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Elon Musk, a Contradictory Visionary

Elon Musk, a Contradictory Visionary
As the uproar over Elon Musk’s $44 billion buyout of Twitter reaches a crescendo, another Musk drama, still chaotic four years after it began, has been back in court.

As the uproar over Elon Musk’s $44 billion buyout of Twitter reaches a crescendo, another Musk drama, still chaotic four years after it began, has been back in court.

Ironically, that spectacle started with a Musk tweet about doing an audacious deal. Then, with Wall Street awaiting his next move, the Tesla CEO changed directions, admitting that his plan to buy all the electric car maker’s stock might be too much trouble. As regulators prepared to sue the billionaire for defrauding investors, he pondered his position in the corporate universe in a livestreamed interview while puffing on pot.

The episode made for a confounding, but now familiar, study in both Musk’s manic ambition and his delight in contradiction.

It’s no wonder then that, as the world’s richest man pursues a Twitter takeover described by one investment firm as veering “from comical to surreal,” even those who’ve watched him for years remain flummoxed about what he has up his sleeve.

This is a guy who’s more transparent than 99.99 percent of other CEOs and yet he’s harder to predict because he has the confidence to be able to publicly change his mind,” said Erik Gordon, a University of Michigan business and law professor.

“Would Musk be more successful if he toned it down? I think the answer is no, because he wouldn’t be Musk.”

This week Musk is again keeping people guessing. First he embraced a European measure to keep hate speech and misinformation off social media. Less than 24 hours later, he announced that he’d reverse Twitter’s ban of former President Donald Trump, who was kicked off the platform for inciting violence.

Meanwhile, doubt remains about whether Musk will even go through with the deal. He could still walk away by paying Twitter a $1 billion termination fee, a huge figure yet a fraction of his total fortune.

But if the 50-year-old Musk’s gambit has made anything clear it’s that he thrives on contradiction.

Musk boasts that he’s acquiring Twitter to defend freedom of speech. But he has long used the platform to attack perceived foes who dare to disagree with him.

He is supremely confident in his own judgment and abilities. But he has openly acknowledged vulnerabilities, disclosing his angst over a breakup in a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone and telling a Saturday Night Live audience last year that he was the show’s first host with Asperger’s syndrome.

He’s a brilliant visionary, widely admired for reimagining what a car can be, not to mention his ventures in rocket travel, solar energy, computerized brain implants and constructing a network of underground tunnels.

But his apparent joy in trashing the conventions of corporate behavior has alienated analysts, regulators, employees and others unsure what to make of him.

Even Musk seems to get that many people don’t get him.

“I don’t think you’d necessarily want to be me,” he told podcaster Joe Rogan in the 2018 interview during which the CEO, wearing an “Occupy Mars” T-shirt, took a drag on a blunt stuffed with tobacco and marijuana.

“I think people wouldn’t like it that much. It’s very hard to turn it off.”

That combination of intellect, will and the power of enormous wealth thrill some and scare others. Either way, Musk — whose 92 million followers on Twitter rivals user celebrities like Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga — is impossible to ignore.

“He’s the poster child for disruption,” said Benjamin Breuer, the former CEO of Kindred Health Care and author of a book about unconventional corporate leadership.

Born in South Africa, Musk has been something of an outlier since childhood, teaching himself computer programming at 10, according to a 2015 biography by journalist Ashlee Vance. Two years later he pocketed $500 from the sale of a video game he created that had users shoot down alien spacecraft.

He left Pretoria at 16 for his mother’s native Canada before moving to the U.S. on a student visa. At 24 he dropped out of Stanford after two days in its Ph.D. physics program to try his luck in the 1990s dot-com boom.

Together with brother, he launched Zip2, an online business directory. Short on cash, Musk did all the coding, squatting in a small office whose landlord was out of the country. The brothers slept on a futon in turn, showering at a YMCA and living on food from a 24-hour Jack-in-the-Box, they told a group of admirers during a 2020 discussion available on YouTube.

A year later, a venture capital firm agreed to back the business and eventually Zip2 was sold to Compaq for $307 million.