Health Magazine

Elon Musk and Asperger's Syndrome

By Gbollard @gbollard

I've just finished reading the 2016 biography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance. It's a great read and I'd highly recommend it but this post is not a book review - and it's not a person review either. I'm not being judgemental. 

Elon Musk has many traits which identify him as having Asperger's syndrome and I wanted to discuss how these traits help and hinder him because I see some of these traits in myself and others. Having a very visible and imperfect role model is a great thing and Asperger's and autistic kids in upcoming generations will benefit greatly from an understanding of Elon. 

About the Book

Since the book is the primary reason for my interest and it's such a great read, I want to start with a recommendation. I initially bought it for my dad but he convinced me to read it too. I'm a busy guy, so I got the audio book version. My kids are reading it now. 

Elon Musk and Asperger's Syndrome

The Book is: Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future by Ashlee Vance 2016. It's available from bookstores including Amazon and the Google Play Store.

Does Elon Musk have Asperger's Syndrome?

At one point in the book, Ashlee directly addresses people who claim that Elon has Asperger's saying that it's not as simple as this. It was pretty clear to me as a reader that Ashlee didn't have a very good understanding of Asperger's syndrome.

Maybe Elon wasn't familiar with Aspergers when the book was released in 2016 but when he hosted Saturday Night Live in 2021, he told viewers that he was "the first person with Asperger's" to host it. That's enough for me. 

Prior to reading this book, I thought Elon was an amusing person with outrageous ideas and a tendency to speak before thinking. After reading the book, I realize that I completely misjudged him and I have great respect for him. The fact that Asperger's is so key to both his genius and the problematic perception of him is what inspired me to write this post. I see things in Elon that I've seen in many other people on the spectrum. 

How Asperger's Helps

One of the greatest strengths of Asperger's is the concentration of learning and expertise around a special interest. In Elon's case, this special interest is in the "saving of the planet". That's a pretty broad area. Most of Elon Musk's key businesses, particularly Tesla and SpaceX are concentrated around this special interest. In the case of Telsa, it's about using renewable energy while in the case of SpaceX, it's directed towards the eventual establishment of a backup plan, specifically, a colony on Mars. This broad special interest ensures that Elon is an expert across a massive array of disciplines and that his understanding is far deeper than that of the average CEO. This gets him a lot of respect from his workforce and ensures that having him involved in meetings and decisions will lead to better outcomes. 
They say that aspies attract other aspies and I've found that to be true in my own life. One of the interesting things about Elon's companies is that he tends to find a lot of amazing like-minded deep-thinking staff. Part of this is certainly due to his recruitment practices and his ability to "talk-shop" but I think it's also that he creates a very "aspie-friendly" environment and that he surrounds himself with people who are unique in their own ways. It's interesting to see how Elon spends his downtime. Among other things, he's a gaming enthusiast and the book told of how he would sometimes convert his factories into gaming hubs after hours to play against his workers. This would have made him more approachable as a CEO. One of the hallmarks of Asperger's syndrome is that aspies have a unique way of looking at problems. It's what neurotypicals refer to as "thinking outside the box". In Elons' case, many of his greatest advances have been made because he refuses to simply accept conventional thinking and tries to resolve things on his own terms. This was particularly evident in the way he sought components for SpaceX, where he decided that the notion that going to space was extremely expensive needed to be challenged - and when others were unable to deliver, he took on the manufacturing duties in a traditionally outsourced area. The same insight applied at Tesla when he decided that he wanted a "sexy car" - not just one  that was "electric" and then went on to make it an extremely practical vehicle as well. Today, these seem like fairly obvious decisions but when they were made, they were radical choices and gave his companies a real edge on the competition. Perfectionism is also a common Asperger's trait. It can lead to giant problems as things never get released on time due to constant refinements. This is true of many of the Tesla and SpaceX features on which Elon refused to compromise. In both cases, this drive to produced a perfect product almost bankrupted him but through a combination of luck, skill and ingenuity, it worked - and, as intended, it produced clearly superior products.

How Asperger's Hinders

Meltdowns are a key part of Asperger's syndrome. It doesn't mean that people with Aspergers become violent necessarily but rather than their reactions to everyday failings and bad news can be more extreme than others. Often this results in impulsive behaviour, which could be physical violence or equally, particularly in Elon's case, "grammatical violence". 
Elon is well known for his very direct and expletive filled emails. tweets and verbal outbursts. These unfortunately have cost him in a number of ways, from the loss of good people to the loss of business, investor or boardroom faith. In some cases, these outbursts have had legal repercussions. 
Having good administration and communications staff can make a great difference to the reception of strongly-worded messages and it was clear that Elon needed them in his early days. Recently however, Elon has handled most of his communications himself and while the results are still mixed, they're improving. 
People with Asperger's syndrome often lack people skills. They're so results focused that they forget to make small talk. This seems to be the case with Elon and in his first couple of companies, it cost him his CEO position. Ashlee's book recounts an incident in Russia where this lack of small talk almost cost Elon a whole lot more. 
Interestingly, between PayPal and his subsequent ventures, it seems that Elon began to understand this problem and has actively been working on it. He still seems to be a difficult person to work for, with little understanding that others need a little downtime but it also shows that people with Asperger's can change and improve themselves in this regard. 

Lessons Learned

There are a lot of important lessons in Elon Musk's work for people with Asperger's syndrome. The most key of these are:
  • Follow your special interest - The broader your special interest is, the better. If your special interest seems to be something you can't monetize, then broaden it into something that you can.
  • Work on your people skills - These are one of the weaker areas for people with Aspergers's but with work, you can improve. You'll need good people skills to survive in the workforce.
  • Find Like-Minded Friends - You can't do everything on your own. Look out for people who seem to have similar skills and drive to yourselves. 
  • Get Control over your Meltdowns - Meltdowns are bad for business. Work on early detection and if you think you're being overstimulated, withdraw from company. You should never make important decisions or send company-wide emails or tweets when you're in a meltdown state. 
I want to end with a recommendation of both Elon Musk himself, as he's an excellent role model, and Ashlee Vance's book, which makes for great reading. In the words of Chancellor Palpatine, "we'll follow your career with great interest.."
--Note: I've used the word Asperger's throughout this post instead of the "currently more acceptable" term: autism because Asperger's is the word that Elon used to describe himself. 

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