“Driving” vs Driving

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It’s been quite a six weeks for Elon Musk and Tesla Motors. On March 31, Tesla held a launch event to partially unveil the details of its much-anticipated mass market electric car, the Model 3. Within a handful of days, the $1,000 pre-order deposits passed the 400,000 mark, all for a car whose design is not yet final and whose slow-roll delivery is hoped to begin by the end of 2017. A week after the event, Tesla’s stock (TSLA) price reached its highest point in 8 months. Six weeks later, however, the exuberance surrounding Tesla has been replaced by skepticism, which has taken a sizeable chunk out of the company’s value:

TSLA Stock Price

In order to meet the overwhelming demand for the Model 3, Tesla faces a steep production challenge. To meet that challenge, Musk announced that Tesla will be aggressively accelerating its production goals, aiming for 500,000 vehicles produced by the end of 2018 — two years ahead of the original plan.

Because I am neither a auto blogger nor a stock analyst, the point of all this is to provide context for what happened next: the cavalcade of cheap seat skeptics. This caught my attention because it is illustrative of something far more common facing leaders in any endeavor.

Take, for example, this piece last week in Forbes by Michael Lynch: “Elon Musk May Be Applying the Wrong Lessons to Tesla.” Here’s a sample of the illuminating expertise Lynch had to offer Musk (I encourage you to read the whole thing):

It seems to me Musk is being led astray by his experiences in other fields, at least when he applies the lessons to his electric vehicle venture, Tesla Motors. His two other undertakings, PayPal and SpaceX are very different in nature from building an automobile company. PayPal was a software venture, and SpaceX a special project, more research than consumer product, neither comparable in execution to building an electric vehicle company.

With software, you expect glitches and send out upgrades over the internet–sometimes. (How many times have you seen “Windows is searching for a solution to the problem” without getting one?) With cars, glitches are called defects, and require that each individual vehicle be delivered to a dealer for repairs. The company has apparently had problems with this.

In space flight, doing it absolutely right once is essential. In manufacturing, doing it very well many times is the goal.

Space flight involves the exceptional, and people are forgiving of missteps. Automobiles are mundane and as such missteps appear to be blunders. Ask anyone about Ford’s Pinto model and you will get a different reaction than if you ask about NASA ’s space shuttle, each of which had serious problems.

An organization attempting space flight involves huge resources focused on one or a few objects, whereas producing automobiles requires the resources be spread over large numbers, reducing management’s ability to catch errors.

Perhaps Musk also needs to recognize that much of the adulation he receives for his electric vehicle effort comes from advocates who place idealism over pragmatism, and often seem ignorant of basic economics, the history of either the automobile or electric vehicle industries, and chemistry and physics. Perhaps the one lesson that should be transferred from Silicon Valley to Tesla Motors is that you learn from failures, and Musk, with his past record of success, may still need some schooling.

In sum, Michael Lynch believes Elon Musk — creator of PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and sponsor of the OpenAI project — doesn’t understand the facial differences between those endeavors, and that his string of successes creating things is what has Musk so ignorant of the obvious things Lynch lays out in his article.

Who is Michael Lynch, you ask? I’ll let him tell you:

Michael Lynch bio

One last addition to his critique from this Ivory Tower Titan:

Correction: The initial version of this article erroneously stated that Elon Musk believed he could achieve one-minute charging of his vehicles. This was a misreading of an article stating that one-minute battery changing, or swapping, could be achieved, not charging. I apologize to Mr. Musk for the error and won’t blame my reptilian overlords. I also quoted from a 2011 article that incorrectly stated that Tesla said the Model X would be priced under $30,000.]

While he accuses Musk of misreading the lessons of his own tangible success, this Professional Critic misread one article and relied upon another incorrect article in forming his opinion that Elon Musk isn’t as smart as his ridiculous accomplishments make him appear.


This example is a microcosm of the separation of doing the work and expertise about the idea of doing the work, a development that traces all the way back to the Father of Industrial Scientific Management, Frederick Winslow Taylor. As people take risks, whether personal or professional, there are always those who “know better” from the safety of their seat in the viewing gallery. Heck, to a large extent, that is exactly what I am doing here. The problem is not in the expressing of an opinion and in providing the outsider’s take on things. Rather, the problem arises when doing so fails to incorporate any sense of humility that should come from the acknowledgement that mastering the idea of doing a task isn’t the same as doing the task.

In matters like this, it is tempting to close with the immortal words of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man In The Arena” quote, but doing so wouldn’t quite capture the point I’m trying to make here. Though one of my all-time favorite quotes, TR’s words are a close, 9-pt shot on this point. For the 10-pt bullseye, I can think of no better example than this Top Gear classic clip, in which Jeremy Clarkson experiences the all-too-real differences between mastering “The Corkscrew” turn at Laguna Seca in an Acura NSX on a Playstation … and trying to do the same thing for real.

Here are some things worth remembering for the simulation masters out there:

  • The main difference between the simulation and the real is emotional.
  • There is a difference between running a business and consulting to one.
  • There is a difference between helping people improve and analyzing their performance numbers.
  • There is a difference between creating value and analyzing business metrics.
  • There is a difference between leading people and making decisions that affect people.
  • There is a difference between knowing what you’re doing and knowing what you’re talking about.

The point isn’t that one side of these differences is correct and valuable and the other side is neither. Both perspectives are needed to maximize performance, effectiveness, and impact. The critical piece, though, is recognition of the difference.  For my money, I’m confident Elon Musk gets the difference. The Perpetual Theorists like Michael Lynch, on the other hand …

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