By on August 17, 2018

by OnInnovation/Flickr -- Elon Musk

It’s a portrait of a man who’s gone past fraying at the edges. In an hour-long interview with the New York Times, Tesla CEO Elon Musk appears as a man threatening to come apart — and it’s not a joyous sight.

Despite the frustration stemming from Musk’s actions and pronouncements, and the aggravation born of his cheerleading, conspiracy theorizing fan base, it’s difficult to watch a man’s ambition and drive spiral into self-destruction. 

Musk teared up frequently during the interview, the NYT claims. Working up to 120 hours a week and sometimes spending three or four days inside the automaker’s Fremont, California assembly plant, Musk claims he doesn’t sleep much, even with help from the now-controversial sleep aid Ambien. Instead, the drug provides the impulse for late-night tweetstorms that immerse the CEO in hot water and increase the polarization of this fans and detractors.

Recent bizarre actions like publicly mulling a journalist ratings site (“Pravda”) and calling a British cave rescuer a pedophile pale, at least in terms of consequences, next to one tweet Musk sent from his car. That, of course, would be the August 7th tweet declaring his intention to take Tesla private. Funding, he wrote, was secured.

And yet it wasn’t. Per the NYT:

Mr. Musk has said he was referring to a potential investment by Saudi Arabia’s government investment fund. Mr. Musk had extensive talks with representatives of the $250 billion fund about possibly financing a transaction to take Tesla private — maybe even in a manner that would have resulted in the Saudis’ owning most of the company. One of those sessions took place on July 31 at the Tesla factory in the Bay Area, according to a person familiar with the meeting. But the Saudi fund had not committed to provide any cash, two people briefed on the discussions said.

Another possibility under consideration is that SpaceX, Mr. Musk’s rocket company, would help bankroll the Tesla privatization and would take an ownership stake in the carmaker, according to people familiar with the matter.

Directors on Tesla’s board claim the tweet blindsided them. Musk himself admits in the interview that no one saw or reviewed it before he hit “send.” Sources tell the NYT that board members scrambled to craft a public statement explaining the tweet and diffusing the already mounting criticism. Musk’s tweet lacked details, and a Tesla blog post posted not long after failed to answer the question of whether funding was indeed secured.

This didn’t go unnoticed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which quickly launched an investigation into the tweet. Recent reports state the SEC resorted to subpoenas in its bid to learn who’s backing the go-private deal. Shareholders aren’t happy about being left in the dark, either. Three have already filed lawsuits.

In the interview, Musk speaks of social isolation from friends and family, a byproduct of Tesla’s frenzied Model 3 production push.

“I thought the worst of it was over — I thought it was,” he said. “The worst is over from a Tesla operational standpoint.”

He added, somewhat cryptically, “But from a personal pain standpoint, the worst is yet to come.”

Sources with knowledge of Tesla’s board claim there’s a hunt on for a right-hand man, someone who can take pressure off of Musk. Some directors fear the volatile combination of Ambien and Twitter in Musk’s hands, they claim, with others worried about recreational drug use.

That’s what sources claim. In public, the members remain committed to their leader, issuing a statement in response to the newspaper’s questions:

“There have been many false and irresponsible rumors in the press about the discussions of the Tesla board,” the statement read. “We would like to make clear that Elon’s commitment and dedication to Tesla is obvious. Over the past 15 years, Elon’s leadership of the Tesla team has caused Tesla to grow from a small start-up to having hundreds of thousands of cars on the road that customers love, employing tens of thousands of people around the world, and creating significant shareholder value in the process.”

Musk himself mused about a possible successor, despite claiming he won’t step down as CEO and chairman.

“If you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know,” he said. “They can have the job. Is there someone who can do the job better? They can have the reins right now.”

It’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle. The Model 3 is in production, some of which occurs in tents, backed by a lengthy list of reservation holders eager to fill their driveway. Ardent superfans have turned Musk into their deity, with any criticisms levelled at the man or his operation attributed to short sellers and covert operatives of Big Oil. Tesla is what it is.

But at the root of its problems is speed. Growing too fast. Issuing production promises far too grand, then building cars in an all-hands-on-deck flurry. Stacking the pipeline with products like the Model Y and Semi and pickup truck, despite barely managing Model 3 production.

It’s too fast. And the speed hasn’t had a positive impact on Musk’s health.

This isn’t said out of malice, but by all appearances Musk needs help beyond what Ambien can provide. Help that’s within his grasp as a man of means. And help that might ensure a healthier future for both himself and Tesla.

