Why Elon Musk's brain is different to yours
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Why Elon Musk's brain is different to yours

Entrepreneur Elon Musk has been buffeted by a lot of self-created turbulence lately, what with his apparently unsupported assertion that he had a deal lined up to take electric-car maker Tesla private, his creepy ongoing Twitter battle over the cave rescue of a youth soccer team in Thailand, and his joint-smoking appearance on a comedian's podcast last Thursday night, which was followed the next morning by the news that Tesla's chief accounting officer and head of human resources were both quitting.

Melissa Schilling, a management professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, has been watching Musk's escapades with great interest. That's partly because, well, they're interesting, but also because she recently wrote a book called "Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World," and Musk is one of the eight innovators whose traits, foibles and genius she focused on. So is Nikola Tesla, who along with being the guy Musk named his car company after was the developer of, among other things, alternating electric current and wireless communication. The other six are Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs and Dean Kamen, and the book is more serious and revealing than its title (or that list of luminaries) may make it sound. So I asked Schilling on Friday to put Musk's recent behaviour in perspective; what follows is an edited transcript of our phone conversation.

Justin Fox: You seem to have gotten to like Elon Musk over the course of researching and writing this book. So does his behavior over the past few weeks fill you with sadness, amusement, concern, fear?

Melissa Schilling: When you study these serial breakthrough innovators, you'll discover that a lot of them are what in management we would call "low self-monitors," meaning they don't monitor their persona or the way they present themselves very carefully. This is actually relevant to their ability to generate unusual ideas and to persist in the face of criticism. A person who cares a lot what people think of them is a person that's going to make concessions when people disagree with their ideas. They're going to be a little bit less bold, they're going to be a little bit more conflict-avoidant. All of these people I studied were people who didn't make concessions, and it's part of why they were able to persist in pursuing really unusual and important ideas. But it does detract from their ability to be persuasive or be considered legitimate or to get their ideas assimilated.

So I would say, on the one hand, I haven't been very surprised. I have been a little bit sad mostly because I worry that people's perception of Musk as a person will get in the way of him getting support for the kind of work he wants to do. Fundamentally, he wants to work on things that that help humanity and help the earth. He is really, really committed to that cause.

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JF: One of the key traits that you've identified across all of these people, but you end up using Elon Musk as the main example, is extreme confidence or self-efficacy.

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MS: Almost all of these innovators exhibited what would have been considered hubris, except that once they deliver on something, it's not considered hubris anymore, it's considered self-efficacy. They almost all were considered quite arrogant. Even Marie Curie was considered arrogant, not in an outspoken way like Jobs or Musk, but arrogant in that she was going to persist in doing things despite the fact that, as a woman, she wasn't particularly welcome in business or science. She basically told the world to go to hell, she was going to do it anyway. Almost everybody I studied, if you recorded all of the things they said and made them publicly available, there would have been many people who didn't like them.

JF: If Thomas Edison had been on Twitter …

MS: People would have hated him. You know, he electrocuted something like 36 dogs just to prove a point. There would've been people burning his house down if he'd been on Twitter.

JF: You say it seems like hubris, but then they back it up. But is there a danger of veering into outright delusion, of thinking you can do things that actually you can't?

FA new book studies the personalities of some of the greatest , and most controversial, innovators in history, including Thomas Edison.

FA new book studies the personalities of some of the greatest , and most controversial, innovators in history, including Thomas Edison.

Photo: AP

MS: Nikola Tesla more than anyone else exhibits this axiom that the line between hubris and self-efficacy is just whether or not you deliver. Most of the things that Tesla said he would do, when he said he would do them, people said he was a dreamer. They said he was a visionary, which at the time was not a compliment. They thought he was completely delusional. But then when he delivered on a very large percentage of them, you know, everything changed.

JF: There were certain things he wasn't able to deliver on.

MS: It was not technological obstacles but usually capital obstacles for him. He didn't know how to manage money, really. He didn't know how to manage businesses and he wasn't always very strategic. In fact, he was almost never strategic.

JF: He was, however, unbelievably creative, which is another one of your key traits. Obviously Musk's technological advances aren't really at the same level as Tesla's breakthroughs, but you do seem to think those two in particular have a lot in common in their thought processes.

