PayPal co-founder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel recently dubbed Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk a “negative role model” because his numerous ventures and innovations make him incredibly difficult to emulate. Thiel’s comments were related at the UCLA’s Internet50 event on Tuesday.
Thiel, who considers Elon Musk a good friend since his PayPal days, expressed his views on the Tesla and SpaceX CEO while debating with Robert Metcalfe, a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at University of Texas. Thiel and Metcalfe were discussing whether “true innovation has stalled,” with the PayPal co-founder taking the negative side and the professor arguing for the positive.
Comparing Musk to the late Steve Jobs of Apple, the Facebook board member remarked that the Tesla and SpaceX CEO was the “counterexample” to the argument that innovation has stalled. According to Thiel, Musk’s many ventures could actually discourage some young people to emulate him.
“It’s a very weird thing where that’s the go-to story is we have one person who helped develop electric cars and reusable rockets. But if you tell a young person, ‘why don’t you be like Elon?’ it’s a negative role model where the basic response is, ‘well that’s too hard, I can’t do that,’” he said.
Thiel added that it may simply be easier to suggest that a young person “start a computer internet company from your college dorm room,” seemingly a reference to Facebook’s early days.
While Thiel does have a point about Musk’s Renaissance Man approach to his ventures, it should be noted that part of the Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s allure to young people is the very fact that he is doing so much, from private spaceflight to electric cars and clean energy to high-speed transportation systems. Musk, if any, is providing a pretty good example to the idea that someone does not have to be confined in a box, and one has the choice to pursue several goals at a time. Such a lesson is not a bad one to teach to the young.
That being said, Elon Musk is setting the bar very high for those that attempt to emulate him. Musk has been very transparent about the struggles that he has faced with Tesla and SpaceX, particularly during the days of the original Roadster and the Falcon 1. To many, the risks that Musk takes are far too large and thus too frightening to emulate — and that’s completely fine. Daring innovators like Musk, after all, are best when they are left to innovate and inspire.