Elon Musk’s Meltdown Is an Old Story

elon musk upside down 2

Elon Musk’s public image has been in flux all summer. Though Tesla’s founder has been hailed as a genius in the past, his recent behavior has tarnished this reputation. To many, the man is no longer eccentric, but erratic.

I wrote about the CEO’s shifting cultural capital for Tropics of Meta in July, but now, with the end of summer near, Musk’s narrative has changed again. Indeed, his fall from grace seems complete. Summer’s slide seems to have brought Musk and his company to the edge. In a recent tweet (apparently written on his way into work after waking up in Los Angeles with his pop star girlfriend) Musk mused about taking Tesla private again. Rather than dismissing this latest tweet as simply flippant, it seems to have caught the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Tesla’s founder might have sowed the seeds of his company’s destruction.

Now, in his lowest moment, Musk has given a lengthy, confessional interview to the New York Times. In it, the man lets loose on how his own dedication to the car company has ravaged his personal life and health. The pressure of running the company has, he told an interviewer, led to sleepless nights. He has occasionally taken Ambien to help him function. Layers of a fragile humanity have been revealed behind his outsized public image.

The instantly infamous New York Times story noted that Musk was “overcome by emotion” and even had a hard time getting words out. Musk himself even worried that his devotion to business success had come at the expense of seeing his family. The paper recounted how the famous CEO “choked up multiple times, noting that he nearly missed his brother’s wedding and spent his birthday holed up in Tesla’s offices.” As the article’s author wrote, Musk “demonstrated an extraordinary level of self-reflection and vulnerability, acknowledging that his myriad executive responsibilities are taking a steep personal toll.” The ensuing media coverage has, to a large degree, been sympathetic.

While this latest public turn for Tesla’s founder might be new for him, the contours of this story are much older. A brilliant, brash, and defiantly independent business genius becomes consumed by his work. His home life is threatened. His old friends start to worry. Ultimately, his sanity appears to be on the brink. To students of literature, it should have a familiar ring.

As far back as the Gilded Age, American writers have crafted narratives that fit this basic pattern. One of the most prominent examples can be found in Frank Norris’s second book in his planned “Wheat Trilogy,” The Pit. In that novel from the early twentieth century, the main character Curtis Jadwin becomes so obsessed with the stock market that it threatens his home life, his physical health, and ultimately his sanity. In the novel, Norris describes Jadwin’s descent in harrowing detail. As his obsession with the market overtakes his physical and mental health, the character begins to feel “a slow, tense crisping of every tiniest nerve in his body. It would begin as he lay in bed – counting interminably to get himself to sleep – between his knees and ankles, and thence slowly spread to every part of him, creeping upward, from loin to shoulder, in a gradual wave of torture that was not pain, yet infinitely worse.” The Pit would not be the last novel to subject his business-protagonists to such pain.

In the 1950s, for instance, Sloan Wilson depicted the ennui of the corporate climber in The Main in the Grey Flannel Suit. Though that book’s protagonist, Tom Rath, never seems in danger of losing his mind, his success in business is directly proportional to his personal misery. It is, the novel suggests, a condition typical of the high-powered executive. One of the climatic scenes comes when Tom has a meeting with the head of his company, who is plainly miserable, having lost his relationship with his son.

This narrative pattern is so entrenched in American literary tradition that it even structures our understanding of real-world business executives like Musk. At the turn of our current century, the trope of the brash business genius pushed past the edge of mental stability and personal health were prominent features of the books that business journalists used to describe Enron’s CEO, Jeff Skilling. Many of these narratives describe Skilling’s undoing after landing his dream job. In their book, The Smartest Guys in the Room, Fortune journalists Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind painted Skilling’s last days at Enron in similar terms. Even though he had reached the pinnacle of business success, the authors described the CEO as muttering things “darkly” and often having “tears in his eyes.” Longtime coworkers could “see that we was falling apart.”

In the movie adaption of their book, one interviewee describes the Enron executive as “distraught” during this period in the company’s history. Kurt Eichenwald, the author of Conspiracy of Fools took the liberty of imagining Skilling’s interior, writing “The next night, Skilling was in Dallas, alone on a business trip and consumed by depression. Wow, he thought. I just made CEO. He was exhausted. Feeling lousy, sorry for himself. […] He wandered into the hotel bar. He needed a drink.” Eichenwald is clearly taking some degree of artistic license in this section of this book, but it works because the passage maps onto this durable narrative.

Ultimately, the new narrative about Elon Musk is a manifestation of the dynamic between culture and commerce in the United States. Business and businessmen (and historically, this cultural type has always been a man) have long had a more complex relationship to American culture than we sometimes recognize. As some historians have noted, the twin impulses of celebrating grit and hard work vie with a longstanding suspicion of large corporations in American culture. By and large, Americans are quick to celebrate the self-made fortunes of men who build something of worth from the ground up. Historical figures, from Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, have secured places in our collective cultural memory because, through simplification and exaggeration, their stories have fit this pattern.

These stories are how we justify such wealth and inequality in an ostensibly egalitarian society. This sensibility also animates humanizing and sympathetic tales about business titans falling back down to Earth. Forcing real life men like Skilling and Musk into a storyline set for us by writers like Frank Norris and Sloan Wilson are just the most recent examples of our ongoing attempt to reconcile these competing impulses.

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Musk’s confessional interview. Indeed, in the short term, it has only hurt him. In the days following the report, Musk’s personal fortune has reportedly dropped a billion dollars. However, the speed with which writers have wrapped Musk up in this old story reveals how fixed our narratives about business and businesspeople are. Interestingly, in the interview, Musk blamed his “extreme torture” on short-sellers who were “pushing a narrative.”

This, too, is familiar. CEOs have long loved to complain about pessimistic short sellers dragging down their companies. What we have, then, is a contest of narratives playing out in the press, which will determine the fate of the company. In the past, it seemed as though Elon Musk was transported to the twenty-first century from some distant future. This was the man who would usher in a new world – an electric car to end the oil age, rockets into space, and public transportation that would move us at “hyper” speed. How ironic, then, that Musk’s latest turn conforms to a narrative as old as the industrial corporation.