Elon Musk is undoubtedly our GIGA- Role Model for making our tech world a better place. A leader who has proven to the world that a renewable energy future is possible. According to him, humanity must become a multi-planetary, space-bearing civilization, and this leaves me with the warm feeling of abundance, reminding me of Deepak Choprah calming my restless and anxious mind.
At the same time, I have had a big problem with Elon Musk for years. It became apparent to me why I was interviewing Tanmay Bakshi, the teen coding prodigy, back in 2018 (please check out minute 3: 18 where I was curious and concerned about what it means to have a role model like this).
So, it is one of his narratives I never liked: The narrative which puts his success down to being a reckless genius working long hours during all of his life—being a maker, an achiever, an alpha male, a leader’s phenotype from the 80es and 90. Work hard, play hard.
Because this kind of role model can be damaging, it throws back the success in the mental health discussion again and again. Two days ago, the work hard play hard narrative has been altered. What happened? Well, Elon Musk appeared on SNL in a couple of sketches. As a consequence, Dogecoin sank, due to his remark that this currency is nothing but hustle.
But this is not all. Also, something really significant happened which brings us closer to authentic leadership and an honest discussion about Diversity and Inclusion. What happened at SNL that night, has been a huge and important milestone towards mental health. In tech and in the rest of the world.
Upon hosting SNL, Musk started out by declaring it was an honor to be in that position and added “I mean that”. Cue the obvious laughter that followed, he went on: “Sometimes, after I say something, I have to say I mean that – more laughter – so people really know that I mean it. That’s because I don’t always have a lot of intonational variation in how I speak. Which I’m told makes for great comedy”. He then went on to reveal himself to be the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL.
Any neurodivergent adult will understand why this is a big deal.
We grew up surrounded by an omnipresent narrative that divided people into two groups, with very clear-cut judgment cast on one by the other. The sane vs the insane. The healthy vs the sick. The normal vs the abnormal. Before the word “neurodivergent” appeared, we were used to dodging topics of conversation surrounding our mental health or cognitive functions, for fear of being labeled mad, weird, unemployable, or destined for failure and misery. In films, comics, books, and – most importantly – in real life, there wasn’t one single instance of success associated with anything less than impeccable mental health and commendable hard work. Sure, Van Gogh was a genius, but he also died poor and famously mutilated himself. We all marvel at the Starry Night, but no parent would wish for their child to be the next Van Gogh. To have the most celebrated entrepreneur on earth come out as having Asperger’s is a milestone in neurodivergent representation. It is an opportunity for thousands of children and adults around the world to realize that not being neurotypical is not barring them from achieving outstanding results. Even more than that, it is an opportunity for anyone who is neurotypical to realize that there is no reason to exclude neurodivergent people from their working environment, to not hire them or trust them with important decisions. This is a huge step forward in the direction of inclusion and the celebration of diversity and for this, I unreservedly commend both Elon Musk and the producers of SNL who agreed to include the bit about Asperger’s in the monologue. And no, I absolutely do not care if it was woke-baiting: it still matters. Representation always matters.
Where do we go from here?
Well, we could retrace our steps, for a start. Going back to my problem with the Musk narrative, I’d like you to picture a kid or a teenager with Asperger’s. They suck at making friends, they regularly fail to interpret social cues and express emotions. They are the school weirdo and struggle to make their underpaid teachers at their public school understand that they are honestly not dodging schoolwork, they just need to approach subjects differently. There are some things at which they excel, but they are considered to be an underachiever in many fields. The creepy boy who can’t play team sports. The awkward girl who doesn’t fit in. They also made the mistake of not being born into racial and economic privilege, so they struggle along in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Their drug habits are never considered the mark of a reckless genius, they are considered juvenile crime and land them in jail every now and then. They don’t get to turn down Stanford in order to start their own business, because they will never have any of the credential to get into Stanford nor the capital to found a company. If they are lucky, they might land a half-decent job, if they are not they will struggle to keep it and will get called “lazy” for not fitting in, not showing up and smoking pot, or “creepy” for failing to maintain eye-contact and making unusual gestures when they interact with others.
Those of us who experience neurodiversity know it is, in many sense, a superpower, we were just waiting for the rest of you to catch up.
Privilege is a sneaky beast. It is multi-layered and intersectional and there are aspects of it that we as a society systematically fail to acknowledge. You could have white privilege and be neurodivergent. You could have straight privilege and be poor. You could have the economic privilege and be queer. You could have male privilege and be poor. Whenever we pass judgment on someone’s achievement and set them up as a role model, we should look at the whole picture and acknowledge which aspects of privilege provided the stepping stones for that person’s hard work to produce results and what kind of discrimination hindered them.
Elon Musk owning his story about Asperger’s is a giant leap forward for neurodivergent representation. Those of us who experience neurodiversity know it is, in many sense, a superpower, we were just waiting for the rest of you to catch up. And if it takes Elon Musk delivering scripted jokes about cryptocurrencies and his own companies to do it, then so be it.