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Elon Musk...human?


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Munger had to say this about him during the most recent DJCO meeting:

 

"I think Elon Musk is a genius and I don't use that word lightly. I think he's also one of the boldest men that ever came down the pike. His IQ is 190 and he thinks it's 250. I do think there's a little bit of risk with Elon but he's a certified genius"

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I have an engineer friend who told me that among his engineering circle of friends, they actually don't find Musk's technical aptitude all that impressive. His main talent is rallying the best engineers together for a common cause (e.g. build a rocket, electric car).

 

Sort of like the Manhattan Project in the USA back in the 1940s. When you throw a ton of money at a project and incentivize super smart people to work together, a lot can happen. The mission in the 1940s was to build an atom bomb to secure the nation's future. Sounds like something that would motivate anyone. Now Musk is doing the same thing by telling us that humanity's future is on the line and how cool it would be to live in space, etc.

 

I have always found Musk extremely interesting and believe he is an absolute genius. I don't know enough about him to judge his technical abilities against other scientists.

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I have an engineer friend who told me that among his engineering circle of friends, they actually don't find Musk's technical aptitude all that impressive. His main talent is rallying the best engineers together for a common cause (e.g. build a rocket, electric car).

 

Your friends appear to be hipsters or trying to elevate their social status by looking down on someone that everybody else thinks has high social status, or something like that.

 

Musk worked directly on Zip2 and Paypal, very complex projects (especially for their time). He then became head designer of rockets for SpaceX while running the business side (teaching himself rocketry), while running Tesla and also doing engineering and design work there, for a long time inspecting every single car off the assembly line and financing the company himself (check out the documentary Revenge of the Electric car to see how close they came to failure and how Musk basically kept the company going through sheer strenght of will), meanwhile having the idea that became SolarCity (a company that was created by his cousins, of which he's chairman). Oh, and on his free time, he designed the HyperLoop and released the plans in the public domain and says he has a design for a vertical-landing-and-takeoff electric plane. And he's in early 40s.

 

Some people are good at finding good people and motivating them (Steve Jobs was more like that, though he was also deeply involed), but Musk is definitely up to his neck in the engineering stuff and knows his stuff. Listen to any interviews where someone asks a simple question and he goes off in the weeds on some rocket engine details, or check out his twitter discussions with John Carmack (another programming genius who now builds rockets) about rocket minutia..

 

Yeah, nothing to be impressed with there...

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I may be wrong but didn't Buffett or Munger once say something to the effect that they would much rather pick a guy whose IQ was 140 but who thought it was 120 than the guy who thought it was 160?

 

Sure. But I'm not sure that's really a problem with Musk. He seems very aware of his limitations and of the potential for failure. In interview, he says that he actually thought the more likely outcome for SpaceX was failure, and last year in a bloomberg interview he said that the thought Tesla's stock was overvalued. His focus is always on working harder, doing better, constantly improving.

 

Doesn't sound like one of those entrepreneurs who let success get to their heads and then think they are invincible and everything that they thouch has to turn to gold.

 

That doesn't meant that he'll always succeed, but at least he's working on important and hard problems that can make a difference in the world and that few others dare work on (who needs one more social network of mobile app company?).

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I have an engineer friend who told me that among his engineering circle of friends, they actually don't find Musk's technical aptitude all that impressive. His main talent is rallying the best engineers together for a common cause (e.g. build a rocket, electric car).

 

Your friends appear to be hipsters or trying to elevate their social status by looking down on someone that everybody else thinks has high social status, or something like that.

 

I think you may be arguing about different things. Musk is obviously incredibly smart -- he couldn't get to where is his on luck or salesmanship alone. But there are also obviously many people (in rockets, cars, etc.) who are much more technically proficient. Even if he is in the 98-99th percentile this of course is true.

 

I think(?) Pretium was trying to say that it's not necessary to be the *most* "brilliant" in the tech area to get to Musk's level. That's why I think Munger's quote is perfect. Musk would be a terrible value investor but then again so are most people.

 

To do what Musk has done you need: brilliance + a lot of money (obtained, in this case, from previous successes & salesmanship) + incredible drive + high risk appetite.

 

I had a friend ask me "Why hasn't Bill Gates done some of the amazing things Elon Musk has?" The answer I don't think has anything to do with brilliance (Gates would easily hold his ground against Musk) but with the ambition & risk appetite (aka mild insanity).

 

Howard Hughes fit this mold perfectly: brilliant, lots of money (originally from inherited tool co), huge ambitions, mild insanity. Like Hughes I think there are future risks with Musk but damn I also hope he keeps it up! (Though I'm not sure I agree that "He's so brilliant I'm sure he is aware of the risk of spreading himself too thin" -- I think his ambitions as Munger aluded to might  eventually exceed his ability.)

