Heroes are not created equal. Most people recognize the name Sully Sullenberger, but far fewer can tell you what Alan Turing did during World War II.
Fewer still could tell you that Turing was chemically castrated because he was gay, and committed suicide shortly thereafter. But thanks for bringing one of the most horrifying wars in history to an abrupt end, I guess?
Society isn’t always kind to its heroes. We ask for an ill-defined yet idealized sort of perfection, and when our heroes fall short, we make sure they fall twice as hard.
Some might write this phenomenon off as a minor inconvenience for the rich, successful or famous, but times have changed. The human costs of war pale in comparison to the battles humanity will face in the years to come.
More so than any time in our history, we are inundated with existential threats to our way of life. The future of the planet depends on our ability to accelerate scientific discovery and deploy new technologies, and that’s precisely what Elon Musk is doing.
Musk has committed literally all of his considerable resources, and all of his talents, to addressing those threats. He doesn’t need the money, he doesn’t need the fame, and his legacy is already a lock. Yet, he’s facing a societal firing squad that has decided that he’s too eccentric to be allowed to solve these problems for us.
One tweet from Musk about taking a company private, and the Department of Justice opens up an unprecedented investigation into him. A delay in production of a radically new type of vehicle, and his stock goes tumbling.
What’s next? Should we dock the pay of everyone working on the Cancer Moonshot for every month we go without a cure?
As concerned as I am about the problems we face in energy, climate, transportation and the new space race, there’s one overarching problem that scares me more: We don’t want modern heroes to succeed in their efforts to tackle these challenges on our behalf.
Musk has been given every reason to call it quits, buy an island and retire. That hasn’t stopped him yet, but it’s pretty clear the absurd behavior of an ungrateful public is taking a toll. If you care about the future, it’s essential to put the work of our future-makers in the appropriate context.
Overly eager critiques
Few people realize it, but Tesla is not a luxury car company. The stated mission at Tesla is: “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”
Consider that for a moment. A car company took it upon itself to enact a much larger societal shift to a better form of energy. The luxury car is just a beachhead market for the underlying technology. And you know what – the cars are great! It’s a phenomenal product, with diehard fans and loyal customers.
Tesla could have stopped there and would get all the respect in the world. Even just building a new car brand in this era is accomplishment enough, but Musk himself made the choice to dedicate Tesla to the even more ambitious mission with enduring societal impact.
Instead of marveling at the ambition, we’ve fallen into the habit of chronicling the inconsequential delays in Model 3 production on a weekly basis. A recent Fortune article opened with, “Tesla CEO Elon Musk is known for setting ambitious goals and timelines for the electric car company, but he isn’t known for hitting them.”
When is it enough?
Doing it alone
The Boring Company is one of Musk’s more recent creations. This company constructs tunnels for his breakthrough HyperLoop transportation venture. But why should you care?
Well, the United States doesn’t even crack the top 15 countries in the World Economic Forum’s rankings for ground transportation. And no U.S. city made the top 20 in the 2017 Sustainable Cities Mobility Index from Arcadis. In short, we’re falling further behind the rest of the world with every day that passes.
So Musk designed an entirely new mode of transportation called Hyperloop in a joint venture between Tesla and SpaceX. Then, he committed to the engaging students in the research effort to develop the solution and advance the technology.
They ran tests on their own, without getting any government funding, and he realized he’s going to have to dig the tunnels for Hyperloop himself, so he started that company too.
He didn’t ask for help. State and local governments offered nothing but red tape along the way, but he pushed forward anyway, no matter the obstacles put in front of him.
That’s what makes this so appalling. Elon Musk is the modern American incarnation of rugged self-reliance, yet the country in which he operates can barely recognize it and thinks they are owed something over and above what he has already given them.
If you just let the guy do his thing, you’ll be traveling between major cities in a matter of minutes. He doesn’t want your help, your time or your money. He just wants to fix the problem. Do you want to get from Dallas to Houston in 20 minutes? If the answer is yes, amazingly all you have to do is keep to yourself.
Breaking the curve
Not one to limit his endeavors to the planet he currently occupies, Musk turned his attention to space when he founded SpaceX in 2002. Since then, the company highlight reel has been nothing short of a scientific miracle.
That reel includes the first privately funded liquid-propellant rocket to get to orbit; the first private company to launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft; and the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station.
Beyond the accomplishments as a private company, SpaceX was the first of any type of organization to execute a propulsive landing for an orbital rock and the first to reuse such a rocket.
The U.S. isn’t exactly leading the way in Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, so let’s put those achievements into context: A private company is outpacing all of the world’s governments in the advancement of space travel.
Why we need Elon
At some point, we have to acknowledge that we need Elon Musk more than he needs us.
Most citizens have abdicated responsibility for society’s biggest problems to their government, private industry or some abstract notion of an international governing body that doesn’t exist. But here’s the thing: People who don’t get their hands dirty don’t get to sit back and be the arbiters of the solutions.
If you don’t like how Musk makes cars, if you don’t like how he tweets, if you don’t like how he explores space, then start your own company. And I don’t write that sarcastically, I really mean it.
We need more people working on big problems. Start a company with an insanely ambitious mission and don’t stop until you achieve your goals. Too many smart, creative people are sitting on the sidelines critiquing heroes rather than trying to be one themselves.
Elon Musk doesn’t need accolades. He doesn’t need critics either. But he could use a few tough competitors. And we’d all be better off for it.
Ben Lamm is an American serial software and tech entrepreneur and investor. He is the founder of Hypergiant, Conversable, Chaotic Moon Studios and Team Chaos. Based in Austin, Texas, he was named one of Adweek’s Top 10 Rising Tech Stars of 2017.
Via The Hill