As Elon Musk has climbed ever higher into the stratosphere of celebrity, some have likened him to Steve Jobs, the only near-contemporary whose accomplishments can compare to Musk’s commercial derring-do.
Musk is an entrepreneurial savant who runs not one but two path-breaking companies, Tesla and SpaceX. Jobs for a time ran the animation studio Pixar while he was rejuvenating Apple, transforming it into a global powerhouse.
Musk displays the need to sound off on whatever happens to be on his mind — hence his fascination with Twitter. Jobs was a textbook example of a visionary risk taker with a profound desire to change the world who nevertheless was able to channel his efforts into concrete tasks.
The similarities between the two are many. Both craved access to the powerful. Musk has cozied up to former president Donald Trump; Jobs lent Bill Clinton a spare house on trips to Northern California. Both were workaholics who considered their vast wealth almost as an afterthought. Both showed uncommon virtuosity in promoting their products.
Long before Musk made Twitter his bullhorn, Jobs demonstrated a self-taught mastery of granting interviews to carefully selected journalists as well as paying top dollar to advertise on the back pages of national magazines. There are other similarities: Jobs was in a serious relationship with folk singer Joan Baez in his twenties; Musk has two children with Claire Boucher, the musical artist known as Grimes.
That’s where the resemblances end. Jobs was mercurial, but he also was the portrait of discipline. He carefully reserved a day of the week for meetings at Pixar, devoting the balance for Apple. He created a company ethic of saying no: Jobs would lecture Apple executives that rejecting even good ideas was critical for focusing on the most important matters at hand.
Even before his bid for Twitter in April, Musk had his hands full running Tesla and SpaceX in addition to a bevy of start-ups, including the tunnelling company Boring and Neuralink, a “brain-machine-interface” outfit that aims to implant chips into humans, having already done so with monkeys.
That was before Musk decided to bid $44 billion to buy Twitter, a quixotic effort that has transfixed the political, media and investment worlds all year. Musk explained only a portion of his intentions for Twitter, other than preserving it as a platform where anyone, including Trump, should be allowed to speak.
He quickly had misgivings about the purchase, tried wriggling out of it, concocted irrelevant reasons for walking away, and then, sensing that his legal case was weak, agreed again to buy Twitter.
Now comes word, thanks to detailed reporting that Musk plans to gut Twitter’s workforce, sending 75 per cent of the staff packing, calling into question how the company will continue to collect its current levels of revenue, already too small to make the company profitable.
Musk’s behaviour regarding Twitter is consistent. It seems likely he’ll wrap the deal with Twitter on Oct. 28 at what even he acknowledges is an overpriced valuation. Supply constraints are pinching Tesla as the competition he awakened gets its act together. It is hard not to conclude that Musk’s tenuous ability to focus on any one thing is deteriorating to the point of absurdity.
It’s a recipe for chaos that in any other person would spell certain doom. Confronting his own mortality, Steve Jobs worked toward the end of his life to institutionalise his methods at Apple, providing a road map for acolytes he knew would ask, “What would Steve do?”
It is becoming increasingly clear that not even Elon Musk knows exactly what he’ll say or do next. So long as we keep paying attention to him, that seems to be just fine with him.
Adam Lashinsky is a journalist in San Francisco and author of “Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired — and Secretive — Company Really Works.”