MS: They're both incredibly gifted and they both have this intense visual memory. In the case of Tesla, they said he had an eidetic memory, which is almost like a visual trace of things. It was so strong he couldn't even tell the difference between things he was remembering and things that were actually in front of him. He often thought he was hallucinating growing up, but it turned out to be eidetic memory. It's something that a fair number of children have up to the age of around 6 or so, but they outgrow it. He just didn't outgrow it.

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JF: With Tesla, you also talk about atypical brain chemistry and high levels of dopamine.

MS: If we had Tesla on the couch today, he would get a diagnosis of certainly mania, possibly bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder - actually, almost certainly obsessive-compulsive disorder, because he had to circle buildings three times before he would go into them, and he had to divide the mass of his food by its cubic root and wouldn't eat it unless it came to a perfect cubic root, and he had to wear gloves all the time, wash his hands all the time. He had lots and lots of strange aversions and phobias.

But in terms of his creativity, the thing that's most obvious is that he had really elevated dopamine. That dramatically elevated dopamine, first of all, it makes you run harder. You're thinking fast for long periods of time, you can't sleep and you're making lots of divergent associations. Thoughts will come in waterfalls; torrents of ideas will come in rapid succession. The evidence that you have for it with him that's particularly explicit is that he had this acute sensitivity to stimuli, meaning that lights burned his eyes and little tiny sounds would hurt his ears and he had to work in a room with blackout curtains. He worked mostly at night, and during the day he would have blackout curtains and he hardly ever slept. All of these are very clear indicators of radically elevated dopamine, which again is part of mania. Dopamine is also connected to schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. So with him, you can really see very clearly that connection between genius and madness.

And the funny thing is that once you see it in him, then it alerts you to go looking for the clues in the other people, and suddenly you see it in all of them. I had speculated in the book, which probably got submitted at least a year and a half ago, that they all had dysregulated dopamine. Then, a few months later, Elon Musk said something on Twitter about probably having a bit of bipolar disorder, which is exactly dysregulated dopamine. So it's kind of cool that you can connect all these dots and then have Elon come out and basically verify it for you.

JF: You've already mentioned this, but a key trait in most of these people was idealism. You're convinced that Musk's really in this to save the world.

MS: He's keenly idealistic. He had about $US180 million ($253 million) back when he was making the decision to start up SpaceX and Tesla, and he knew full well how risky these ventures were. He knew he could lose all that money. He said to Scott Pelley on TV, if something's important enough, even if the probable outcome is failure, you should do it anyway. He already had money. He'd already ticked that box, and so he started looking around for things that he could do that he thought would meaningfully change the world. SpaceX and Tesla are really about an idealistic goal, and that's why he's so fierce on his convictions about things, even when it's not always rational or pragmatic.

JF: I keep bringing up Tesla, and it's partly that Elon Musk named his car company after him, but Tesla was super-idealistic, and most of the things he wanted to create eventually came to fruition, but he didn't get rich off any of them, and a lot of them he didn't even get credit for, at least not until relatively recently.

MS: I won't say that he was purely selfless, because he wanted people to know that he had been first to do the things that he did first, but he was not materialistic and not financially savvy at all, not savvy about locking down ownership of the intellectual property that he created.

JF: So Elon Musk is more sophisticated about those kinds of things than Tesla.

MS: Way more sophisticated.

JF: How's it all going to turn out?

MS: Here's the thing that I think is kind of interesting to speculate on. I have gotten into a few Twitter feuds about Tesla's Model 3 and Elon's production goals and all these people who are short-selling the stock. The thing that I've always made clear is, you don't have to worry about Model 3; Model 3 is going to be successful. In fact, I'd argue it already is. According to Inside EVs, Model 3 is the No. 1-selling electric vehicle in the United States by a huge margin. And the next two bestselling electric vehicles are also Teslas. Model 3 is already hitting a production rate that's pretty close to 5,000 a week, and it's going to make money. The teardowns on it suggests that the margins are really good and actually much better than average gross margins on auto manufacturing. So you shouldn't be worried about Model 3.

If you're a stockholder, what you should be worried about is that you don't know what he's going to do next, right? He's not in this for the money. So if you're in it for the money, your goals are not aligned with his. Because if Model 3 is profitable, he may very well - in fact, I'd put money on it - take the profit from Model 3 and put it into the next thing he thinks is important to change about the world. So will Tesla ever become a dividend-paying company? I wouldn't lay odds on it, not with Musk at the helm. But having said all that, I'm really glad he's doing it. I'm glad someone like him is bold enough to do the kinds of projects he's doing.

Bloomberg