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I disagree on a few level, but don't really feel like getting into it since it kinds of come down to how much we think we know these people (to be able to take educated guesses at their motivations, talents, etc).

 

I think many people just can't accept that some people are just more able than others. They have to find ways to chip away at that.

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I disagree on a few level, but don't really feel like getting into it since it kinds of come down to how much we think we know these people (to be able to take educated guesses at their motivations, talents, etc).

 

I think many people just can't accept that some people are just more able than others. They have to find ways to chip away at that.

 

It also boils down to your definition of "better". I think there's a widespread adolescent tendency of focusing tunnel-vision-like on what can be measured (the best guitarist is the one who does the fastest solos, the best programmer is the one who's code routines runs fastest or have the fewest number of bugs or whatever). I used to care about that kind of stuff when I was younger too, but now I don't so much. I'll take a coder who comes up with the idea for the Google algorithm (PageRank) or the hyperlink over the coder who can do fancier math, more complex code and optimizations, and knows more languages but will never do much original or important work in a lifetime.

 

Some people's output is just thousands of times more valuable than others, if not millions, even if pedants will call them "worse" at the mundane parts of whatever field they're in... I'm sure lots of physicists and mathematicians were better at all kinds of math than Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman were, but that's missing the point.

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I disagree on a few level, but don't really feel like getting into it since it kinds of come down to how much we think we know these people (to be able to take educated guesses at their motivations, talents, etc).

 

I think many people just can't accept that some people are just more able than others. They have to find ways to chip away at that.

 

It also boils down to your definition of "better". I think there's a widespread adolescent tendency of focusing tunnel-vision-like on what can be measured (the best guitarist is the one who does the fastest solos, the best programmer is the one who's code routines runs fastest or have the fewest number of bugs or whatever). I used to care about that kind of stuff when I was younger too, but now I don't so much. I'll take a coder who comes up with the idea for the Google algorithm (PageRank) or the hyperlink over the coder who can do fancier math, more complex code and optimizations, and knows more languages but will never do much original or important work in a lifetime.

 

Some people's output is just thousands of times more valuable than others, if not millions, even if pedants will call them "worse" at the mundane parts of whatever field they're in... I'm sure lots of physicists and mathematicians were better at all kinds of math than Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman were, but that's missing the point.

 

Ha, understanding the Apple thesis will do that to your thinking! You should have seen the posts in the IBM thread talking about how IBM was an innovative enterprise as they produce so many patent filings every year! (I'm no bullish or bearish on IBM and haven't done the research - but that claim was just so patently absurd.)

 

I actually first typed out "better" in my post that you quoted, but I changed it before I submitted it to "more able." I think it's a big distinction. I actually just wrote about this whole issue of "better," here (where I also just wrote a lengthy comment): http://www.innerscorecard.co/blog/2015/1/18/aiming-low

 

(Parsad or anyone else - if it's not okay to post a link to my own website here please let me know and I'll edit it out.)

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I disagree on a few level, but don't really feel like getting into it since it kinds of come down to how much we think we know these people (to be able to take educated guesses at their motivations, talents, etc).

 

I think many people just can't accept that some people are just more able than others. They have to find ways to chip away at that.

 

It also boils down to your definition of "better". I think there's a widespread adolescent tendency of focusing tunnel-vision-like on what can be measured (the best guitarist is the one who does the fastest solos, the best programmer is the one who's code routines runs fastest or have the fewest number of bugs or whatever). I used to care about that kind of stuff when I was younger too, but now I don't so much. I'll take a coder who comes up with the idea for the Google algorithm (PageRank) or the hyperlink over the coder who can do fancier math, more complex code and optimizations, and knows more languages but will never do much original or important work in a lifetime.

 

Some people's output is just thousands of times more valuable than others, if not millions, even if pedants will call them "worse" at the mundane parts of whatever field they're in... I'm sure lots of physicists and mathematicians were better at all kinds of math than Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman were, but that's missing the point.

 

+1

 

I couldn't agree more.  For whatever the reason is, Musk is doing more for humanity than all of the engineers in the world who are enviously bitching that Musk isn't very smart combined.  There is a creative aspect to doing important, beneficial, and successful things as well.  Musk not only has sufficient intelligence to be as successful as he's been, but he also has vision, creativity, relentlessness, business acumen, and a shit load of guts.  In my 19 years as an engineer, I've known absolutely brilliant people who have none of those other qualities which Musk has.  I've had many arguments with fellow engineers, who are much smarter than I am, who always want to do things the hard way simply because they can, who want to add unnecessary features that no customer will ever need or use and will add to the cost, time, and complexity of the product, simply because it's possible to do, etc.  There are so many brilliant people in one narrow area of knowledge who have not a lick of common sense what-so-ever and who do ridiculous things.  I have very little respect for anyone who would belittle the intelligence of someone like Musk. Why would you make such a fool of yourself? Envy really is an ugly thing.

