• Elon Musk is both an autodidact and a didact at heart.
• This might sound like an annoying tendency, but he’s so good at it that it isn’t.
• Few CEOs are willing to educate their audiences in this way.
If you go to the website of most automakers, you’ll see what you expect to see: cars, in all their shiny glory.
If you go to the Tesla website and investigate the company’s newest car, you’ll see the vehicle in all its shiny glory, but you will also see the graph to the right.
It’s an S-curve, and it describes Tesla’s anticipated production ramp for the Model 3: slow at first, then exponentially increasing until it levels off once full production is achieved.
CEO Elon Musk has been talking about the S-curve a lot lately, and especially after he admitted that Tesla would endure “production hell” for at least the first six months of manufacturing. This isn’t really a typical thing for a big-time celebrity CEO to be getting into, but it is an example of a peculiar and, I think, engaging tendency that Elon has. I call it “Musksplaining.”
An autodidact’s autodidact
Some people think Musk is a genius. I’m not sure about that, but he is certainly one of humanity’s most accomplished autodidacts: he has taught himself automotive engineering, rocket science, and solar design. Because he’s an autodidact, he’s also a didact — he likes to explain what’s he’s learned and knows to others.
“Splaining,” in its contemporary incarnation (“mansplaining” to women, most infamously), has a bad rap, and rightly so. But Musksplaining is actually completely endearing. Most quarterly earnings calls are incredibly dull, but Musk often Musksplains all kinds of stuff when answering analysts’ questions, making Tesla’s earnings calls must-listen experiences.
The S-curve Musksplainer is just the latest instance. A few years ago, on a call, Musk explained vertical integration — the manufacturing process by which most processes are handled in-house. In the heyday of Ford, for example, the River Rouge plant was so vertically integrated that train cars full of iron ore rolled up to one end and finished cars rolled out the other. The auto industry has moved away from vertical integration, but Musk wants to bring it back.
Musk also doesn’t Musksplain just Tesla’s business. He’s equally willing to fill you in on carbon taxes and artificial intelligence (his row with Mark Zuckerberg over AI’s potential threats being just the latest example of that Musksplainer).
Fission vs. fusion
My personal favorite recent Musksplainer occurred when he and Y Combinator Sam Altman sat down to talk with Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times and the conversation turned to the potential for nuclear power. Sorkin, a pretty smart guy, revealed a lacuna of his own knowledge when he seemed to confuse the nuclear fission and fusion reactions.
It was the perfect set-up for a classic Musksplaining session, as Elon succinctly laid out what’s hard about fusion and why its been such an elusive source of power (it’s hard to sustain the reaction, keeping the fire from going out, Musk said, offering the example of Sun — a huge fusion reactor with its own gravitation containment — as the best example and explaining that similar electromagnetic containment is very hard to achieve on Earth).
Sorkin didn’t really look embarrassed, and why would he? Musk had served up a nice piece of education, in terms anybody could understand.
There have been some cases where Musksplaining was a bit elliptical and not as successful; I’ve been puzzling for while over a connection he once drew between the rocket equation and Tesla’s ambitious for automating car manufacturing. But I think he hasn’t Musksplained it yet because he hasn’t figured out an accessible way to do it.
Basically, it means that a rocket accelerates as it burns fuel because it sheds the weight of that fuel. Applied to manufacturing, I think Musk’s analogy involves the vehicle-assembly process rapidly accelerating as it sheds extraneous or inefficient steps through enhanced automation.
Musk the educator
When I was in Los Angeles, working as a radio reporter, I officially reported on the financials of just one company: Disney. This meant I got to listen to CEO Bob Iger do his thing every quarter. Iger is an accomplished CEO, but he’s right out of central casting — he does nothing odd, ever, when speaking to the investment community. This is reassuring — aspiring CEOs can take CEO lessons from Iger’s performances — but it isn’t very entertaining.
And you don’t expect to actually learn anything new from Iger. With Musk, you learn new things all the time or you at least get a better angle on stuff you thought you knew but never really had a complete understanding of.
I’ve covered Tesla for a long time, but I still get excited every time I sense a good Musksplaining about to happen. Musk is one of the brainiest people to ever lead several companies. We probably has no idea of the educational fun in store for us if SpaceX ever goes public and we get to listen to Musk lucidly and cheerfully walk us through the intricacies of rocket science.
So yes, “splaining” is generally annoying. But Musk, as with so many things, flips it on its head and makes it worth everybody’s while.