Why is there only one Elon Musk? Why is there so much low-hanging fruit?


Been thinking about this tweet of mine a lot lately: https://twitter.com/alexeyguzey/status/1260212436977823747


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Musk was able to keep an independent viewpoint because he made his money very quickly in one of the most lucrative frontier environments in human history. He may have not been capable of succeeding in a system that required compromising one’s values over a long period to succeed.


These are all very good points. Yes, I’ve been noticing this thought pattern creep as well.

re: stakeholder constraints – an alternative way of looking at this is that this is exactly what gets the founders the outcomes they are interested in and by participating you are in fact agreeing to follow their vision to an extent, which of course applies anytime you join something as a non-founding member… and if the founders’ vision is good, then perhaps it makes sense for many people to work on them and to try to realize them!

I collected my thoughts on it here. Gist is that the traits that makeup Musk are highly disagreeable and the cost of allowing disagreeable traits might be higher than we should accept from most people. Thus we end up clipping the disagreeable wings of those people that it would be beneficial to tolerate it from. Might this tradeoff be acceptable in the aggregate?

Hmm this post is kind of depressing to me but incredibly insightful and also inspiring in ways.

I think Pioneer and Emergent Ventures arre significant progress on this though.

it’s a tragedy that some very capable people convince themselves that there’s no way they can make an impact on something they truly care about or can’t figure out what they care about in the first place. One way out of this is spending time with and trying to draw specific actionable conclusions out of Aaron Swartz’s Theory of Change

Interesting point. A lot of people I knew in academia went into research wanting to make a difference (sometimes in a specific area) but without a plan of action. But the people who stuck around and were successful seemed to all have a clear Theory of Change for their own careers which they followed relentlessly, often at the exclusion of working on, or even attempting to identify, what they cared about.

99th percentile of ambition

I think that the common understanding of ambition focuses on speed rather than direction. When one hasn’t yet figured out what they care about it may be better to focus on that (and/or acquiring resources to act on their cause when they identify it). My impression is that most start-up founders try to go fast in the direction that they think they can make the most progress, even if it isn’t something they really care about (or they are just in it for the money). Although conversely, some people who know what they care about seem to pursue it in very low-leverage ways. Musk seems to have been very good at picking the right direction then going fast - I don’t how much of this was down to planning or luck.


I think you need to take a more historical view. Historically there have been bursts of progress at certain times and places, but mostly (default) stasis. So human nature tends toward stasis, but sometimes the right historical situation arises for faster progress. That being the case, it’s not about particular people per se who have exceptional traits, though that is necessary. Rather, those traits exists, but need the right historical situation against their talents to have a match that results in genius.

In other words, if you rerun the tape of history again with slight butterfly flapping changes, it’s unclear if Einstein emerges or merely stays a patent clerk. I’m quite sure that Steve Jobs had just the right historical contingent situation. If run again, he might have launched the Apple II, but I doubt the Mac, and certainly not the iPhone. And Musk is similar of course. He got in the right contingent place at the right time, with the right peers (PayPal mafia), so his natural talents and ambitions got channeled into greatness.

But bigger picture, I agree with your thesis but would state it differently. Let’s go back through history for the past 30 years, and select the top 10 geniuses. BY DEFINITION, by the selection criteria itself, they are at the extreme in their traits. If you select the top 10 out of (let’s call it a round) 10 billion people, then those top 10 will be…wait for it…10 out of a 10 billion in percentile. Or 1 in a billion. Shocker! The math solves itself! :slight_smile:

@ntaylor963 The point about math solving itself is of course true but this line of reasoning still is very good at illustration why there are so few people who are good at many things, even though there are a ton of people around…

@guzey What makes you think he is really good at many things? As in starting successful tech companies kind of good—agreed, true, but he’s an engineer after all. There are tens if not hundreds people like him. I think the Elon Musk phenomena is quite self-explanatory if you look at him and his twitter. A beautiful powerful wealthy man with a sense of humor questioning authority. I can’t think of anything he lacks in terms of popularity factors.

But those random intrigues regarding future features of his products? It impacts the market in seconds. Oh, and he has an army of fans, who never seen him bald, don’t believe in anything controversial about him, never heard about half a bil in tax breaks from California (maybe even more) nor that he has 54% of his Tesla shares (~$15 billion) as collateral in loans (another half a bil).

Don’t know if I want another Elon Musk, honestly. I just hope this one won’t stop delivering. Not trying to cancel him: I admire how reactive he is, how he dictates what the future will look like and especially how the world reacts, speeding up the progress. But I don’t think there should be more people, who could manipulate the state of economy that easily. I doubt Elon is the problem, though :)

UPD. Mhm, I brushed my memory on the post and figured me jumping on Elon was absolutely unnecessary. Well, now I think about that Scott Alexander post—The Parable Of The Talents. Basically, my idea now is that combination of “really good at languages” and “really good at math” is extremely rare. Maybe multiple people starting a successful company is more common, because everyone utilizes what they’re best at? But Elon seems to have problems when he speaks, interesting…

Come on, he is not just starting successful tech companies… He started 3 companies in totally different areas and literally revolutionized several industries. Tesla alone is worth several times more than the entire YC

Couple of reasons:

There are probably more Elons than we think exist, but they’re in unsexy industries nobody writes about. There’s lots of stuff that’s not quite as public-facing as Tesla or SpaceX, but still pretty important to your day - insurance, computer chips, construction, etc. - that have world-changing capacity, and there’s definitely people who excel in at least two somewhat disparate fields.

If we define Elons as people who work in sexy groundbreaking fields (which makes sense bc that’s part of what people love about him) that narrows it down quite a bit though. If you’re a potential Elon, and you see the current Elon, do you reason that EMH is right, you can’t usurp Elon’s throne, and take your talents to a different field? Do you make a two-step plan?

This could even be the right choice - Elon’s got a fair bunch of tax stuff and tech breaking in his favor that several other incumbents are now getting to, the new Toyota battery as an example. We’re pretty confident in Elon now but if his companies lose to competitors we might think he’s lacking some of these unique traits, namely the business acumen that winning competitors are assumed to possess. Tesla would, unfortunately, be the perfect name for that losing company ;)

Interesting thought experiment would be to invert “Why is Elon Musk abnormal along these traits?” and “What makes people normal along these traits” and we get to suss out the nature/nurture debate again, something I think this this and adjacent communities do in regards to schooling, which is often a two-step plan writ large.

(This might not be bad - the optimal number of Elons might be one, but you know I doubt it, due to @voice_of_raisin shareholder constraints amongst people who want more Elons :smile: )

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The smartest people I know usually also have really strong values and end up getting depressed and killing themselves because the world is so dishonest or becoming addicts/sex workers so I think you just need to combine it with a chip on the shoulder from getting repeatedly beaten up as a kid or having an awful home life or something like that.

But once it becomes possible to earn money under a pseudonym with no in-person social interaction we’ll probably see an astonishing number of these people appear as if from nowhere.

I reckon about 10k ultrasmart people (i.e. hardware level at about the level of the smartest person you are likely to ever meet, although it may not have manifested in a visible way) kill themselves per year effectively just because the world is dishonest, does that sound right?

Without checking the exact figures seems reasonable that 1 in 10k raw intelligence has 1 in 100 chance of suicide per year; from a population size of 10B?

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