Visionaries are People Who Can See in the Dark: Justine Musk (Transcript)

Full text of author Justine Musk’s talk: Visionaries are People Who Can See in the Dark at TEDxUIUC conference. In this talk, Justine breaks down the ingredients of what it takes to change the world.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Justine Musk – Author, and former wife of Elon Musk

I also wish that I was walking out with a boombox but I just have water, which I’m going to take a sip right now.

So, I have five kids; twins and triplets. Yeah, I know, all boys. Yeah, and no multiples do not run in my family and yes, it was IVF. So, just get that on the table.

But over the course of last years, I hear myself saying pretty typical mom things like ‘please take the light sabers off the dinner table’. Yeah, you know, I would prefer it if you did not eat your brother’s head, and the dog is not a rocket so no, you do not have permission to launch him.

But the other day, I heard myself say ‘yes, why? Yes, you may watch that episode of The Simpsons that they made about your dad’ because the man in question their father, you know, my ex-husband or as I sometimes like to think of him, my baby daddy, so is the visionary entrepreneur… sorry I’m nervous, is a visionary Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX.

I met him when I was 18, he was 19. We were at college. He would call me up. He always had classical music playing in the background and he would ask me out and I would say no. And he would call me up again and he would ask me out and I would say no, and it went on like this until we ended up living together in an apartment in the Bay Area, which we shared with three roommates and a miniature dachshund, who was not house trained.

And by the time we divorced, we were living in a house in Bel Air with no roommates and a miniature dachshund, who still was not house trained.

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So, it’s a really funny Simpsons episode. Elon has this meaningful relationship with Homer, it’s very romantic. And at one point, the Smithers character says to another character that somebody like Elon must have a darkness in his soul. My mouth goes dry.

And as a dark fantasy writer who’s had novels published by major publishers in stories and ontologies and has a blog, this line leaped out at me because I actually think a lot about creativity and darkness and the larger-than-life nature of these people that we call visionaries and geniuses or as my son likes to say, G9.

And darkness does not have to mean evil, you know, it can refer to anything that has not yet been brought out into the light, that lives in the space beyond boundaries, beyond our comfort zone, where a lot of us do not want to go.

The writer Lucy H. Pearce has a quote that I like a lot. She says ‘As creatives, our job is to uncover what lies in the darkness and give it new life, new identity’.

And I realized that artists and entrepreneurs are a lot alike and that they are both obsessed with creating something out of nothing with pulling value from the dark.

So, when I was preparing this talk, I said to Elon, you know, so do you have any advice that I could maybe give to bright young things in the audience, you might want to like grow up to be you one day. And he did say something which I’ll get to at the end.

But he also said, you know, I don’t know if they would still want that if they really knew what it’s like to be me. And it made me think that before we call these people visionaries, before they have that kind of success, we have other words for them. We call them, you know, geek or outsider, socially awkward, weird, a little different, odd one out.

I’d been friends with one person for ten years before he told me that when he was a kid, he hated going to school because the other kids liked to follow him home and they would throw soda cans at his head. So, he sought refuge in computer games, which got him into coding, which led to the creation of his first company, which he sold by the time he was in his mid-20s so, you know, nobody is throwing cans at him now.

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One of the most interesting pieces of advice I ever got as a writer was to start out by imitating the voices of your literary heroes, which is what most of us tend to do anyway, but to pay special attention to those places where your voice does not sound like a hero’s voice anymore because it’s starting to insist on doing its own thing is that’s the direction that you should go in.

And I think in life, a lot of us reach that point earlier than others because of the way difference is kind of baked into the way that we see the world. I have one son who was diagnosed with mild to moderate autism when he was around four years old. He’s now considered to be off the spectrum but he has this really, you know, unique and beautiful mind and the other day, I took him out to Texas barbecue to the horror of his vegetarian brother.

And he looked at me and out of the blue, he said ‘mom, what a faux tag of photo’ and I said ‘photographic memory’ and he said ‘yeah, everybody always tells me that I have one. And so what is it?’

And I explained to him that while, you know, you store memories as photographs and video clips and when you’re trying to remember something, you scan these images until you can extract the information that you want. And by the way, you have a great sense of color.

And so he looked at me and his jaw dropped and he said ‘you mean, other people don’t think like that?’ And I was glad that I could reflect that back to him as a strength because strength and vulnerability go hand-in-hand, you know what sets you apart can serve as a unique differentiating factor or as a friend of mine likes to say your factor of Awesomeness. But it can also make you a target.

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And any kid who spent any time on a school playground knows that this is a risky position for anybody to take.

One visionary told me that when he was a kid, he became so aware of how differently he thought from other kids that he was afraid, he was insane. And he was afraid that people would find out about him and they would come for him and they would take him away and lock him up in an asylum because he had read about these places in books. And who knows, maybe if it’d been born into very different circumstances, that’s exactly what would have happened.

The word scapegoat comes from an old ritual in which villagers would gather in the square and they would choose this poor adorable goat and they would do the ceremony in which they were loading up the goat with all their sins and then they would chase him out of the square out of the village into the wilderness.

And it was understood that the goat was carrying away all the sins of the village and the people were absolved without having to actually change their behavior or even look too closely at it.

But for it to work, the goat could not come back, you know, it had to disappear into the horizon. It was probably going to Los Angeles. So, it was a cleansing ritual but it was also a bonding ritual because part of saying ‘this is us’ is pointing at somebody and saying ‘you are not one of us’, which has a way of segwaying into ‘oh, and by the way, it’s all your fault’.

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