[Image: OnInnovation/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)]

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69 Comments on “Man on the Edge: New York Times Interview Shows Elon Musk at His Lowest...”


  • avatar
    MrIcky

    “Blame it on the Ambien”- seems to be the new trend for bad tweets.

    Either way, it’s not really surprising. He’s trying to be first in, hands on controller of too many things. All the while it’s still clear his heart belongs to Space X. He needs a strong car back ground executive to take over here. There are likely quite a few people who can do it, but I’m not sure the most qualified folks would want to work for Elon.

    • 0 avatar
      jalop1991

      “it’s the Ambien”.

      Right. And you “fell and landed on the gerbil”.

    • 0 avatar
      Dawnrazor

      All snark aside, the guy really has been burning the candle at both ends for years now and I’d imagine sheer exhaustion plays a nontrivial role in some of this bizarre stuff we have seen recently. As others have said, he really needs to learn to delegate more. I also think cutting back dramatically on the social media communications would be in his best interests at this point.

      • 0 avatar
        jalop1991

        “All snark aside, the guy really has been burning the candle at both ends for years now and I’d imagine sheer exhaustion plays a nontrivial role in some of this bizarre stuff we have seen recently. As others have said, he really needs to learn to delegate more. I also think cutting back dramatically on the social media communications would be in his best interests at this point.”

        Enough with the politics, we’re talking Musk here.

    • 0 avatar
      notwhoithink

      I have no idea if Musk takes Ambien, but I’ve had partners who used it briefly a couple of times in my life, both over a decade ago. In both cases (one GF, and later a different woman to whom I am married) Ambien just f’d them up. Like it literally got them high, made them behave very strangely and erratically, and in ways not in character with who they were. In neither case did it really help them sleep.

      So I’m not saying that’s the case here, and Musk is clearly under a lot of self-inflicted pressure, but if he’s adding Ambien to it then it certainly could exacerbate his erratic behavior.

    • 0 avatar
      TrailerTrash

      Well, don’t laugh.

      A pair of new tennis shoes arrived yesterday. I couldn’t figure out why.
      But after looking over emails, I saw a reply from Mid West Sports thanking me for my order and a notice from PayPal that the transaction took place…..
      ….at 12:02 in the morning.

      Don’t remember a damned thing!

      At least I have stopped waking up at 1 or 2 with an empty half gallon of Breyers Butter Pecan Ice Cream on my stomach in front of the TV.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    The whole Musk/Grimes/Azealia Banks saga crushes any reality show story.
    It’s like a train wreck, hard to turn away.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Admitting you have a problem is the first step.

    • 0 avatar
      EBFlex

      *Admitting YOU ARE the problem is the first step.

      That’s where the con man fails.

      • 0 avatar
        Land Ark

        I’ve seen Musk described numerous times as a con man. I don’t know what the con is. While he makes impossible promises for WHEN he will deliver things, he always seems to deliver them at some point.
        So what’s the game?

        • 0 avatar
          EBFlex

          Would you prefer fraud?

          • 0 avatar
            stuki

            Only in the sense that doggedly believing in the impossible, even as contrary evidence piles up, is fraudulent.

            BEVs won’t be competitive with ICEs for pragmatic, cost constrained, non-vanity vehicle buyers a long time to come. Only the most diehard of techno-utopianists ever believed they would. The same guys who believe there’s a quick and easy way to Mars.

            There’s nothing fraudulent about being a 99.99+% optimist. There is something wrong, or at least ultimately value destroying hence impoverishing, about a broader society that gives those outliers THAT much runway with which to waste resources on ultimately futile pies in the sky.

        • 0 avatar
          notwhoithink

          Agreed. The only “con” that he’s committed (as far as I can tell) is over-promising on delivery volumes and dates. If he just announced realistic timelines rather than what he “hopes” they can accomplish then I think that he’d be just fine. But the lesson of the Model 3 is that when you are a publicly traded company and promise aggressive timelines that you can’t hit that there is a price in PR and analyst goodwill that you pay for it. At this point it’s more important that he be reasonably accurate in his targets than for them to be quick.

        • 0 avatar
          I_like_stuff

          What’s the game? He’s taken $5B of tax payer dollars and has done nothing with it other than enrich himself and his cronies. Once upon a time that used to be, you know, criminal.

          • 0 avatar
            SCE to AUX

            @I_like_stuff: Please explain the $5 billion in taxpayer money that Elon Musk has ‘taken’.

            Seriously, you’re making stuff up.

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus

          Why put any stock whatsoever in what ebflex says? He just makes crap up and goes with it. Don’t like Musk? He’s a con man! Nevermind backing it up, and when you’re called on it, just spew more crap.

