0131 + 0132 – Tesla Motors, Neil Tyson, Singapore, Vision and Benevolent Dictatorship

There are few things I’m more excited about than Tesla Motors. The company is committed to pulling the future forward to meet the present by accelerating the development of electric cars.

Tesla’s Model S is the safest car on the planet. Despite this, the few accidents and fires that the cars have gotten into have received a disproportionate amount of media coverage. In response, CEO Elon Musk wrote this blogpost which details how the cars are getting a defensive upgrade, despite already being the safest car in the world.

I find that exhilarating. Here’s  a comment on Hacker News that perfectly explains why:

This is what you get when a company/group/effort/community is lead by a “benevolent dictator” – someone with an absolutely pure vision of what they want their output to look like and the autonomy and strength to make it so no matter what.

I love this… I actually love that it probably pissed off Musk to no end the amount of attention the fires got and out of spite he went totally over the top and added ballistic plating to the bottom of the car as a super-constructive “fuck you” to everyone that bitched about it.

I am picturing this same thing happening at Chrysler or GM and I think 9 out of 10 CEOs would just let the whole non-issue blow over and go back to business – and the 1 CEO that would try and push for a ridiculous over-engineering solution like this would probably get shot down by the board.

That’s why I like this, it’s going way above and beyond because he can and because he believes in the vision he is selling so firmly that there is no wiggle room: “My cars are the best and goddamnit, I’m going to make them the best.”

I can think of two other examples that remind me of this. Apple under Steve Jobs, and Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew.

I’ll talk about Steve Jobs first. A lot of people have pointed out on multiple occasions that Steve Jobs could be a very rude, hostile, unlikeable person. He cheated Steve Wozniak out thousands of dollars, and did a bunch of really nasty things. Hardly a “benevolent” guy.

But “benevolent” in this case isn’t about personality. It’s about the relationship that a person has with the company or organization that she’s helming. The conventional dictator (think of any failed state) is one who extracts value from the State or Company to fatten her own wallet, at the expense of everyone else around her.

A benevolent dictator is one who uses her influence and power to enrich the State or Company. I don’t think anybody can dispute that this is what Steve Jobs did. His relentless commitment to “insanely great”, however pathalogical it was, put Apple on the map. It catalyzed and midwifed the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone.

Sure, in all of those cases Jobs got more credit than was due, but I think that’s just a common human failing. The media can always take the trouble to emphasize how many people are involved in Apple’s success, but it’s easier to  I think it’s reasonably fair to say that Apple was better off with Jobs than without him. I’m writing this blogpost on a MacBook Air. I am a benefactor of Steve’s reality distortion field.

It’s pretty clear to me that Elon Musk today has similar tendencies. His ridiculous obsession with making electric cars work goes above and beyond the call of duty. You can see him get emotional and tear up when talking about how car dealerships are cheating the American people. To quote Jalopnik:

 Even when it brings out his Nixonian tendencies, Musk is more than just a CEO — he’s a passionate defender of his company and his product, and he deeply wants to see it succeed.

Watching Elon Musk get emotional about his belief and his vision and his idea about what is right makes me want to work for him, so bad. Here:

Watching Elon Musk cry reminds me of, you know…

I’m also reminded of Neil Tyson’s passion for science and education, and how outraged he gets, how frustrated he is that the world doesn’t fully appreciate the splendour of Space. Watch “We Stopped Dreaming“.So. Much. Passion. Tyson doesn’t run an organization, though. He’s an educator. So that makes him a bit different.

Another guy who’s like this is Jiro from Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. We’re talking obsessive, relentless commitment to quality that goes beyond anything that’s ‘rational’. Insanely great.

In all of these cases, we can sense what pisses these guys off. Elon Musk hates the idea of democracy being perverted and the consumer being held back from the future of transportation. Neil Tyson hates the idea of ignorance limiting us from exploring the stars. LKY hated complacency and weakness and anything less that relentless. Jiro hates anything less than perfect sushi. Lee Hsien Loong hates… ? C’mon, he’s a human being, he’s bound to be pissed off at something. If we can all agree on something that pisses all of us off…

Here’s what I’m getting at, that I’ve been sort of skirting around for a long time. I feel like life should be purposeful, meaningful, exciting. I feel like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Neil Tyson, and yes, Lee Kuan Yew, all embody/embodied that. These are leaders that I’d drop everything to work for, because their vision is so solid, so unwavering. You wake up in the morning and you’re raring to go, beause you have an opportunity to make a dream become reality. I’m reminded of LKY’s “even if I’m being lowered into my grave” comment. He had fire in his speech.

A couple of LKY quotes:

  • “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”
  • “Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up.” 1988 National Day Rally, when he discussed the leadership transition to Goh Chok Tong in 1990.

Now, I disagree with LKY about a whole bunch of things. But I would have loved to have had him as a boss. I’ve read enough about him to believe that he had Singapore’s best interests at heart. He could have been wrong about certain things, just as any of us would be wrong about certain things if we were in charge. But he was also clearly, emotionally committed to the country in a way that I find very inspiring. (Now I’m thinking about Michio Kaku’s passion for physics, and how I was enthralled for 40 minutes while he talked about the fundamental forces of nature. Passion and purpose is unmistakable.)

