Elon Musk and The Challenge of Negative Judgments


There was, recently, a very interesting development in the automotive industry.  If you’re a business owner who wants to make money while making the world a better place, some of the reactions to the announcement have deep relevance for you. 


There is a cynicism in the general public and in the media that leads them to be highly suspicious of what business people do, even entrepreneurs.  If you’re not prepared for those reactions, you could find yourself discouraged by them.  But if you understand them and even anticipate those reactions, you can overcome them and, indeed, inspire a better way of thinking.


Elon Musk announced that he would open up all the patents of Tesla Motors.  (If you don’t know, Tesla is the maker of high performance, long range pure electric cars.)  He stated that “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”  His stated purpose is to push the rest of the automotive industry to accelerate their development of electric vehicles as part of his desire to see a more aggressive approach to tackling climate change. 


However, within a day of the announcement, pundits and analysts were pronouncing on his “real” motives.  You see, by allowing his technology to become open-source, it will increase the viability of the electric vehicle sector overall.  Even if big players come into the market and capture larger pieces of market share, the overall marketplace will expand leading to higher overall sales for Tesla.  And that is really why Elon did this: to increase sales.


Implicit in this analysis are 2 very insidious dynamics.  The first is quite subtle, but is important.  Without an interview, without comment from anyone close to Mr. Musk, these analysts are implicitly saying that he is lying and they know his true motivations, which are overridingly selfish.


Why this is so dangerous is because it feeds into a bit our evolutionary hard-wiring.  As a species, we have developed something known as a negativity bias.  To grossly over-simplify, our ancestors who were on the look out for danger were more likely to survive than those more focused on the beauty of rainbows and flowers.  So that bias has survived.    Because of this bias, we are likely to believe the media analysis, confirming our worst views of people.


I have developed an operating principle that I encourage you to adopt.  Whenever I hear someone say “the reason they are doing that is because…” I assume that whatever follows “because” is wrong.  It is arrogant to believe we can know the reasons for the actions of others.  In addition, the negative conclusions are usually wrong.  In 6 ½ years as a litigation lawyer, I saw only 2 people that could be described as “bad guys.”  But because of the negativity bias, we’re instinctively predisposed to assume the worst possible motivation. However,  the reality is that most people aren’t inherently nasty.


As an ethical entrepreneur, it also suggests it’s important for you to be explicit about your motivations.  While some will still try to question your motives, there are other folks who will accept you at your word and knowing that there are entrepreneurs who do things for the right reasons may help restore their faith a bit. 


The second dynamic in the analysis of Musk’s motives is the oppressiveness of “or.”  What I mean by that is that these pundits (and many members of the public) assume you must either have a desire to do good OR a profit motive, as if they’re mutually exclusive.  Can you choose clothing because it doesn’t come from a sweatshop AND because it’s fashionable?  Can you love your first child AND your second child?  When you make love, can you desire both the pleasure of your partner and yourself? 


Of course you can.  Can you then wish to make the world a better place and make a lot of money?  Of course you can.  Indeed, under our current free enterprise system, I argue that, as an entrepreneur, you must make a lot of money if you want to expand your positive impacts. 


Would Elon Musk be in a position to influence the entire automotive industry if he had not made a lot of money?  He has been advocating for different kinds of more environmentally responsible public transportation systems.  If Tesla becomes even more successful, might he be able to have a greater influence there as well? 


So, here’s what I’m driving at.  As you become more successful, you will experience this kind of criticism.  People will question your motives.  They’ll assume they know what they are.  Many will simply be unable to wrap their heads around the fact that you authentically want to make a difference through an activity that makes money. 


Suck it up. 


Don’t allow this to slow you down or to hold you back.  We need people willing to absorb this kind of critique so the positive changes we need do happen.  And we need more people overtly discussing and modeling this so we change the narrative and inspire more people to jump on board.  The more people there are making a difference, the more the voices of cynicism sound unreasonable.  As those voices fade, other potential entrepreneurs will choose that path, adding their creativity and passion to the efforts to make our world a better place. 


And that, my friend, is a good thing.