Elon Musk can be likened to a modern Ozymandias, a symbol of our time. His wealth and influence are undeniable. While his position as the world’s richest person fluctuates with market shifts, he consistently maintains a position among the top three. He serves as CEO for two major companies and previously owned a social media network that was arguably the most influential before his acquisition. Notably, he even served as the inspiration for Marvel’s Tony Stark.
From the mid-2000s when he first emerged into the public eye, Musk has been unwavering in his mission to transform the world. His ambitions span from tackling climate change and sending humanity to Mars to unlocking the mysteries of the universe through AI and safeguarding our species. Throughout the past decade, both the media and his devoted fan base treated his audacious goals as nearly inevitable achievements. While certain promises remain unfulfilled, such as Mars exploration, he accomplished feats like reusable rockets and invigorating the electric car industry. The supporters who congregate in his Twitter sphere maintain unwavering faith, seemingly believing that despite his sometimes abrasive demeanor and past setbacks, he will ultimately deliver on his grand visions.
To fully understand this perspective, it’s instructive to examine a novel penned by Talulah Riley, a British writer and actress who had firsthand experience with Musk as his former spouse (they married and divorced twice between 2012 and 2016). Riley’s novel “Acts of Love” offers insights into how Musk’s supporters reframe his flaws and unconventional behavior as proof of his greatness.
Musk’s public image plays a pivotal role in his strategic plan. Initially, he wasn’t the charismatic celebrity known for commanding press attention and freely sharing personal details. Reports from the late 2000s even raised concerns about his ability to communicate effectively. A 2009 New Yorker profile highlighted his awkwardness in public settings. Despite his engineering and entrepreneurial skills, doubts arose about his aptitude for selling cars. Musk himself worried that his perceived lack of glamour might hinder Tesla’s progress, comparing himself unfavorably to others.
However, in 2012, a turning point occurred. Musk’s obsession with fame intensified after founding SpaceX in 2002, driven by his need for recognition in procuring rocket components. This obsession led him to discuss his vision for Mars passionately, marking the beginning of his transformation into a public figure driven by sheer determination.
The years between 2009 and 2018 marked Musk’s zenith as a celebrity billionaire, securing glowing headlines through strategic interactions with the media. But in 2018, the narrative shifted. His actions, including labeling a Thai cave rescuer a “pedo guy,” smoking cannabis on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and tweeting misleading information, invited backlash and lawsuits. While he settled one lawsuit and emerged victorious from another, his approach changed. Musk’s interactions with journalists became less amiable, culminating in his taking on the role of his own spokesperson.
This media strategy, a fusion of controversies that resist sticking in public memory, obscures Musk’s past failures and helps him maintain a divisive image. Owning Twitter after 2022 amplifies this narrative, granting him a platform to freely express himself. The resulting steady stream of Musk-related stories prevents any single scandal from taking root in the public consciousness. The lasting impression is that of a figure under siege from the media, countering them with his own brand of trolling.
Despite being portrayed as an unparalleled advocate for his own endeavors, Musk has often fallen short of realizing his grand visions. Tesla’s struggles to meet production demand, unfulfilled moon tourism plans, self-driving vehicle promises that haven’t come to fruition, and stalled hyperloop and tunnel projects underscore his shortcomings. Critics have even likened his career trajectory to that of a con artist.
One common misconception about Musk relates to his supposed wealth from an apartheid-era emerald mine. In reality, he grew up in apartheid-era South Africa, and while his father had a minor stake in an emerald mine, its connection to apartheid and its financial impact were exaggerated. Musk’s path is better characterized by his self-initiated investments and collaborations that marked his initial ventures.
Interestingly, Musk’s purchase of Twitter in 2022 aligns with his public actions. This move supports the idea of a decentralized media empire that broadcasts his every utterance, enveloping praise, criticism, and exaggerations in a flood of commentary. This cacophony results in collective exhaustion that Musk wears as a shield, enhancing his visibility without incurring financial costs.
The narrative of Musk as a demanding boss is contentious. “Acts of Love” presents a fantasy depiction where Radley Blake, Musk’s fictional counterpart, is a strict but just micromanager. Real-world reports, however, paint a less flattering picture. Musk has faced accusations ranging from bullying and negligence to creating unsafe work environments. Stories of Musk’s “rage firings,” indifference to employee safety, and controversial pandemic-related decisions have surfaced. These instances challenge the heroic narrative, revealing a disparity between his public image and reality.
Musk’s personal history, marked by a challenging childhood marred by bullying and a strained relationship with his father, has shaped his emotional landscape. This vulnerability, despite his stature, humanizes him and strengthens the underdog narrative. Musk’s openness about yearning for companionship showcases his emotional side, and his experiences and past traumas mirror the archetype of a romantic hero.
His autobiographical revelations become intertwined with his persona, effectively shaping the perception of him as a unique individual navigating personal and professional struggles. His perceived vulnerability fosters empathy, positioning him as an underdog hero and allowing his supporters to rally behind him.
In essence, Elon Musk’s mysterious ability to navigate challenges while maintaining an enigmatic allure can be attributed to the complex interplay of strategic media engagement, vulnerability-driven empathy, and a compelling underdog narrative. While reality may not completely align with the romantic hero archetype he portrays, the composite image he curates continues to captivate audiences, inviting them to witness the drama and potential triumphs of his ever-evolving journey.