Elon Musk is best known as the mercurial genius of Silicon Valley, founder and CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX. He most recently was in the spotlight as recently as December 2019 when in court being sued for defamation of character by the British diver he called “pedo guy” on Twitter, during a social media exchange over the methods used to extract the group of children trapped in the Thai caves during 2018.
In spite of the high-profile nature of that incident, I was much more interested in another article from November 2019, about Musk and his ongoing scientific ventures.
Elon Musk said he thinks his neural-technology company, Neuralink, will be able to “solve” schizophrenia and autism. On the latest “Artificial Intelligence” podcast with Lex Fridman, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO was asked about the most exciting effects he foresees for Neuralink, whose goal is to develop an AI-enabled chip that could be implanted in a person’s brain to record brain activity and potentially stimulate it.
“So Neuralink I think at first will solve a lot of brain-related diseases,” Musk said. “So could be anything from, like, autism, schizophrenia, memory loss — like, everyone experiences memory loss at certain points in age. Parents can’t remember their kids’ names and that kind of thing.”
This has generated some controversy (hey, it’s Elon Musk) as autism is a developmental disorder with complex origins and so a ‘cure’ up to now has been impossible. Also, many autistic people see autism as a key aspect of their personality and worldview and do not necessarily want to be ‘cured’.
Ironically, many people who have met Musk or have worked with him suspect that he might be autistic. He is often distant and distracted in conversation with others, he seems to have few interests but is incredibly specialised at them and sometimes behaves erratically.
Let’s take a more systematic look at the personality traits of Elon Musk and see how he matches up to ASD symptoms.
According to the NHS website, some of the common signs of autism in adults include aspects of cognitive processing, a need for familiarity or certainty, and social / communication challenges:
- noticing small details, patterns, smells or sounds that others do not
- having the same routine every day and getting very anxious if it changes
- having a very keen interest in certain subjects or activities
- liking to plan things carefully before doing them
- finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling
- getting very anxious about social situations
- finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own
- seeming blunt, rude or not interested in others without meaning to
- finding it hard to say how you feel
- taking things very literally – for example, you may not understand sarcasm or phrases like “break a leg”
- not understanding social “rules”, such as not talking over people
- avoiding eye contact
getting too close to other people, or getting very upset if someone touches or gets too close to you
Let’s deal with each of those in turn, with a pool of quotes from Musk. Credit to Business Insider for this collection of quotations.
- noticing small details, patterns, smells or sounds that others do not: in an interview with Timothy B Lee on vox.com, Musk’s biographer Ashleee Vance says this of the Tesla and SpaceX founder: “Elon is not the presenter that Jobs was; I don’t think he’s the design guru that Jobs was. He does have that attention to detail on the product. He knows every single f***ing thing on the rockets and the cars. He makes decisions that are very Jobsian. None of the engineers wanted to do the retractable door handles on the Tesla Model S. Elon insisted, and it became this iconic feature. There were a lot of examples, like on the rockets, where people said, “The stuff you’re doing is crazy.”
- having a very keen interest in certain subjects or activities: He certainly displays this attitude towards his work. “If there was a way that I could not eat, so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal.”
- liking to plan things carefully before doing them: He is often described as a micromanager and is happy with the label: “If you’re co-founder or CEO you have to do all kinds of tasks you might not want to do. If you don’t do your chores, the company won’t succeed. No task is too menial”. He is also famed for meticulously planning his (very long) working days; “Once he’s up, Musk launches into a blistering schedule that breaks his time into a series of five-minute slots. The entrepreneur has been known to work 85 to 100 hours a week.”
- finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling: Musk has made quite a few very public faux pas on social media in recent months. At a Tesla event in December 2017 he seemed to misrepresent popular opinion about public transport when he justified the launch of the Boring Company with these comments: “I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.” “It’s a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”
- seeming blunt, rude or not interested in others without meaning to: Musk has been offhand with financial analysts and their questions on multiple occasions, which is perhaps unsurprising when you read in Ashlee Vance’s biography of him that he really just wants to be left alone to work on the engineering and operational challenges at Tesla and SpaceX. Nonetheless, Elon’s professionalism was somewhat lacking in May 2018 during a quarterly conference call with Wall Street analysts, when he responded “boring questions are not cool,” and used the term “bonehead” to describe what analysts were trying to ask him about the company’s financial position. Tesla’s shares fell 5.6% the same day.
- not understanding social “rules”, such as not talking over people: Musk can be blunt at times, notably in conversations with financial journalists, as indicated in the previous point. However, there is a fair degree of self-awareness and acceptance of social norms such as good manners. This was demonstrated in August 2018 in a wholehearted and very public apology to the journalists he had slighted: “First of all, I’d like to apologize for being impolite on the prior call. Honestly, I think there’s really no excuse for bad manners and I was violating my own rule in that regard. Certainly, I have some excuse. There are reasons for it and I’d gotten no sleep and been working sort of 110-hour, 120-hour weeks. But, nonetheless, there’s still no excuse. My apologies for not being polite on the prior call”.
