Text-ureOctober 7, 2022
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Every medium has its own behavioral norms and nuances. Few are more casual, and authentic, than texting. There’s a feeling of intimacy and immediacy, as a smaller circle has access. Most people read all their texts, while few read all their email, and almost nobody opens all their physical mail. Many of us no longer even bother to listen to our voicemail messages, and you out yourself as old when you (gasp!) call your kids.
One of the reasons we relish the live interview and testimony under oath is that they inspire real moments, scarce in a world where communications departments preview, starch, and sanitize anything people of power say. So when (some of) Elon’s text messages became public during the discovery process in Twitter v. Musk, it offered us a glimpse into the bowels of tech power. Bowels is the correct metaphor.
Some observations re these texts, and what they illuminate about the texture of the tech community’s upper caste:
Checkers, Not Chess
The texts are between Elon and some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the world, including Larry Ellison, Joe Rogan, Sam Bankman-Fried, Satya Nadella, and Jack Dorsey. The logic, prose, and general discourse they reveal are astoundingly … unastounding. The wealthiest man in the world and his acolytes are, like the rest of us, unsophisticated, obtuse, and petty. Maybe more so. We thought billionaires were playing 3D chess while we played checkers. It turns out they’re playing the same game, but on a more expensive board.
They fumble with their computers.
They lean on others to get jobs for their kids (no surprise).
No matter how rich, they always could use more (money).
Where they differ: There’s clearly a pecking order, a social hierarchy. And, as far as I can tell, among this circle the currency of deference is … currency. Specifically, the more money you have the greater the degree of sycophantry. The Oculus and texts to Elon from his “friends” invite the same sensation: nausea.
And everyone struggles with autocorrect.
What I find most remarkable about these texts isn’t Elon — he comes off mostly OK in my view. It’s the people around him. It appears our idolatry of innovators has seeped into the minds of the uber-wealthy, sickening them with an uncontrollable tendency to fellate the cool kid for a chance to sit at his table in the cafeteria. “I would jump on a grenade for you.” If anyone ever tells you this, and they’re not literally in battle with you, it means they are a fan … not a friend.
The undoing of many powerful people is that they enter a hermetically sealed bubble of fake friends. Enablers, not people concerned with their well-being. When the Elon-Twitter debacle started this spring, I wrote a post about power. My thesis: Power, unchecked, is a psychological intoxicant. OK, this isn’t so much a thesis, as it’s scientifically proven. Research shows power causes us to downplay potential risk, magnify potential rewards, and act more precipitously on our instincts. In other words, you lose your ability to self-regulate; you need others to do it for you.
You’d hope the richest person in the world would assemble a circle of advisers who push back when appropriate (i.e., not yes men). But Elon’s history of reckless, childish behavior and these texts prove there is no group or individual who is a truth-teller. In the whole 151-page document, I found, no joke, just one instance of pushback. It came from Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, who, in response to Elon’s unhelpful “Is Twitter dying?” tweet, let Elon know what he thought: It was unhelpful. Elon’s response? A childish, terse insult.
The texts are mostly unremarkable. There are some, however, that do remind us the (super-)rich are different. Specifically, the discussions of possible equity investments from crypto-billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried (“Does he have huge amounts of money?”) and this exchange with Larry Ellison:
It’s common knowledge that Ellison, who co-founded Oracle, a company worth more than $175 billion, is rich. Less clear is that he has enough money to offer a billion dollars over a text. I mean, who hasn’t had a friend offer them $1 billion in a text? Ellison offered 8,000 times the median net worth of an average American, enough to buy more than 3,000 Ferraris or the Chicago Blackhawks, as if he was picking up a latte. I believe it’s important to have incredibly successful people who are exponentially wealthier than the rest of us — it’s a bedrock principle of capitalism, creating an incentive structure that inspires productivity and prosperity. However, when people are offering billions over text to help out with another billionaire’s vanity project, in the same nation where 1 in 5 children live in food-insecure homes, then … isn’t America a bit fucked up?
Later on, Elon’s Morgan Stanley banker, Michael Grimes, tells him that Bankman-Fried, a major investor in Web3 ventures, can invest $5 billion in the deal: “could do $5bn if everything vision lock … Believes in your mission.” In response, Elon … dislikes the message. Five billion dollars is on the line, and in Elon’s world it doesn’t merit a worded response. For context, $5 billion is more than the GDP of many small nations, twice the budget of the SEC, and more than five times the budget of the nuclear regulatory commission.
If, after reading this, you’re increasingly concerned about income inequality, well … trust your instincts.
The Rich Are Different, Billionaires Are Not
As an entrepreneur, academic, and investor, I’ve had the opportunity to develop professional and personal relationships with people who make a modest living, rich people, and several billionaires. My observation is that the rich are different. On average, they’re more intelligent and harder working than your average citizen. There is a cartoon of rich people — e.g., Monty Burns from The Simpsons — and it’s just that … a cartoon. Wealthy people usually demonstrate character and know how to foster allies. Having people who want you to win is key to success.
