The jury is still out on Elon Musk, as it is for all of us. But it's likely he will one day be remembered as the greatest creative innovator and entrepreneur of our time -- unless, that is, he manages to sabotage his own success.
Weirdly -- and my God, I almost can't believe I'm saying this -- it's not because of his tendency to go off half-cocked, tweeting his way into trouble or doing things like promising to personally review expense reports for thousands of Tesla employees.
Instead, it's because of the small sliver of self-doubt that crept into his remarks last week at Tesla's annual shareholders meeting.
It was subtle. It was easy to miss. But it's the kind of act Musk needs to drop right now.
'It's time you knew...'
The context: a question about the timeline for a pretty amazing Tesla feature that Musk has been promising for a while: "Advanced Summon."
Advance Summon will ultimately let owners tap a button on their phone and have their cars self-navigate through parking lots to meet them. Seriously, that's off the charts.
But, it's an an incredibly complex problem to solve, and someone apparenltly pointed out to Musk that he'd once forth a timeline for "Advanced Summon" under which it should already be available.
That led to a rare Musk demurral and admission: "I'm sometimes a little optimistic about timeframes. It's time you knew."
Yes, it's true. He's a "a little optimistic" sometimes.
But if you're rooting for Tesla, and for Musk himself, it would be a whole hell of a lot better if he didn't admit it to himself.
Elon Musk Inc.
It's easy to forget that Musk wasn't actually the founder of Tesla, as it's so entwined with him personally now.
Buy a Tesla, work for Tesla, or invest in Tesla, and you're basically buying a piece of Musk, working for him, or investing in him. Personally.
Some people think that's a great bet. Others think it's horrible.
Reportedly, Apple wanted to buy Tesla back in 2013. It was willing to pay a 24 percent premium, but only on the condition that it could get rid of Musk.
In other words, it concluded that Tesla was worth $5.5 billion more without Musk than with him. Ouch. And if you're Musk: Too bad Apple, you had your chance.
Because more than many other companies, Musk relies on the cult of his own personality to push performance. There's good reason, to my mind, to bet on him.
I'm not saying it's necessarily going to be a winning bet, but it's not a stupid one.
Eight. Maybe nine.
But if you do bet on Musk, here's what you bet on:
- A 17-year-old who left South Africa alone (repeat: alone!) for Canada en route to the United States.
- A guy with the confidence to drop out of a Ph.D. program at Stanford after just a matter of days days to focus on entrepreneurship.
- A man who has founded or led at least eight companies by my count, maybe nine, depending on whether you count X.com and Paypal as separate companies (Zip2, X.com, PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity, OpenAI, Neuralink, and The Boring Company).
When we start talking about as "the greatest creative innovator and entrepreneur of our time" has to be held up against Steve Jobs.
But Jobs only founded two companies (Apple and NEXT).
The 'reality distortion field'
Yes, Apple is bigger and more influential today, but when Jobs was Musk's age now, 2004 or so, Apple's market capitalization was under $10 billion. Tesla is at just under $38 billion now.
As long as we're talking about Jobs though, let's talk about what colleagues and employees said was the number-1 key to his success: the "reality distortion field."
In short, his unshakable confidence that despite what everyone else around him said, he could succeed.
There's no room in that paradigm for doubt. There's no room for: "I admit, 'I'm sometimes a little optimistic about timeframes.'"
I don't mean to suggest that these 11 short words are the beginning of the end. But they're the warning sign. And, anyone who cares about Musk, or Tesla, or any of his other ventures should be on the lookout for them.
When the earliest little bits of doubt start to creep in -- the little admission that "Iron Man" is just a man after all, he needs to knock it off.
For most of us, self-reflection and humility are good things. But most of us aren't Elon Musk.