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.