When Elon Musk took over Twitter (now X), he laid off about 6,000 people. That's after he childishly brought a sink into the Twitter headquarters, to let his $44-billion buy-out "sink-in".
His detractors have berated the world’s richest man as someone who “lacks empathy”. It turns out that Musk, currently the world’s most successful corporate icon (net worth: $251.3 billion), is a living testimony of the “savant syndrome”.
Musk had admitted having a hidden disability — Asperger’s Syndrome — generally known as “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD).
Savant syndrome is an unusual yet remarkable condition where individuals with significant mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, exhibit a distinct "island of genius" that sharply contrasts with their overall limitations. Regardless of the specific savant skill, it consistently correlates with an extraordinary memory capacity.
When asked about Asperger's on stage at the TED2022 conference in Vancouver, Canada, he confirmed having the condition, which makes him “bad at picking up social cues.”
He said, that while growing up, “the social cues were not intuitive. I would just tend to take things very literally … but then that turned out to be wrong — [people were not] simply saying exactly what they mean, there's all sorts of other things that are meant, and [it] took me a while to figure that out,” he recalled.
In 2021, when he hosted “Saturday Night Live”, he casually admitted: “I’m actually making history now, as the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL… or at least the first to admit it.”
He added: "To anyone who I’ve offended, I just want to say I reinvented electric cars, and I'm sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”
How the condition has impacted Musk’s life and projects has been also tackled in the just-released book “Elon Musk” penned by writer-journalist Walter Isaacson, which hit the market Tuesday.
According to the US group Autism Speaks, people or children with Asperger Syndrome — or “high functioning autism” — have IQs that fall in the normal or even superior range, compared to children with classical autism.
Nevertheless, they encounter challenges in recognising and articulating their emotions, as well as forming connections with others, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
Roughly 1.5 million people with ASD are expected to reach adulthood in the next decade and poised to enter the workplace in unprecedented numbers.
Research has revealed that many adults with "hidden disabilities" like Asperger's tend to keep them hidden in their professional lives to evade stigmatisation and the possibility of facing discrimination.
In China, where the book was translated into Chinese, Publisher Citic Press Group had raised the book’s selling price to 79 yuan ($10.84) on Monday, up from 59 yuan previously. Online retailer JD.com’s app Tuesday shows that versions of Musk's biography in Chinese held the top three spots in the category of most popular finance and economics biographies.
Musk runs some of the most disruptive corporate entities, like AI-driven robots on four wheels (Tesla), underground travel (The Boring Co), private space trips (SpaceX), brain chip implants (Neuralink), broadband internet (Starlink) — he is, by default, also a cultural and social media icon (with Twitter/X).
• Talking incessantly about a single topic and not noticing that others are not listening
• Not making eye contact when speaking to others
• Rarely changing facial expression
• Specific, narrow, unusual interests
• Becoming upset if routines or plans change
• Difficulty determining when a person is joking
• Anxiety and depression
However, some characteristics of Asperger’s may be considered strengths, such as:
• Ability to focus
• Ability to recognise patterns
• Attention to detail
(Source: Dr. John P, Cunha , US board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician)
Challenges of high-functioning autism
When asked about a potential link between his companies and Asperger’s, Musk said it’s “certainly possible” that it was valuable from a technology standpoint. “I found it rewarding to spend all night programming computers, just by myself. … But I think that is not normal.”
He said he also became “obsessed” with physics and trying to figure out the meaning of life. “My driving philosophy is to expand the scope and scale of consciousness so that we may better understand the nature of the universe.”
Isaacson, who earlier penned “Steve Jobs”, “Leonardo da Vinci”, “The Code Breaker” (Jennifer Doudna) and other bestselling biographies, offers deep insights into Musk’s childhood in this inside story that brims with fascinating vignettes of both victories and challenges.
Isaacson portrays Musk as a “man-child” who, during his childhood in South Africa, endured relentless bullying, until he reached a point where he could stand up to his tormentors.
“One day, a group pushed him down some concrete steps and kicked him until his face was a swollen ball of flesh. He was in the hospital for a week. But the physical scars were minor compared to the emotional ones inflicted by his father, an engineer, rogue, and charismatic fantasist,” Isaacson writes.
Musk 'lacks empathy'
The people closest to him will attest that Musk lacks empathy — something that Isaacson describes as a “gene” that’s “hard-wired.”
The book is a product of Isaacson's shadowing of Musk for two years.
He was even given a peek at emails and texts, attended his meetings, walked his factories with him, and engaged in “scores of interviews and late-night conversations” with him, his family, friends, coworkers, we well as adversaries.
“His father’s impact on his psyche would linger,” Isaacson writes. “He developed into a tough yet vulnerable man-child, prone to abrupt Jekyll-and-Hyde mood swings, with an exceedingly high tolerance for risk, a craving for drama, an epic sense of mission, and a maniacal intensity that was callous and at times destructive.”
“At the beginning of 2022 — after a year marked by SpaceX launching thirty-one rockets into orbit, Tesla selling a million cars, and him becoming the richest man on earth — Musk spoke ruefully about his compulsion to stir up dramas. ‘I need to shift my mindset away from being in crisis mode, which it has been for about fourteen years now, or arguably most of my life,’ he said.
“It was a wistful comment, not a New Year’s resolution. Even as he said it, he was secretly buying up shares of Twitter, the world’s ultimate playground.”
"Over the years, whenever he was in a dark place, his mind went back to being bullied on the playground. Now he had the chance to own the playground," Isaacson writes.
As the founder of numerous companies, acknowledging the influence of Asperger's — given the relatively few known examples of successful business leaders with the condition — Musk's revelation and his latest biography may inspire the next generation of young adults with Asperger’s syndrome.
Isaacson then poses the question: Do the inner demons propelling Musk also serve as the driving force behind the innovation and advancement he has unleashed so far?
Interestingly, Isaacson observed that buying Twitter, now X, was "insane." The reason: Because Musk "doesn't have empathy."
The author believes it arises from a fundamental mistake: Musk wrongly thought Twitter was a tech company, when in reality it's primarily an ad business based on human emotions.
Musk has other plans for X, though; he envisions turning it into an "everything app," along the lines of WeChat, because in the West and outside China, there's nothing like it.
X as a money spinner?
WeChat generates significant revenue through its integrated services, including advertising, payments, and e-commerce. By turning X into a similar platform, Musk could tap into a variety of revenue streams beyond traditional advertising.
It’s one thing for X, upgraded as a super-social-payments tool, to get past regulatory hurdles (it has already secured money transmission licence in multiple US states); it’s quite another whether or not users would embrace it by the hundreds of millions everywhere.
X has a new CEO, Linda Yaccarino. Musk, whose core competence is that of a coder, continues to work on product design and new tech. His arrival has resulted in blue checks, scrubbing of tonnes of bot accounts, significantly reducing child sexual abuse content, allowing "long-form" tweets, while also bumping the number of active X users to 550+ million.
If the legions on X do embrace it for payments, the platform has immense potential to become a huge money-spinner; in which case, Musk's $44-billion Twitter buyout would prove a great bargain, and its transition to X an insanely brilliant move.