Changing My Mind About Elon

PART 1 :: Changing my mind

I first stumbled across Elon Musk in early 2015, when both Tesla and SpaceX were exciting companies, seemingly committed to solving big challenges. Musk’s ‘real life Tony Stark’ persona was a key part of the story. He truly did seem to be ‘The World’s Raddest Man‘.

Turns out, he isn’t.

Being in the public eye will always bring criticism, but evidence is growing that Musk is more than just a bit of a douchebag. Recent comments mocking disabilities and defending Scott Adams’ racist tirade are just the latest in a long line of events that demonstrate a distinctly unpleasant side to Musk’s character.

And so, I’ve changed my mind about him and his companies. I was a bit of Musk fanboy … now, I find myself using him as an example of what not to do. The way to run a company is not to simply demand everyone work harder. Instead, we need more collaboration. You can’t just insult anyone who disagrees with you. Instead, we need more compassion. The solution to our environmental crisis is not to zoom off and ‘Occupy Mars’. Instead, we need more understanding of systems and complexity.

It can be hard to roll back from previously held beliefs. There was a time when a secret goal of mine was to travel to Mars on a SpaceX rocket … but that now seems rather silly. I now think that far from being an aspirational figure, Musk is a symptom of what we are getting wrong.

I had an opinion. I learned some new information. My opinion changed – my thinking evolved.

Evolution is inevitable. The question is – do we ignore it, and become stagnant and stale, rooted in old ideas?

Or adapt, and recognise that change is how we learn and develop – how we move forward?

PART 2 :: Acknowledging complexity

Musk is clearly a larger than life character, and has recently come out with some reprehensible comments … but is that all he is? Can he be summarised by his tweets?

No – of course not. Musk is not only his ‘personal brand’ [which is essentially what used to be called ‘reputation’], he is also CEO of two extraordinary organisations. It’s hard to separate him from the companies he runs, but it’s worth considering their impact. Tesla redefined the car industry. SpaceX redefined space exploration. And Musk has been a powerful force in both.

He is both a visionary – and a bully. He both advocates for EVs – and uses private planes. He is both the richest person in the world [well, sometimes, depending on current stock prices] – and the World Record holder for “largest loss of personal fortune in history”.

The risk is trying to oversimplify – to not acknowledge the complexity. The temptation is to take the binary route: genius or demon, this or that, black or white … but that’s not how it works. We all have multiple facets to our identity, and each of those facets will evolve – at different times, and in different ways. I will change. You will change. Musk will change.

While the nature of his recent bullying and racist remarks are enough for me to no longer consider him a positive influence on the world, I recognise that there are always [at least] two sides to every story. And that stories adapt over time.

And so, I reserve the right to change my mind. [Again.]

PART 3 :: Why do I think this?

Changing my mind about Musk has been relatively painless. His comments and actions over the last couple of years have made him almost a parody of himself. It’s easy to un-like someone who seemingly throws an ugly tantrum when someone disagrees with them. As progress on the climate crisis stalls time and again, the idea of becoming an “inter-planetary species” seems increasingly irrelevant.

But what about changing our mind when things are less clear cut? When it’s about something we hold as part of our identity? While I was a ‘fan’ of Musk, I don’t own the t-shirt, or have a tattoo of a SpaceX rocket on my arm – moving on was pretty easy. I like American Football, and have followed the 49ers for decades. While it’s hard for me to imagine supporting another team, it doesn’t seem impossible … but there are also fans for whom changing their sporting allegiance would be the worst form of treachery.

Then there’s the biggies – politics and religion. How many people change which political party they vote for? How many people change their religion? Even posing those two questions can make us feel uncomfortable. Our political and religious views often sit at the very core of how we see ourselves, and the tiniest of challenges can feel like an assault on who we are.

When we find ourselves getting defensive around a belief or opinion we hold, it can be worth considering a couple of questions:

  • Why do I think this?
  • Is it still true for me?

It’s not that we should be constantly bouncing from one idea to the next – indeed, there is much to be said for having consistent, foundational values that don’t change. However, being open to the possibility of changing our minds – even on some of our most deeply held ideas – is a useful skill to develop.

PART 4 :: Why do you think that?

Being open to changing our minds is a good thing – but what do we do when someone sees it differently to us? How might we behave? Can we bridge the gaps? If so, how?

Our level of certainty plays a key role. When two people are both certain they are ‘right’, conflict is often the result. And the more certain we are, the uglier it gets.

When we disagree, a way forward is to ask ‘why?’ – from both sides. Why do I think this? Why do you think that? What knowledge, views and experiences have brought us to our conclusions?

This doesn’t mean we are always changing our minds – one possible outcome is to end up disagreeing agreeably. However, whether at work or in our personal lives, a conversation that doesn’t begin from a place of mutual respect and openness is not likely to end well – and will likely leave both sides even more firmly entrenched in their beliefs.

Having effective healing conversations takes time, humility, patience – and willingness on both sides. If these elements are not present, we can find ourselves going round in circles … but when they are present, it is possible to bridge seemingly insurmountable differences.

It starts with letting go of our certainty.

PART 5 :: Why does it matter?

All this talk about ‘changing my mind’ … why does it even matter?

We’re living in a world of ever-increasing polarisation, where it can seem like our choices are limited to the extremes. You’re either a bloodthirsty carnivore or a tree-hugging vegan. A science-denying Neanderthal or banner-waving activist. Greedy capitalist or woke socialist. Everything gets reduced to a binary ‘this or that‘.

Myriad forces are pushing us in this direction, preying on our basic human tendency to take the path of least resistance. Our brains are wired to choose the easy option, so when presented with a complex problem we focus on the catchy strapline rather than engage with the nuance. Then once we’ve ‘picked a side’ that becomes part of our identity, and it takes an uncommon blend of courage and vulnerability to step back and say, “Hmm, I might be changing my mind here.”

Certainty makes things simple. It’s comfortable to surround ourselves with people the same as us and say “We’re right. Do this, not that.”

Uncertainty is complex. It feels uncomfortable to be with people who see the world differently to us and say “It depends. Maybe it’s both?”

It’s not easy – nothing important ever is – but we can start with being open and curious, rather than closed and hostile. When we look for the similarities rather than the differences, we can begin to move away from confrontation and towards collaboration.

And If we’re going to effectively respond to the challenges ahead of us, then extraordinary collaboration is what we need.

Then again … maybe I’m wrong about all this?!


Weekly [digital] email to help navigate the [analogue] world …

Weekly [digital] email to help navigate the [analogue] world …