- avoiding eye contact, getting too close to other people, or getting very upset if someone touches or gets too close to you: he seems to hate public transport (as reported earlier; scroll up), but otherwise is not overly sensitive to the proximity of others. As long as they do not interrupt his work!
- taking things very literally – for example, you may not understand sarcasm or phrases like “break a leg”: Musk certainly seems to understand sarcasm. He uses it himself on multiple occasions. Such as:
(a)”Oh btw I’m building a cyborg dragon” (in 2018)
(b) “Despite intense efforts to raise money, including a last-ditch mass sale of Easter Eggs, we are sad to report that Tesla has gone completely and totally bankrupt. So bankrupt, you can’t believe it.” (Musk poked fun at questions about Tesla’s financial health in a 2018 April Fools’ Day Twitter thread written in the style of a newspaper story.)
(c) “I’m not an alien…but I used to be one” (in 2016)
- not seek comfort from other people: Musk has shown that he likes the company of other people, especially the opposite sex. Perhaps though less than most other people. This quote from the Vance biography shows that he is human, although you would never call him romantic based on this evidence: “I would like to allocate more time to dating, though. I need to find a girlfriend. That’s why I need to carve out just a little more time. I think maybe even another five to 10 — how much time does a woman want a week? Maybe 10 hours? That’s kind of the minimum? I don’t know.” (Musk told Vance he wanted to dedicate more time to dating and wondered how much time a relationship would require.)
- having the same routine every day and getting very anxious if it changes: Not really. According to Business Insider: “No two days are the same for Musk. He spends Mondays and Fridays at SpaceX in Los Angeles. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, he heads to the Bay Area to work at Tesla. Quartz estimates that he spends an average of 42 hours a week working at Tesla and 40 hours a week working at SpaceX. He also told Y Combinator that he usually spent about half a day working at the artificial intelligence nonprofit OpenAI.”
- getting very anxious about social situations: Musk certainly suffers from stress, although it is more connected to the gravity of the projects he is involved in, rather than everyday social situations. In July 2017, when asked about his picture perfect online life, the CEO responded, “The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress. Dont think people want to hear about the last two”.
- finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own: it is not clear that Musk finds it challenging to make and keep friends; it is just that he works so many hours per week that he struggles to fit in anything else much beyond sleep and a little family time! “I do watch movies, although less these days,” he said on Twitter in June 2017. “Hang out with kids, see friends, normal stuff. Sometimes go crazy on Twitter. But usually it’s work more.”
- finding it hard to say how you feel: Data from IBM’s supercomputer Watson and job firm Paysa found that Musk’s top five personality traits include: intellect, immoderation, cautiousness, emotionality and altruism, all qualities that relate to Musk’s emotional intelligence.Justin Bariso, management expert and author of “EQ Applied” points to a specific example of Musk’s emotional intelligence: An email he sent to employees in June 2017 in light of claims that the Tesla manufacturing factory had high injury rates.
|No words can express how much I care about your safety and wellbeing [sic]. It breaks my heart when someone is injured building cars and trying their best to make Tesla successful. Going forward, I’ve asked that every injury be reported directly to me, without exception. I’m meeting with the safety team every week and would like to meet every injured person as soon as they are well, so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better. I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.This is what all managers at Tesla should do as a matter of course. At Tesla, we lead from the front line, not from some safe and comfortable ivory tower. Managers must always put their team’s safety above their own.|
To sum up, I will leave the last word to the man who has given us so much insight into the character of Elon Musk: his biographer Ashlee Vance. Does Mr Vance think, having studied the entire life of the man, that Musk is autistic?
Ashlee Vance on Elon Musk’s personality:
“A lot of his employees think that he’s somewhere on the [autism] spectrum, and I heard that a lot, over and over again. I don’t think that’s the case. And I did go to lots of psychologists and experts in this field and had really detailed, long conversations with them about Elon, and there’s a clinical term, they’re called ‘profoundly gifted.’ And this isn’t just some random label—I mean, it is a clinical term—and it’s for kids who have extraordinarily high IQs, but they also have a different perspective on life. From a very early age they have an empathy for humanity, they see flaws in the way people do things, and from a very early age have identified the one or two flaws that they want to fix, and it’s hard for them to let go of that. And to me, this is Elon. He’s forever been consumed by the idea that he can fix some of the mistakes people have made, and he feels a deep empathy for humanity. He doesn’t let himself feel this interpersonal empathy that the rest of us do.”