But I have never registered a difference in talent or intellect between the wealthy, and the uber-wealthy. Yet this is the virus that infects the tech elite: conflating talent with luck. Going from millions to hundreds of millions or billions is less a function of incremental intelligence and more a function of timing. Proof? Elon’s text record. Any man who can inspire the electrification of the auto industry and land two rockets on barges concurrently deserves the label “genius.” But his mega-billions flow from a well regulated capital market, a web of enforceable contracts, the diligent labor of thousands of workers, and, not least, billions of dollars in government subsidies, including a timely $465 million DOE loan that enabled Tesla to produce the Model S. So, is Mr. Musk a genius or an impressive man whose skills were set against a unique moment and place in time? The answer is likely yes.
Something else we learned from Elon’s texts? He has no clue how to “fix” Twitter. For two weeks in April, he was all in on blockchain Twitter, brainstorming about Dogecoin payments for tweets with his brother — i.e. the opposite of free speech … paid speech — literally as he was telling Twitter’s board he was going to make a hostile tender offer. (Spoiler alert: Kimbal loved it.) By May, he was over crypto and not interested in a “laborious blockchain debate.” (Mood.)
At one point, Elon asked the Twitter CEO for “an update from the Twitter engineering team so that my suggestions are less dumb.” The record does not reflect whether he got that meeting. Neither does it reflect any actual plan for “fixing” Twitter. And this is the problem with the entire Elon misadventure. He’s a child grown old, given all the toys but no boundaries, nobody to tell him no. His army of yes men encourages his most facile thoughts, and the genius he and we have been blessed with is diminished by shitposts and errant behavior.
I will give the titans of the universe credit for one thing: a sense of humor.
Psychosis sets in when people lose touch with reality. Elon’s atmosphere is so thick with people reinforcing that his every move is laudable or genius, he’s become a pathological liar who believes we believe him. The latest batch of lies? He canceled his deposition earlier this week, on 24 hours notice. His reason? Risk of Covid exposure. A guy who refused to close his Alameda plant as the pandemic was raging, under a closure order from the health department, couldn’t sit for a deposition because of his fear of the virus. His psychosis is fed by the media, which this week ran millions of versions of “Musk to close Twitter deal.” No, he said he intends to close the Twitter deal, which means nothing. In the same letter he asks for, in exchange, a suspension of the trial and that Twitter agrees to a financing contingency. In sum, he’s lying, engaging in further delay and obfuscation, and attempting to set a pretext to (again) walk away from the deal. One group that appears to “get” Elon? Wachtell Lipton, Twitter’s counsel. They’ve said no.
Every day, every one of us needs to ask ourselves an important question: Who keeps it real for me? Who will push back, who will tell me I’m wrong … who will save me from myself and the psychosis that’s led to so many successful people’s fall from grace. Elon Musk doesn’t need anybody to jump on a grenade for him, but to tell him to stop throwing grenades as it’s only a matter of time before one detonates in his hand.
Life is so rich,
P.S. Our highest-rated workshop, How to Build a Product Strategy with Netflix’s Gibson Biddle, is next Wednesday. Sign up now to grab your seat.
Scott, all you talk about anymore is Elon. Out of everything going on these days he continues to dominate your content… hard pass.
Europeans would distinguish between old rich and the “nouveau riche”. The latter being of lower class and uncultured.
The latter actually earning their money.
Interesting summation Scott. I have noticed the tendency toward overestimating the genius and maturity of the nouveau riche and particularly of the tech sector. Couldn’t agree more on George’s terminology, but not on the distinction as he expresses it. Money is no longer, if it has in fact ever been congealed labour! @ John. Power goes direct to the head inflating the ego en route, and to be surrounded by sycophants increases the voltage! The nouveau riche are, in general, insecure in their power, perhaps because despite the fawning acolytes, they fear loss, knowing to well the transitory nature of wealth. Old money accumulated over generations, whether by fair means or foul, comes down the generations with responsibilities which have historically checked the cancer of the ego distortions of the nouveau riche, at least IMHO! The culture aspect is simply the less repellent version of the attitudes of the nouveau riche I suspect.
The final paragraph “Every day, every one of us needs to ask ourselves an important question: …………..” How true this is. I have seen it with my own eyes. This is what Freddy Mercury said to his band mates in Queen after his unsuccessful shot as solo act.
I love having a flip phone. Great excuse to not text. Ya’ll have at it.
Good post but a little too whiney …. I think I have to go with Mike Solana at Pirate Wires (What Did You Get Done This Week?) on the Elon texts: “Elon isn’t a politician or a criminal. He’s a private citizen, and this all feels a bit invasive. But the messages are public now, they’ve been grossly mischaracterized, and this is the sort of media malfeasance that honestly just annoys me — not only for the distorted picture painted, but for the failure to present reality.”