          Far be it from me to defend Tesla or Musk, but the more EBFlex hates them, the more they seem like the rational, logical side of the coin. If only their fans weren’t just as much off their rockers as EcoBoostFlex, hell, I might even be tempted to consider maybe one day possibly perhaps not entirely disliking Tesla/Musk.

    • 0 avatar
      TrailerTrash

      “If you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know,” he said. “They can have the job. Is there someone who can do the job better? They can have the reins right now.”

      THIS is the problem.
      Just like many entrepreneurs, they never know when to let others step in and do many things they cannot.
      Many start companies and bring them to giants, only to lose them when refusing to delegate.

      Only THEY think there is nobody who can do their job. They are simply to brillant.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Micromanaging is very costly.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      and is practically never the answer to anything. if you feel you have to micro-manage- especially the day-to-day operation of a manufacturing concern- then you’ve utterly failed as a manager or a leader. I mean, he’s got a great example of a properly-led company (SpaceX) already in his fold. Why hasn’t he hired another “Gwynne Shotwell” to get Tesla’s house in order? What does he think sleeping at Fremont is supposed to accomplish? Guilt people into working longer hours? the last thing you want is for tired/fatigued/sore people trying to build cars on an assembly line.

      remember the Meridian plant fire that shut down F-Series production a few months ago? I’m pretty sure the plant and manufacturing teams were able to handle that situation w/o any of the CxOs having to bring a sleeping bag to the Rouge plant.

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        Totally agree.

        I suspect a key difference between Tesla and SpaceX is that dictation won’t work with rocket design. Space – and NASA, and the ESA – are very unforgiving in terms of how hardware must function.

        NASA and its European partners won’t let just anybody drive a missile up to the International Space Station. There are well-honed rules to follow for both physics and protocol, and this relegates Mr Musk to more of a cheerleader and visionary than a daily micromanager there. Hence, SpaceX is run by others with less mercurial personalities.

        Eventually, Tesla/Musk is hemmed in by the likes of the NHTSA, DOT (side mirrors), and now the SEC.

      • 0 avatar
        PeriSoft

        JimZ, exactly correct. I run a very small business, and even at the opposite end of the spectrum from Tesla, it can be super hard to let go and let your people do their jobs. But you have to do it, and if you refuse to do it, that doesn’t make you committed – it just makes you a bad leader. I don’t like that I don’t get to play with source code anymore. I loved doing it. But now I spend my time letting a guy who is far better at playing with source code do that, while I write emails and do conference calls. Sometimes that means things aren’t done quite like I’d like, but so what? It’s the best way forward for the organization as a whole.

        The CEO shouldn’t have to be screwing around with manufacturing details. He should have hired people he can trust to screw around with manufacturing details. If he hasn’t, it means he didn’t do his job.

        Tesla is *this* close to being that most remarkable of things – a successful, recently-started (almost) full-line car maker. But people whose job it is to make cars need to be given the authority to make that happen. Elon can’t do it all himself, and he really ought to stop trying.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        @jimz: Exactly. He needs another Gwynne Shotwell. She’s doing a fantastic job with SpaceX. She’s talented and seems to know how to handle Musk. He seems to trust her too.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        “Why hasn’t he hired another “Gwynne Shotwell” to get Tesla’s house in order?”

        “Shotwell” as a CEO of a rocket launching company.

        How do you top that?

  • avatar
    ajla

    Ed Whitacre is ready for action!

  • avatar
    DEVILLE88

    I’ve said it before, The whole Tesla thing reminds me of the story of Tucker. The Tucker auto was poised to be one of the biggest hits of the forties. Other car makers and politicians and parts manufacture had other ideas. They did not want the Tucker to see the light of day. The car was way ahead of it’s time in safety, packaging and value not to mention looks as well. The way i see it, it’s only a matter of time before Tesla comes crashing down. He is putting himself out there and making it easy for the naysayers to attack on every front.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      except- unlike Tucker- they’ve sold nearly 200,000 cars so far and have built up a very valuable brand.

      also- unlike Tucker- they’re run by a guy who acts erratically in public and repeatedly makes unrealistic promises.

      Tesla’s problems are almost entirely self-inflicted.

    • 0 avatar
      Conslaw

      Deville88, I thought about that too. Tesla could buy FCA with maybe a 20% stock dilution. The downside is that FCA doesn’t manage itself. It has been getting by with insufficient investment for a number of years, and it now has aged product lines that luckily for them are still selling reasonably well on the Chrysler side. Fiats aren’t selling in the US, I don’t know how well they are doing in Europe. If Tesla bought FCA or any other company, both sides of the company would need cash. (Of course, you wouldn’t need the cash to build factories that are already built and paid-for.)