 

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+1

 

I couldn't agree more.  For whatever the reason is, Musk is doing more for humanity than all of the engineers in the world who are enviously bitching that Musk isn't very smart combined.  There is a creative aspect to doing important, beneficial, and successful things as well.  Musk not only has sufficient intelligence to be as successful as he's been, but he also has vision, creativity, relentlessness, business acumen, and a shit load of guts.  In my 19 years as an engineer, I've known absolutely brilliant people who have none of those other qualities which Musk has.  I've had many arguments with fellow engineers, who are much smarter than I am, who always want to do things the hard way simply because they can, who want to add unnecessary features that no customer will ever need or use and will add to the cost, time, and complexity of the product, simply because it's possible to do, etc.  There are so many brilliant people in one narrow area of knowledge who have not a lick of common sense what-so-ever and who do ridiculous things.  I have very little respect for anyone who would belittle the intelligence of someone like Musk. Why would you make such a fool of yourself? Envy really is an ugly thing.

 

Well said

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Some people's output is just thousands of times more valuable than others, if not millions, even if pedants will call them "worse" at the mundane parts of whatever field they're in... I'm sure lots of physicists and mathematicians were better at all kinds of math than Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman were, but that's missing the point.

 

I completely agree. Humans are geared for fairness and so I think we tend to measure things more in terms of input than output. The person who works the hardest, is most technically proficient etc we judge as being he most deserving. And we feel if someone found any easy way to get something without being technically superior or working hard at it then they are somehow not deserving. Its a ridiculously evil flaw in humans that has resulted in incredible destruction and misery (socialism, national socialism, the ridiculous Japanese work culture).

 

But often its not about any of that. Einstein for instance was very clever in choosing exactly the areas of science where he knew there were big problems with existing theory. There are many others who are orders of magnitude more technically proficient than Einstein and vastly more hard working. Einstein was more opportunistic in his choice of problems and very clever in his mode of attack.

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But often its not about any of that. Einstein for instance was very clever in choosing exactly the areas of science where he knew there were big problems with existing theory. There are many others who are orders of magnitude more technically proficient than Einstein and vastly more hard working. Einstein was more opportunistic in his choice of problems and very clever in his mode of attack.

 

That's why I pointed out that Musk was working on hard problems that can make a big difference, and that few others even dare to work on. There's a great quote by biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey on this:

 

"It has always appalled me that really bright scientists almost all work in the most competitive fields, the ones in which they are making the least difference. In other words,  if they were hit by a truck, the same discovery would be made by somebody else about 10 minutes later."

 

This applies to more than science. So many smart engineers are building Candy Crush apps or working on ways to get people to click on more ads (google, facebook, etc). So many of the most brilliant mathematical minds of our era are working on creating complex derivatives and HFT algorithms on Wall Street.

 

Sure they go where the money is, but I'd say that Musk did pretty well too and he's making a much bigger difference (making a dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs would say).

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But often its not about any of that. Einstein for instance was very clever in choosing exactly the areas of science where he knew there were big problems with existing theory. There are many others who are orders of magnitude more technically proficient than Einstein and vastly more hard working. Einstein was more opportunistic in his choice of problems and very clever in his mode of attack.

 

That's why I pointed out that Musk was working on hard problems that can make a big difference, and that few others even dare to work on. There's a great quote by biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey on this:

 

"It has always appalled me that really bright scientists almost all work in the most competitive fields, the ones in which they are making the least difference. In other words,  if they were hit by a truck, the same discovery would be made by somebody else about 10 minutes later."

 

This applies to more than science. So many smart engineers are building Candy Crush apps or working on ways to get people to click on more ads (google, facebook, etc). So many of the most brilliant mathematical minds of our era are working on creating complex derivatives and HFT algorithms on Wall Street.

 

Sure they go where the money is, but I'd say that Musk did pretty well too and he's making a much bigger difference (making a dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs would say).

 

The explanation for that is risk tolerance.  If you have a brilliant mathematical mind you are almost certain to do well as a quant on Wall Street, but starting your own rocket company is not exactly going to be a sure thing. In fact if you are that mathematically capable you are more likely than the average person to know the difference in the odds between the two.  Like I said Musk has a shit load of guts.  He isn't just shooting for the Moon, he's shooting for Mars.

 

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The explanation for that is risk tolerance.  If you have a brilliant mathematical mind you are almost certain to do well as a quant on Wall Street, but starting your own rocket company is not exactly going to be a sure thing. In fact if you are that mathematically capable you are more likely than the average person to know the difference in the odds between the two.  Like I said Musk has a shit load of guts.  He isn't just shooting for the Moon, he's shooting for Mars.

