From Elon Musk to Elizabeth Holmes and Donald Trump, many very rich people are effective at convincing us of a myth: they're secretly a genius, and you're just too dumb to understand. Are they right?
Well said. (Vonnegut is my favorite author - and Cat’s Cradle is my favorite book). And you’re right to point out the relational aspect of this. The Musk super fans on Twitter are quite a strange phenomenon, making it their mission to police anyone who dares suggest the Emperor Has No Clothes. Thanks for the very kind words - I’m very glad you’re reading and commenting. I’m hopeful that as more people join, there will be debates within the posts, functioning as a mini social media site of intellectually curious people.
You could have written this article about my last boss, who was a malignant narcissist and exhibited all the traits of the “dark triad”. But he ended up self-destructing as he surrounded himself with people who refused to challenge him and finally his worst impulses revealed he was not all he claimed to be. He has since disappeared from public view and our industry. Persona non grata!
Getting to the heart of this article, what the simulations cannot reveal is the psychology of the “con” which takes somebody willing to over-promise and lie, and the “marks” who are looking for meaning or belonging and want to be associated with rising stars, or those of great import since their everyday lives are so “mundane” or seemingly meaningless. What Kurt Vonnegut would call “wampeters” or something people can gather around to give them meaning.
I think a follow up on what you have written here is why “secret geniuses” attract a cult like following and what it is their “marks” are missing that make them so susceptible to such cons, charlatans, and cranks on a regular basis. I think it goes back to the feeling of powerlessness, boredom, and victimhood based on where they started in life beyond their control or encountering bad luck, or lack of talent or some combination of all three. It pairs well with being in educational and social silos I mentioned in my last comment on the last post.
Your work and posts are insightful and refreshing for me given my work in a highly technical space (power systems, energy and enviro Econ). Look forward to the next post!
So interesting. Found your great podcast series a couple years ago - “Power Corrupts” - and I’ve been a fan ever since. You are an excellent teacher & communicator of big things, big ideas that can be off putting to we common folk. This Age of Narcissism seems to be defining, and here to stay. I don’t see how it stops given the vast tools of tech & media available to every disordered human walking among us. I think it’s also creating more disordered humans who might never have matured into full blown sociopaths in the pre-internet era. The only defense is knowledge and a desire to “avoid catastrophe” like your Grand Dad said.
There’s a very good May, 2022 “NYTimes Presents” episode on Musk/Tesla - available on HULU. It clearly shows him creating his Super Genius persona with utterly ridiculous over-promising marketing bullshit… all of his world changing things are always ‘just 2 years away.’
I also think there’s a reason Elon is diving into Right Wingdom, just as trump did. That’s where the most marks dwell, the most authoritarian-curious, cult-susceptible people with maximum self-regard (and usually minimum reasons for such).
Brian, your ideas on genius are thoughtful and enlightening; truly unique. Where I may differ with you is on the premise of power. Perhaps I haven’t read enough of your work to judge your perspective on the subject, but as most people I know, the popular view on power is based on the famous Lord Acton quote where absolute power is the thing that “corrupts absolutely”.
I disagree with his assertion, wholeheartedly; preferring to side with a quote from the Nobel prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who stated that it is not power that corrupts, but “fear of losing” it.
Simple yet profound, these words helped me to crystallize this very basic human tendency, for it describes most forms of evil resulting from the loss (or feared loss) of power, influence, stature and control.
I’ve been using this principle in my writings to describe the motives of some of my characters. I believe it has made all the difference in humanizing their actions.
I look forward to reading more of your posts.
Enlightening piece on topics near and dear to me - thank you! Now I’ll have to pick up Corruptible to learn more.
I tend to agree on one hand, but I do think Elon is also legitimately quite talented in his own technical sphere on top of being primarily a talented manipulator. Still a d-bag, just not a talentless one, and an idiot in many respects too. And I think his recent moves highlight he values other aspects of Twitter than the traditional media ad potential. For social media - users, their content, their advertising potential are the valuable commodity. I think Elon sees Twitter as a Big Data mine to train artificial intelligence (which is why he has throttled views), get massive amounts of personal/personality data freely volunteered and also an information weapon to effect political influence (why he has tried to wholesale change staffing, invited far right monsters back and is running weird influence ops like “The Twitter Files”). This is how he now wields Twitter, and I wonder if there are payments or coercion behind the scenes with Elon and his Middle Eastern tyrant partners. After all, Bezos claims they tried to blackmail him, resulting in the most expensive divorce in human history. Saudi leader MbS is no-doubt a dark triad monster himself, having bullied his way to the top of the Saudi royal family.
Not so for Trump, the technical talent, but Trump is still sneaky talented I think, less stupid than he appears, its just with darker goals than most want to contemplate. Trump’s talent is 100% self promotion and manipulation. Like Hitler. And while its all too common to bring up that name, we shouldn’t wince at the comparisons- we have fascism here again.
I recently wrote my own amateur take on dark triad traits, how they are developed within groups/families, and the intersection of these personality traits with political preferences/authoritarianism…I really think all this is at the center of our global conflicts
Pls check out my free blog, thanks again!