      The other downside of buying an existing carmaker is that it isn’t pure. For a significant period of time, the company would be selling polluting gas-guzzlers. Moreover, there would be incentives to keep selling them to keep the lights on.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        The FCA factories may be built but I’m sure they are not paid for. Step one once the LBO is done is to sell and/or mortgage assets to the hilt. I doubt they have dug themselves out from that.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Call Mullaly.

  • avatar

    This is classic entrepreneurship gone wrong. True entrepreneurs, like Elon, have the creativity, confidence (ego too), and energy to demand and develop their vision. They bust through barriers, yell at people, set high bars, etc. It’s part of the package. It’s great, and it’s necessary. At the beginning. When the idea gets going, it all becomes operational though, and they are absolute rubbish at managing it. They get bored, overly focussed on specific details that don’t matter, pillage projects or just step into things and start controlling them when it’s not appropriate. They try to bring the same-old approaches and it just doesn’t work. They create Model Xs that have pointless, expensive, and unreliable gullwing doors and Model 3s that eliminate all physical buttons at the cost of usability. That’s when operational specialists are best given control, duties are segmented, people start looking at feedback, data, customer experiences, markets to develop things – not their leader. Or this doesn’t happen, as with Tesla and Elon.

    We were taught this in school, I’m not sure why so few seem to recognize the pattern.

    • 0 avatar
      jalop1991

      And then there’s Steve Jobs.

      Read up on him. I mean, really read up on him. He’s the exception to the very real rule you described, and the result was some wonderful things.

      And since he died, things have gone downhill…

      • 0 avatar
        stingray65

        Actually it was also true with Steve Jobs – he was not able to transition Apple from entrepreneurial start-up to “grown-up” company and was booted out. The difference is he seemed to mature in some ways during his years in the wilderness and was able to return to rescue the “grown-up” Apple that was experiencing serious maturity issues.

        • 0 avatar
          James2

          I wonder. Maybe Jobs was the phone version of Musk, but Musk doesn’t seem to have a Tim Cook doing the heavy lifting for him.

          Creativity isn’t Tesla’s problem, it’s the execution, the logistics, the supply chain –all Cook’s specialty.

          • 0 avatar
            JimZ

            Plenty of companies have been wildly successful without needing their CEOs to be the “visionary” product person. Tim Cook isn’t that kind of person, but doesn’t need to be; but Apple does need that kind of person *somewhere* in the hierarchy. Jobs (and Musk) are outliers.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      Jeff Bezos.

      *mic drop*

      • 0 avatar
        kamiller42

        If Apple is looking to get into electric car business, they have plenty of cash to take Tesla.

        • 0 avatar
          stingray65

          Why would Apple want to take cash from a business with 50% margins and put it into a business with negative margins?

          • 0 avatar
            tnk479

            Exactly, and this is the crux of the issue. Musk didn’t just promise EV’s that are fast and cool looking. He promised that Tesla could build them profitably. He has never fulfilled that promise and judging by the crocodile tears he is shedding in this NY Times article, that promise never will be fulfilled. The stock tanked 9% today in trading and we also just learned that two of the top five institutional investors dumped 20% of their holdings in Q2. Investors are starting to wake up to the reality.

  • avatar
    Tstag

    Its amazing how someone as smart as Elon Musk can miss things that are glaringly obvious. Had I been running Tesla I would have made 1 decision a time least 18 months ago that would have stopped my hair falling out. Quite simply I’d have bought another car maker. He could have made a great move by biying Mitsubishi for example. In a stroke he’s have had all the production capacity he needed and senior staff that know how to productionise a car, add switch gear and make reliable cars. He could have put Mitsubishi production engineers to work putting in production lines for the model 3 and given Mitsubishi an electric car they could take to market over night across Asia.

    Mitsubishi could have focused on taking Tesla’s product and making electric cars across many niches gradually winding out of petrol and diesel cars. If Mitsubishi failed so what? Elon would have sorted all his problems out at Tesla, obtained new facilities and grabbed the key people he needed to make his dream fly.

    He can still pull this off. Why not make FCA an offer to buy Fiat? Or test the water at Tata and buy JLR? Maybe give Suzuki a call. Use your share price and save your hair Elon!

