A New American Hero

Is it possible to be widely admired anymore?

20 years ago, we were in the middle of a love affair with Steve Jobs. He was widely viewed as a risk-taking visionary pushing the world to incredible breakthroughs. Today the full picture of him is in view—the phones that command our constant attention, the family and friend messes he left behind—his humanity is visible to us all. And, hence, he has become a mixed hero—loved by some, questioned by others. The same seems to be happening to all of our past heroes.

Politics has emerged as a litmus test on any achievement or personality. Inevitable weaknesses are just new opportunities to make a point. Everything today is a political Rorschach test, from the food we eat to the movies we watch. And our heroic personalities are under the most scrutiny.

Elon Musk is the latest example that mystifies me. Here you have an entrepreneur who has devoted his life to solving some of our hardest problems: clean energy, space exploration and mass transportation to name just a few. And he is delivering the goods.

He has built the greenest car in the world—which also happens to be the best car in the world (Car and Driver says the best car EVER). He has reduced the cost of building rockets and launching satellites by 90%. He has more than doubled the world’s efficiency and output of batteries (the missing link to make renewable energy widely viable). It’s an unprecedented track record—and that doesn’t even include PayPal, the Boring Company or Neural Link. In truth, he makes Steve Jobs look like a slacker.

Why isn’t America in love with Elon Musk?

Elon Musk

Surely there are things to question. In Musk, you have a brash billionaire who has utter disdain for naysayers and their outdated “expertise.” His confidence is outsized and lack of respect for conventional wisdom infamous.

But, America’s skepticism of Musk is surely rooted in politics. We just can’t escape applying a political lens to him (or anyone) and in this case, our partisans find lots to loathe in him.

The left sees him as another arrogant Silicon Valley bro—an egomaniac workaholic building toys for the rich in pursuit of his own growing fortune. They see a caustic style that runs off executives and drives employees to exhaustion. A faux environmentalist who greenwashes attempts to solve the climate crisis. A neo-liberal Davos man with a Trumpian style running roughshod as if the world was his personal sandbox.

The right sees a crony capitalist living off bailouts and tax subsidies, building unprofitable cars on the citizen’s dime all while subverting the American icons of business—Exxon, Ford, Boeing and the rest. They see an idealist selling a pipe dream of a move to a new energy world and denying the hope embedded in the cheap energy of the fracking revolution. A coastal elite selling an overblown climate crisis all in an effort to dictate people’s life choices—namely, your SUV or pickup.

But, like in most things, these extreme views can’t see the forest for the trees. They are grounded in vested interests and narrow agendas and not seeing the bigger vision (and execution) of Musk’s ambition.

Flat out, I think Elon Musk will be the most impactful person of this generation. Who else is even in the running? He represents a sneak peek of what progress can look like in a post-internet, global world.

What else do we want in our heroes in this era:

A physicist who actually invents crazy new things from rocket blasters, to high performing drivetrains, to massive battery cells.

An environmentalist who isn’t all gloom and doom, building products for a better future not a return to the past.

A businessman guided by mission, not just a viable money-making model, but using great advances to change the underlying operating system of humanity for the better.

A citizen who has gotten government help, but only to accelerate a vision for the betterment of all—an embodiment of the centrist model gone right: temporary public help, long term private execution at the whim of market forces.

Finally, he has done it as an immigrant who risked 100% of his fortune—going into debt, working all hours, driving to success 24/7. All for his ego? I don’t buy it, but does it matter? Is this not the embodiment of a core American idea—crazy pioneers risking it all for the next thing? Should we not be in awe?

Of course, this level of accomplishment doesn’t come for free. Why the drama and showmanship? Why the arrogance? Why the occasional Trumpian approach: the aloofness, the infallibility and the evisceration of opponents?

Can you get new disruptive answers from the harmonious? Disagreeableness just might be part of the package. George Bernard Shaw saw it clearly: “All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Defiance goes hand in hand with disruption. We can’t have it all and should stop expecting it. We can obsess over his faults (and anyone else’s), but where will we find hope if perfection is the bar? How can we ever have heroes if we expect saints?

Of course, rule-breakers need to be held to account. Defiance alone is not enough. Disrespect without delivering won’t hold up. Ranting and intimidating will fool for only so long. History will have a clearer perspective and real impact will emerge. We don’t have to root for jerks, but can’t we root for those literally shooting for the stars who happen to have an edge? I am sure rooting for Elon Musk. And, hoping for more heroes like him to emerge.