Being A Real-Life Tony Stark Is Hard Work. How Does Elon Musk Cope?

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In an emotional hour-long interview with the New York Times last week, Elon Musk described the past year of his life as being exceedingly difficult. “This past year has been the most difficult and painful year of my career,” he said. “It was excruciating.” After the interview was published on August 16, Tesla stock — which soared last week after Musk tweeted a plan to take the company private — sank 9%. When the carnage was over, the market capitalization of the company was $5 billion less at the closing bell than it was at the beginning of the day.

Elon Musk via Twitter

Where Did $420 Come From?

Where did Musk come up with the suggested price of $420 per share he put in his now famous tweet? He says he wanted to give investors about a 20% premium over the current price of the stock. The math on that penciled out at $419 a share. Musk says he decided to make it a nice round $420 instead.

The Times says “420” is a common code for marijuana on the street. Asked if there was any connection, Musk replied, “It seemed like better karma at $420 than at $419 but I was not on weed. To be clear, weed is not helpful for productivity. There’s a reason for the word ‘stoned.’ You just sit there like a stone on weed.”

Is Ambien To Blame?

But Musk apparently is taking something else. He described in intimate detail how he would often stay holed up at the Tesla factory for three or four days at a time and even nearly missed his brother’s wedding in Spain because he was so involved in getting through “production hell” with the Tesla Model 3, and he admitted, “It is often a choice of no sleep or Ambien.” Ambien is a popular sedative that helps people get to sleep. But it can have some bizarre side effects.

According to, “Ambien may impair your thinking or reactions. You may still feel sleepy the morning after taking this medicine, especially if you take the extended-release tablet, or if you are a woman. Wait at least 4 hours or until you are fully awake before you do anything that requires you to be awake and alert.”

The Guardian reports Musk is not the only high profile person who may have found that Ambien has some sinister side effects. Roseann Barr sent some disturbing tweets in May that led to her latest television show being cancelled. “It was 2 in the morning and I was Ambien tweeting,” Barr said by way of explanation. Golf great Tiger Woods tested positive for Ambien after he was arrested for drunk driving in 2017.

Charlie Sheen doesn’t need much help behaving irrationally, but after trashing his New York hotel room in 2011, he told the TV news show 20/20, “Ambien, the devil’s aspirin! I think that led to that thing in New York. That was the one thing in the mix that was not part of my normal blend.” Nobody really wants to know more about what Sheen’s “normal blend” might be.

Am I A Musk Hater?

Right now, some of you are getting out your poison darts and aiming them in my direction. How dare I write anything critical of Elon Musk? Am I an Elon hater? Actually, I am far from it. It can be argued that Musk has done more that any person in history to effect the changes needed to keep the Earth inhabitable. He has almost singlehandedly upended the global automotive industry by teaching those who had no desire to learn that electric cars are preferable to their gasoline-powered cousins.

He is a tireless advocate for eliminating fossil fuels, which may be the most important thing a leader can do today as the effects of climate change become increasingly obvious. He has taught rockets to fly backwards and spurred the development of high-speed underground transportation.

Many have compared Musk to Tony Stark, the star of the movie Iron Man, but real-life superheroes are subject to real-world restraints. Musk, like anyone else, is only human, and pretending to be otherwise is exacting a toll on him. He says friends are concerned about his health, which he admits is “not great.” Musk blames much of his troubles on short sellers. He told the Times, “I thought the worst of it was over but from a personal standpoint, the worst is yet to come.”

Tesla Board Sharply Criticized

If Musk’s troubles only affected his personal life, that would be one thing and nobody’s business but his own. But as TechCrunch points out, the cult of personality that has grown around Musk means the value of Tesla rises and falls with his erratic behavior. The tech outlet calls out the Tesla board of directors in no uncertain terms for sitting on its hands while Musk berated analysts on an earnings call, suggested a diver involved in a rescue operation in Thailand might be a pedophile, and got into a very public spat with a cartoonist about something quite trivial.

“Privately and on background the board (or certain members) expressed concern over Musk’s recent behavior, drug use (both medicinal and recreational) and Twitter habits,” TechCrunch says. “Those concerns should have been aired at the board level and the company’s directors should have exercised their ability to manage the mercurial Musk as his public actions became increasingly unmoored.” Bloomberg analyst Shira Ovide tweeted this week:

TechCrunch puts its concerns in the starkest possible terms. “The problem is that Musk’s cult of personality is so intertwined with Tesla’s corporate identity, there’s a fear that as Musk goes so goes Tesla. That’s no way to run a business, and it’s no way to ensure long-term value for shareholders (either as a public or private company). Ultimately the board at Tesla needs to step in and take a more active role in overseeing the company, before the next decision they find themselves confronted with is the company’s liquidation.”

A More Independent Board Might Help

Many institutional investors have advocated for a more independent board of directors, a move Musk vigorously opposed. But it seems what the company has instead is a collection of Musk family, friends, and other sycophants who don’t know how to say no to him. Ultimately, that isn’t good for Tesla, its shareholders, or the world. If Tesla fails, the fossil fuel industry and other automakers will celebrate as they quickly return to their traditional “business as usual” mindset.

Musk may think using drugs can keep him pedaling furiously at the head of the zero-emissions juggernaut without exacting a physical or emotional toll. If so, he is seriously misguided. In the immortal words of Inspector Harry Callahan, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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