We all know--or should--that you can't solve a problem by working longer and longer hours, forgoing sleep, health, and relationships. Nor can you solve every problem all by yourself--you have to have people around you whom you trust so that you can delegate tasks that you either lack the expertise or the time and energy to do yourself. Unfortunately, in his battle to save Tesla from the short-sellers who've been dogging it for years, Elon Musk seems to have forgotten both these truths.
So an old friend is out to remind him. In an open letter posted on the Thrive Global website, Arianna Huffington, responded to Musk's anguished interview in The New York Times, which was published on Friday.
Huffington begins her message to Musk by reminding him what a devoted father he is:
"I've always loved how, whenever I see you, the first thing you do is whip out your phone to proudly show me videos of your adorable children and their latest exploits. Clearly you have much going on in your life, but it says a lot about you that this is what you lead with."
You would think this opening statement might have hit home, since one of the many problems a tearful Musk acknowledged to the Times reporters is that his near-24/7 work schedule at Tesla for the past year was not good for his kids.
Huffington continued with an argument calculated to break through Musk's denial--science. Musk is nothing if not a scientist, so Huffington asked him to look at the science of human overwork and sleep deprivation:
"The science is clear. And what it tells us is that there's simply no way you can make good decisions and achieve your world-changing ambitions while running on empty."
"To cite just one study, after 17-19 hours without sleep, we begin to experience levels of cognitive impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .05 percent, just under the threshold for being legally drunk. No business leader would hire people who came to work drunk, so don't model that behavior for your employees."
She ends with a plea to Musk. For his own sake, for Tesla's sake, and for the sake of the planet he is trying to save from climate change, she begs him to please, please get some rest and time off so that he can be what his companies need him to be--a leader functioning at his very best.
Musk, to say the very least, doesn't get it.
Ford & Tesla are the only 2 American car companies to avoid bankruptcy. I just got home from the factory. You think this is an option. It is not.-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 19, 2018
He seems to be stuck on two of the most common justifications people make for working too hard and refusing to get the sleep, relaxation, and companionship they need:
1. No one can do it but me.
2. I am so strong and so smart that I don't need rest like other people do. I can power through this challenge and save the day.
Let's take these two fallacies one at a time. The first one presupposes there is no other executive at Tesla as dedicated as Musk, or as smart, or capable of managing the company's most important task at the moment, which is keeping Tesla Model 3 production at its target capacity so the new model can be profitable, thus slowing the depletion of Tesla's cash reserves.
I have no idea if there's anyone else at Tesla who could manage this task in Musk's place, but I know this: If there isn't, then finding someone who can and putting that person in the right role is Musk's and the Tesla board's most pressing job.
Because what if? What if Musk came down with an illness again, as he did when he caught malaria? What if he were in an automobile accident? He does, after all, tweet while driving. What if one his children fell ill or were injured, meaning he simply couldn't stay at the factory. Is Musk willing to risk his company's future on a bet that nothing like this will happen? And even if he is, is his board willing to? There are no two ways about it: If truly no one but Musk can manage production at the Tesla factory, they need to put someone else in place who also can. Yesterday.
It shouldn't be impossible. Musk's other major company, SpaceX, has a capable COO, Gwynne Shotwell, who has been running that company day-to-day while Musk spends his days and nights as Tesla. And--as opposed to building electric cars--SpaceX's work actually is rocket science.
Is Musk really helping Tesla by working 24/7?
The second fallacy has already disproved itself. Huffington points us toward the science that says we lose productivity, not to mention good judgment, when we're deprived of appropriate rest. But we don't even need to review the science, we can just consider Musk himself.
Musk has always spoken--and tweeted--somewhat impulsively, without much review by anyone. But he has never made a habit of getting himself or his company into trouble with his public statements. Until the past four months. In May, Musk's comments about "boneheaded" questions on an earnings conference call led to a fall in Tesla's stock price--a win for the short-sellers he hates.
He himself acknowledged this was a mistake when Musk apologized to the analysts on the next quarter's call--and he himself blamed the long hours he's been putting in. "There are reasons for it, and I'd gotten no sleep and been working sort of 110-hour, 120-hour weeks," he said. So he had every reason to know that by working through exhaustion he was harming Tesla more than helping it.
In July, the still exhausted Musk stepped in it again. When a British expert involved in the Thai cave rescue belittled the rescue submarine Musk created for the effort (which turned out to be unneeded and might not have worked), Musk took out his anger on Twitter, calling his opponent "pedo guy" with no evidence whatsoever. The comment may not have immediately affected Tesla, but it certainly damaged Musk's personal brand--and Musk's status as a widely beloved and trusted figure is one of Tesla's biggest assets.
Then, of course, came last week, and Musk's tweet that he would take Tesla private with "funding secured." Tesla's stock price went flying upward. Then it turned out funding had been discussed but was in no way secured. That earned Tesla a subpoena from the SEC. Next came his confessional Times interview. It was an extraordinary thing--try to imagine Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos saying any of those things on the record. I suspect it was intended partly as a cry for help, partly to make people like him again. But once again, Tesla's stock price dropped in response. Over the weekend, the short-sellers--Musk's arch-enemies--had recovered $1.3 billion of their possible losses as a result.
Don't let this happen to you.
Musk is accustomed to listening to no advice, charting his own course, and being stubborn, even pigheaded, if not boneheaded. So I don't know whether he will see the illogic of his own actions and change them before he and his company suffer the consequences.
I do know that the rest of us can look at these events and learn from them for our own work lives. No matter how smart you are, or how tough, or how dedicated to your job, you cannot escape the laws of human biology and neuroscience any more than you can the laws of physics. You may be able to pull an occasional all-nighter or working weekend to meet a tight deadline, but no one can go months or years working late into the night, working weekends, working birthdays, and never taking a vacation without serious consequences. Learn from Musk's mistakes or it could kill your reputation, your biggest project, or even your company. It could even wind up killing you.