from everywhere, and he applies those ideas to his many endeavors.

Musk named his car after Nikola Tesla, but it was from Tesla’s nemesis, Thomas Edison, that Musk drew some of his best ideas. Edison didn’t just invent the electric light bulb, he created the first electric company, General Electric, and sent salespeople door to door extolling the safe installation and many benefits of electricity giving wary homeowners a complete solution to their problem. Similarly, Musk thought ahead of the curve and built super-charging stations around the country that offer a complete solution to electric car owners. Today they are the envy of late-adopters just now entering the EV market.

For all his success, or because of his phenomenal success, there is one area that Musk has not been able to master. It is the successful innovator’s biggest dilemma: hubris – excessive pride and self-confidence that leads one astray. And why not? With 66 million loyal followers on Twitter, and with a $340 billion net worth (until he himself began destroying it), it would be hard for any human being to avoid thinking that capacity is merely a state of mind.

In Greek mythology, Icarus was a youth who attempted to escape from Crete with wings he fashioned of wax and feathers. Apparently, he was having such a go of it that he flew so high that his wings melted from the heat of the sun. He suddenly plunged to his death into the sea.

Musk seems to be on a similar trajectory just now. Not from the heat of the sun but from the glare of the fandom spotlight. Let us hope that he lands back on the ground with the deftness of one of his rockets.

Menu