I’ve had the privilege of meeting PM Lee Hsien Loong before, and he’s a really, really smart guy. I honestly believe that he cares very strongly about Singapore. But I’m going to talk emotions here. I can’t help but get the sense that he’s a protector, a guardian. He’s been handed something precious, and he has to keep it from breaking, from falling apart. (This is of course inaccurate in reality, but I’m talking about perceptions here).

It’s hard to be passionate about keeping something from breaking. That’s just depressing! It’s like being passionate about goalkeeping. Nobody really notices when you get it right, and everybody hates you when you get it wrong. Of course, goalkeeping is really important, but offense is really the best defense. LKY was more of a striker. He communicated that he knew what he wanted for the country, and he went out and got it. And we cheered as Singapore won the Malaysia cup.

I feel like that’s what Singapore needs, to become a more exciting place. We need Elon Musks and Steve Jobs(es?) and Neil Tysons. We need wins. The closest thing I’ve encountered to this is Tong Yee from School of Thought. That guy is inspiring as heck for the work he’s doing.

Now I’m sure that LHL and folks in government are working their butts off trying to make Singapore great. But I wish I felt it more. I wish we could all feel it more. We need something to live into, something to chase after, something to fight for. We need leadership that says “This is what I believe, and this is what I’m going to fight for, come with me, let’s go there.” For better or worse, LKY did do that. We have the luxury of fixating on the bad stuff only because the good stuff worked out.

I don’t mean this to be a criticism of the Government, though it could certainly be read as such. I think everybody needs to rise up and lead by example. I haven’t written very much about Singapore in a while because I’ve been busy with work, and I just got really tired of all the silly bickering that was happening on Facebook and on blogs.

I joked to some friends that Singaporeans really are like children, the way we bicker over MRT seats and hawker center ceilings. LHL and the government/civil service folks are worried about things like the Arctic Shipping Route, a possible Kra Isthmus Canal and Nuclear Security. Watch LHL’s interview on Charlie Rose and listen to how concerned he is about China, Burma, etc. (I can’t seem to find the full video anymore, but here’s the transcript). Imagine coming back from a Nuclear Security Summit and then having to worry about hawker center ceilings!

“I wonder how those hawker center ceilings are doing back home…”

Extreme case, I know. I don’t mean to imply that it is acceptable or excusable for PM Lee to be imperfect or tardy or to say stupid-sounding things (I heard something about Opposition Parties being Chilli Sauce recently). I don’t mean to say that hawker center ceilings are trivial and unimportant, either. (Well…) I’m just find myself empathizing with the PM a little. I’m reminded of how my boss (another really smart, hardworking guy) was slipping on little details when he was busy with things like fundraising and hiring new people. And of course he would be! The human mind has a limited bandwidth, no?

Paul Graham wrote a couple of relevant essays about this- one is The Top Idea in Your Mind, which describes how distractions from your central focus sap your ability to think well about what matters to oyu, and another is Good and Bad Procrastination, where he talks about how the “absent-minded professor,” who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another.”

Given how smart LHL is, I’m pretty damn sure that he doesn’t make silly chilli sauce analogies because he’s dumb. I think he does it because he doesn’t have the time and/or energy to sit around and craft those messages, because he’s probably focused on bigger things.

Of course, LHL has an team that keeps him updated and manages his schedule and all that, but still. I’m sure hawker ceilings aren’t anywhere near his top 10 list of concerns. And you know, I just wish Singaporeans would be a little more cognizant of that. I’m not saying it’s Singaporeans’ fault, or that it’s the Government’s fault… I’m really sick and tired of assigning blame. I think we all need to have a clearer sense of priorities. If somebody could set up priorities.sg, that would be great.

What’s the most critical, important thing for us to work towards together as a nation? My personal answer is- I think we need to fix our internal communications. I think we need to be more effective at making sense of reality. I think we should air our feelings, but when we’re done with that, we should figure out what’s the best course of action, find a reasonable amount of compromise and take that. I(My wife’s answer: Improving education, and/or public understanding of policies.)

What do I want? I want to be goddamn proud of being Singaporean. I really don’t think it’s too much to ask. I want to hear about Singapore making all sorts of progress at all levels. I want to hear more stories of us being kind and compassionate. I want to see toxic cesspits like Stomp losing their hold on popular Singaporean imagination. I want to hear about Singaporeans killing it in innovation. I want to hear about Singaporean startups kicking ass and taking names (I’m trying to help with this one!). I want to hear that our kids are getting smarter, are creating great art.

I want to see vision and purpose, and I want this place to be talked about with admiration and envy. I think we are completely capable of doing that. I think we have all the resources we need, all the quality people we need. We’re just waiting for a spark that sets us off in the right direction, a controlled explosion like an internal combustion engine rather than uncontrolled chaos.

may the good we achieve as one nation
be shared with the world

3 thoughts on “0131 + 0132 – Tesla Motors, Neil Tyson, Singapore, Vision and Benevolent Dictatorship

  1. dude i really like the way you think. just discovered this blog and your articles really hit home with me. yeap just leaving my appreciates, keep writing, you’re making the world a better place.

  2. Hi Visa,

    I stumbled upon your blog somehow (I can’t remember now) and read this post, and I have to say that these are great thoughts. You have a penchant for drawing links!

    I’d say I share your hope for a different (better) Singapore in many similar ways. (I’m going to start referring to Stomp as a toxic cesspit from now on) Anyway, keep up the good writing! Bookmarked your site. :)

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