  • avatar
    Middle-Aged (Ex-Miata) Man

    I don’t place much stock at all in Banks’ tweets as she has a certain history of stoking controversy (particularly so when it involves White men) but it also seems pretty clear Musk is high on something, and it wouldn’t surprise me if his GF is his chief enabler.

    Tesla has a future, but the company desperately needs a Gwynne Shotwell to keep Musk’s mania and grandiosity at bay.

    • 0 avatar
      Land Ark

      I started listening to Grimes when her last album came out. I really like Kill V. Maim and Flesh Without Blood. But I think the song that best encapsulates her work is Pin.
      I used to think she was approachable and that it might be possible for a guy like me to get with her. Then she showed up with Musk and shattered those thoughts. It was a sad day in my house when I had to let my wife know that Grimes would never go out with me now.

  • avatar
    jalop1991

    “to craft a public statement explaining the tweet and diffusing the already mounting criticism…”

    “defusing”. As in, defusing a bomb. Removing the fuse so it doesn’t explode.

    “Diffuse” is a COMPLETELY different word.

    A journalist would know that.

    • 0 avatar
      PeriSoft

      Diffuse can mean “to spread thin and reduce the impact of something”. It’s not improperly used here. It’s arguably a bit more appropriate, given that nothing the board could say would actually prevent the impact of the ‘bomb’ from occurring entirely.

      You defuse something when you say, “Dude, that screenshot was photoshopped; that wasn’t the real caption and I never said those words”. You *diffuse* *something when you say, “OK, here’s the context; this isn’t as bad as it seems”. The second is closer to what the board did.

  • avatar
    seth1065

    This is why you have a board of directors so they can make the tough calls, I do not know who would want to run Telsa so Elon can go home at night but I am sure talented folks would like to try, let him run space x or the flame throwers or the tunnel company, I think he is brilliant but telsa is a nightmare house of cards. He almost seems to want someone to take the reins.

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    I just wish Tesla (and by association, Musk) would focus on one or two projects. Focus on building quality cars (and maybe trucks) and Mars, ignore the pipe-dream Hyperloop. Focus on cars, trucks and providing battery/ power packs for remote areas, ignore Mars and Hyperloop.

    I don’t believe that he’s a con man. But he is someone who has promised too much and in too little time-frame, spreading resources super thin. Apparently, this include his personal health and well-being it seems. He delivers, eventually, which is why I don’t think there’s a con. But the consumer suffers because the product isn’t what it could be due to rushed timetables.

  • avatar
    Jerome10

    He’s in deep doo with the SEC for that moronic tweet the other week about going private with funding secured.

    This is his calculated attempt to gather sympathy for poor little Elon, in the hope he might fool enough of those at the SEC to not get hauled into court in cuffs, or if he does hope he gets house arrest or an ankle bracelet instead of FPMITA prison.

    • 0 avatar
      jkross22

      Calculated? The guy’s operating at a different level for a while. He’s now allegedly using drugs for sleep and possibly to relax.

      And you call it calculated? Jeez.

  • avatar
    I_like_stuff

    He will go down as one of the great criminals of our time. $5B tax payer dollars embezzled by the Mush.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    He wanted to be Icarus

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    It’s a day ending in “Y”, so time for another Musk update.

  • avatar
    thelaine

    I think there is no stopping the collapse this time. Even the acolytes are starting ti see their god is just another idol. “He’s so smart!” Great. This carbon credit slinging, taxpayer-sucking leech is finally being exposed. Thanks, government. More billions down the shtter. Nice run Elon.

    Now, let’s go build some more windmills.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      I hope you feel the same about Nissan, since until recently they sold more carbon credits and more EVs than any other mfrs.

      Didn’t think so. It’s simply more fun to deride the eccentric rich guy who employs over 30k people.

      • 0 avatar
        thelaine

        No, SCE, I feel exactly the same way about all of the rent-seekers. It is disgusting. I have been railing against all of it for years. Why do you think I mentioned windmills in my last post. Does Elon make those too. I certainly don’t resent him because he is rich. I resent the government subsidies and mandates which enrich con men like Musk.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    A paid-for factory can’t solve all the ills of a carmaker. Ford’s St. Paul factory was not only long-since paid for when they shut it down, but they effectively got free power from hydroelectrics on site. If you can’t find something to build with a paid for factory, a trained labor force, and free power, you’re f- uh, fried.

  • avatar
    Carroll Prescott

    And he wants someone to ride his space junk to Mars?

    Poor Muskrat. Instead of being focused on doing one thing extremely well, he is over stretched onto a myriad of things that he can’t achieve squat doing.

    I’d go nuts if I kept living in Lala Land instead of dealing with reality.

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