Thanks Prof. Galloway, I’ve been enjoying much of your work. Glad to see someone continuing to highlight elites, who are too seldom questioned. Places like CA are rife with the arrogance, complacency, and other forms of corruption amongst many of our wealthiest circles in my experience. The noblesse oblige ethos seems nowhere to be found. The infantilism, vanity, and self-deification sometimes displayed my Musk is troubling, but by no means unique to tech. Idolatry seems to be infecting everyone these days, perhaps preying on insecurity and a lack of deeper purpose. Cheers.
You teach me 70% of the time, empower me 20% of the time, and this is the other 10% of WTF?! Notice how to go from me to Scott Galloway there is some noticeable Arian blood of success-fullness I’m missing, but to go from Scott to people more better than Scott it’s dumb luck. Piss poor amigo. You champion teachers, shift managers, the people who haven’t received benefits of increased productivity, then spit in the dirt and say – well they just aren’t cut from the same cloth as Scott Galloway. You kind of shift from net worth to “successful”. So the “success” metrics just stops counting success once someone has more success than Scott Galloway. Love you man, this one missed the strike zone.
Great article and my push back to you RE: “it’s important to have people who are exponentially wealthier than the rest of us — it’s a bedrock principle of capitalism …” DISAGREE. The acceptance of this principle is the reason so many of the problems you speak against exist. LINEAR CAPITALISM will work just fine. Work 2x more time, get 2x. Twice at educated? Get 2x. Luckier? 2x. In all, person A gets 4x person B. Plenty of incentive to drive innovation and the capitalist engine. Unfortunately, America buys into EXPONENTIAL CAPITALISM and creates laws and policy to reinforce it — so person A is 1million X person B and we get all the political and social distortions that go along with it. It’s time to replace EXPONENTIAL CAPITALISM with LINEAR CAPITALISM.
Persistent ageism is such a boring stand in for appreciating the elements of consumer / human preference and diversity.
Beautiful piece of writing. All angles touched clearly. Well done Prof. G.
I see you are taking flak for dissing on some people’s new gods. Good job!
Hi Scott… the US is encumbered by fat children, not hungery children. Macronutrient are nutrients are abundant, but whole foods are scarce. I’d guess a child is more like to get hit by lightening in the US than she is to starve death.
Like several other commenters here, I found your this article not worth my time to read the whole thing. Somehow giving Musk this much time through your words puts you very close to the sycophants. I just hope when he steps on the grenade, it triggers a mass redistribution of his wealth to every 4 star charity on Charity Navigator.
#1- get an editor
#2- move on from your favorite 2 subjects. There’s a whole wide world out there. Surely one of the other 3 billion people not named Musk or Zuck would be worth writing about?
Who does your graphics, and why don’t they get any credit?
The lying, the psychosis, the circle of sycophants, the divergence from reality. Elon and Putin share many common traits…
I only needed to see one thing in the whole buying /not buying twitter saga to convince me Elon is not as smart at everything as he thinks: one usually does the due diligence before offering, not after. Isn’t this called ‘kicking the tires’ in the car business?
“However, when people are offering billions over text to help out with another billionaire’s vanity project, in the same nation where 1 in 5 children live in food-insecure homes, then … isn’t America a bit fucked up?”
In short, no. You statement sounds profound but it is a non sequitur.
As much as I like your content, I am realizing I will need to start self regulating because it doesn’t step away from Elon Musk as a topic. You’re not alone, your coverage just flies in the face of your messaging on sycophantry – of which giving to much airtime to one thing is a form. The news is overdosing on this guy, I hope you don’t.
Incredible insight! I have so much power that I can pick whatever fast food joint tickles my fancy at the moment wantonly. So, yes, I need my better half to take me down a notch or two so things don’t get out of hand . . . I tell you unchecked power can go to your head!
Your better half. Lol
I read your articles every week Proff G, thank you for the weekly info 💯
I smile imagining how happy Scott was as he penned this moralistic post. He was able to put down Elon (and this isn’t getting old at all), appeal to our worst voyeuristic instincts, and virtue signal his affinity with the working class citizen. A trifecta! Well played Prof!
Liked a lot of the posts, but this one came from the Pope. No data, filled with void judgement.
The data is right there in the texts. Every claim is cited
Spot on Scott about your description of these poor billionaires who have no idea about humility, thus, have no foundation of wisdom in a world that chases its own tail.
Elon’s recent “diplomacy plans” for Ukraine indicate he’s out of his depth on a lot of subjects and he still thinks he’s the smartest guy in the (virtual) room.
Anyone needs to be reminded of that when they are full of sh*t. I hope Elon reads this piece.
Having friends who can tell hurtful truths like you’re dead mistaken is priceless.