Natural Maniacs

I’m going to try to explain Elon Musk’s behavior. First, a story about fighter pilots.

John Boyd was probably the greatest fighter pilot to ever live. He revolutionized his field more than anyone before or since. A manual he wrote, Aerial Attack Study, incorporated as much math into the science of fighting maneuvers as the engineers who built the planes use themselves. His insights were simple but powerful. In one, Boyd realized a tactical advantage was not how fast or high a plane could fly, but how quickly it could change course and begin climbing – a discovery that changed not only how pilots thought, but how planes were built. He was as close to a flying savant as they come: Boyd’s manual – most of it written in his 20s – became the official tactics guide of fighter pilots. It’s still used today.

Boyd is known as one of the most influential thinkers in military history. He’s also described, as the New York Times once wrote, as “A virtual nonperson … even in the Air Force.”

That’s because as smart as Boyd was, he was a maniac. Rude. Erratic. Disobedient. Impatient. He talked back to superiors to the astonishment of his peers, and was once nearly court martialed for setting ablaze hangars that didn’t have proper heating. In meetings he would chew calluses off his hands and spit the dead skin across the table.

The Air Force loved, and needed, Boyd’s insights. But they couldn’t stand Boyd, the man.

Boyd’s defining trait was that he thought about flying planes in a totally different way than other pilots. Like he was using a different part of his brain, and playing a different game than everyone else. That same personality made him naturally indifferent to established customs. So his superiors would, in the same performance report, rave of his contributions but then attempt to block his promotions. One review said “this brilliant young officer is an original thinker,” but went on, “He is an impatient man who does not respond well to close supervision. He is extremely intolerant of those who attempt to impede his program.” While Boyd was writing the definitive book on fighter maneuvers, two Colonels denied his promotion.

Boyd was eventually promoted. He was too talented to not be. But throughout his career, no one knew what to do with him. He pissed off a lot of people. He was unique in every way – good, bad, awful, and occasionally illegal.

A problem happens when you think someone is brilliantly different but not well-behaved, when in fact they’re not well-behaved because they’re brilliantly different. That’s not an excuse to be a jerk, or worse, because you’re smart. But no one should be shocked when people who think about the world in unique ways you like also think about the world in unique ways you don’t like.

Back to Elon Musk.

What kind of 32-year-old thinks they can take on GM, Ford, and NASA at the same time? A freakin’ maniac. The kind of person who thinks normal constraints don’t apply to them – not in an egotistical way, but in a genuine, believe-it-in-your-bones way. Which is also the kind of person who doesn’t worry about, say, Twitter etiquette.

A mindset that can dump a personal fortune into colonizing Mars is not the kind of mindset that worries about the downsides of hyperbole. And the kind of person who proposes making Mars habitable by constantly dropping nuclear bombs in its atmosphere is not the kind of person worried about overstepping the boundaries of reality.

The kind of person who says there’s a 99.9999% chance humanity is a computer simulation is not the kind of person worried about making untenable promises to shareholders.

The kind of person who promises to solve Flint, Michigan’s water problems within days of trying to save the soccer team stuck in a cave, which was within days of rebuilding the Model 3 assembly line in a tent, is not the kind of person who views his lawyers signing off as a critical step.

People love the visionary genius side of Musk, but want it to come without the side that operates in his distorted I-don’t-care-about-your-customs version of reality. But I don’t think those two things can be separated. They’re the risk-reward tradeoffs of the same personality trait.

Same for John Boyd.

Same for Steve Jobs, who was both a genius and a monster of a boss.

Same for Walt Disney, whose ambitions pushed every company he touched to the razor’s edge of insolvency.

Same for the LTCM guys, who could accurately calculate everything except the limits of their intelligence.

Some people are natural maniacs, and you can’t ask for the maniac parts you like without realizing there are maniac parts that might backfire.

I love this chart, from Brian Portnoy’s new book. Risk and reward does not grow linearly – the bold bets come with some nasty warts. That’s as true for people as it is assets:

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There is a thin line between bold and reckless, and you only know which is which with hindsight. And the reason there’s a difference between getting rich and staying rich is because the same traits needed to become rich, like swinging for the fences and optimism, are different from the traits needed to stay rich, like room for error and paranoia. Same thing with personalities and management styles.

“You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after,” John Boyd once said.

That’s the kind of philosophy you’ll be remembered for – for better or worse.