The rise of mass media and celebrity culture has amplified the “cult of personality” trend – and it should concern us.
Firstly, let’s agree that money does not a genius make. Nikola Tesla, who WAS a genius, and whose contributions to science and technology were profound, died in relative obscurity and poverty.
Elon Musk, on the other hand, who lacks formal training in either the scientific or engineering fields, has performed a nifty sleight of hand to make people believe that he is a genius in both.
The genesis of Musk’s substantial wealth is intricately tied to his fortuitous involvement with PayPal. Musk’s association with PayPal began when his company, X.com, merged with Confinity, the creators of the money-transfer service. The subsequent merger of X.com with Confinity resulted in the formation of PayPal, and Musk, a major shareholder, reaped significant financial rewards from the deal. This windfall, though significant, owes more to serendipity and strategic business manoeuvring than it does to “genius”.
Musk’s public image often portrays him as a genius and visionary, but upon closer examination, several aspects of his behaviour and actions suggest that his persona is more characterised by self-aggrandisement, self-promotion, and narcissism than actual genius. Here’s a breakdown of these elements:
- Bold Claims and Unfulfilled Promises: Musk frequently makes grandiose claims and ambitious predictions, such as fully self-driving cars or colonising Mars, but many of these promises have yet to materialise or have fallen far short of expectations. This pattern of overhyping and underdelivering serves to create a perception of innovation and brilliance without necessarily backing it up with concrete achievements.
- Social Media Controversies: Musk’s behaviour on social media platforms, particularly Twitter, often borders on impulsiveness and immaturity. He engages in public feuds, insults critics, and makes provocative statements that generate attention but also reveal a lack of restraint and professionalism. This kind of behaviour is characteristic of someone seeking attention and validation rather than someone genuinely focused on advancing knowledge or technology.
- Taking Credit and Ego-Centricity: Musk has a tendency to take credit for achievements that are often the result of collaborative efforts by teams of scientists, engineers, and researchers. This self-aggrandising behaviour diminishes the contributions of others and underscores his desire for personal acclaim. His inclination to attribute the success of his companies solely to his own brilliance minimises the hard work and expertise of countless individuals who have contributed to those achievements.
- Lack of Humility and Accountability: Musk’s responses to criticism or setbacks often lack humility. Instead of acknowledging shortcomings or failures, he tends to deflect blame, downplay issues, or dismiss critics. This unwillingness to take responsibility for mistakes or shortcomings suggests a narcissistic tendency to protect his public image at all costs. True genius is often marked by humility, a willingness to learn from others, and an ability to recognise and correct one’s mistakes – attributes that appear to be in short supply in Musk’s case.
- Exploitative Working Conditions: Reports of poor working conditions and long hours at companies like Tesla raise questions about Musk’s priorities. His relentless pursuit of aggressive production goals and deadlines, often at the expense of employee well-being, highlights a disregard for the people who contribute to his success. Such behaviour aligns with a narcissistic focus on personal achievements and goals, overshadowing the welfare of those working under him.
- Media Manipulation and Publicity Stunts: Musk’s affinity for headline-grabbing stunts, like launching a Tesla Roadster into space or proposing flamethrowers for sale, serves to maintain his public persona as an eccentric and daring innovator. These attention-seeking tactics can be seen as attempts to feed his own ego and keep himself in the spotlight, rather than genuine efforts to advance meaningful technological progress.
So Why Should We Care?
The dangers of idolising figures like Elon Musk extend beyond the realm of individual perceptions. The hero-worship culture that often surrounds such figures can inadvertently elevate their ideologies and influence societal values. When society elevates individuals who prioritise personal gain and self-promotion, it can lead to a distortion of priorities, ultimately shifting the Overton Window – the range of ideas considered acceptable in public discourse – towards more self-centred and profit-driven perspectives.
This shift can have far-reaching consequences, particularly when it comes to political and social ideologies. The idolisation of figures like Musk, coupled with a media landscape that often amplifies their narratives, can contribute to a normalisation of certain behaviours and attitudes. As a result, policies that prioritise individual interests over collective well-being, deregulation that favours the wealthy, and a disregard for environmental concerns can gain traction under the influence of these prominent figures.
The rise of figures like Elon Musk has been accompanied by a similar phenomenon in the realm of politics, most notably with individuals like Donald Trump. The elevation of wealthy individuals who promote a cult of personality and prioritise self-interest over public good can lead to a shift in societal norms, making extreme and divisive ideologies seem more acceptable than they once were. This shifting of the Overton Window towards the right not only threatens social cohesion but also jeopardises democratic institutions and the pursuit of equitable progress.
The adulation of figures like Elon Musk and Donald Trump reflects a contemporary societal trend, driven by the allure of charismatic personas in the age of media saturation; however, this infatuation should raise concerns about critical thinking. Blind idolisation can obscure flaws, diminish rational discourse, and impede a well-informed democratic decision-making process.
Article copyright Grishma Jashapara
About the Author
Grishma Jashapara is the Managing Partner at Fusion Associates, with a rich background in entrepreneurship, music management, and executive recruitment. Her expertise lies in spearheading senior appointments within the global fashion and luxury sectors, and writing on the big issues of today and tomorrow.