 

This is what I was trying to say. If was just "brilliance" however you define it, there would be a lot more Elon Musks in the world. It's a combination of a lot of things. And unfortunately that combination doesn't pop up enough in the world.

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I think even the "risk tolerance" and "working in the most fertile areas" aspects underplay things, though they are obviously part of the mix.

 

Genius is often about doing things that other people simply can't do. It's making leaps and connections that wouldn't come to other people, looking at things in new ways, persevering way past the point when everybody else would have given up, etc. It's not just about having a high IQ.

 

I'd bet that almost all the otherwise incredibly smart people out there who don't even try to think big right now, if you gave them unconditional, unlimited resources (lottery winnings, whatever) and a way to hide their failures so there's no social stigma (do your work outside of the public eye rather than publicly like Musk, so if it doesn't work, nobody knows, but if it works, you get the glory) and could make them work in the most fertile areas for big discoveries, they still wouldn't be the people who's names end up in history books. Some might, and on average their contribution to our civilization would go up no doubt about it, but I'm just trying to say that I don't think those two things are the only missing ingredients for most brilliant people to operate on the level of those rare people who change the course of history through the sheer force of their personality and talents.

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I think even the "risk tolerance" and "working in the most fertile areas" aspects underplay things, though they are obviously part of the mix.

 

Genius is often about doing things that other people simply can't do. It's making leaps and connections that wouldn't come to other people, looking at things in new ways, persevering way past the point when everybody else would have given up, etc. It's not just about having a high IQ.

 

I'd bet that almost all the otherwise incredibly smart people out there who don't even try to think big right now, if you gave them unconditional, unlimited resources (lottery winnings, whatever) and a way to hide their failures so there's no social stigma (do your work outside of the public eye rather than publicly like Musk, so if it doesn't work, nobody knows, but if it works, you get the glory) and could make them work in the most fertile areas for big discoveries, they still wouldn't be the people who's names end up in history books. Some might, and on average their contribution to our civilization would go up no doubt about it, but I'm just trying to say that I don't think those two things are the only missing ingredients for most brilliant people to operate on the level of those rare people who change the course of history through the sheer force of their personality and talents.

 

I agree, I called it "creativity" and "vision" above, but it is hard to describe.  I you gave me a Billion dollars on the condition that I use it to change the world, I wouldn't even know where to start.  (Maybe I'd give it to Musk).  Whatever it is, Musk has it and most people don't.

 

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I think the tone of this thread has changed a bit. Initially the question was "Is Elon Musk Human?", with a link to his idea for a Space Internet. In all of history there are a few great minds that have transcended traditional human capabilities. Einstein, Newton, Da Vinci, Hawking, Galileo, Beethoven, etc. One might talk about these people as extraordinary, superb, one-of-a-kind...almost non-human. I took this question to mean, does Elon belong on this list? Personally I always grouped Elon with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a pure entrepreneur, superb socializer and negotiater, and also a scientist.

 

Let's not forget that Tesla started with a $465m loan from the government. It also relies on $7500 subsidies when selling its cars. SolarCity relies on government tax breaks as well. Is it genius to create companies that aren't economically viable in the free market?

 

Let's suppose that xyz billionaire replicated Musk's SpaceX path. He gathered the same people, under the same roof, for the same mission and thows in the same amount of money. Does SpaceX still succeed? Or does it only succeed with Musk? I'd say the latter, but still interesting to think about.

 

When Apple threw out Steve Jobs as CEO it went down the drain. No doubt they still had smart people there, but where was the vision? Is someone soley with vision a genius?

 

Is Steve Jobs a genius? (Or non-human)?

 

I'm only trying to play devil's advocate here. I am a huge Musk fan and have watched nearly every interview he has given and taken studious notes.

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Tesla didn't start with the DOE loan.  They did several rounds of private funding with about $100 million coming from Elon.  Daimler then made an investment which opened up the way to the DOE loan.  Also the subsidy issue is sort of weird in my books because the oil industry is heavily subisidized in different forms so the price you pay for oil isn't the full price, especially when you ignore the enviromental costs.

 

I think what makes Elon Musk superhuman is his tenacity and ability to cut through very daunting problems.  If you wanted to start a viable rocket company from scratch where would you start?  A profitable electric car company? A dominant online payment system?  A normal person would not know where to even begin but Elon is very good at breaking down why they are difficult problems and identifying whether success is a possible outcome.  He then has the tenacity to solve those problems to the detriment of his personal life and financial health.

 

You start to take out a couple small elements of Elon Musk and you end up in the bin with 99% of the other failures we never heard about.

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