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.
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.
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.
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’.
An agent friend and I were discussing this book I might do in creativity and feminism and he said to me ‘you know, Justine, the problem with the women who read your blog is that well you guys want to be these like audacious, wild Mavericks but you still retain these traces of memories of when acting like that might get you burned at the stake.’
And I thought to myself ‘well, maybe he has a point’ and then I thought wait, wait, hold up, and I said to him, ‘you know, the women in my audience, well, we’ve spent part, if not most, if not all of our lives trying to amputate those parts of ourselves it did not fit, you know, we’ve tried to be pleasing and we’ve tried to do what’s expected and we suck at it.
And we eventually reach a point where we realize that we are so depressed or stuck or numbed out that the only way to save ourselves is to figure out how to be ourselves on purpose.
The word spinster originally referred to a woman, usually a young woman who earned her living spinning or weaving or as a seamstress. Of course, over time, it became a derogatory term that was used to refer to a woman who could not land the husband and had to rely on the largesse of male relatives because she had no household of her own.
So, she was pushed to the edge of society. If she did not fall out of that society altogether. But the edge can be a very interesting place to be. I mean it can be lonely and painful and sometimes dangerous and I don’t mean to underplay any of that.
But it’s also the place where something is in the process of turning into something else. Revolution enters at the edges and so some of these women, who did not have to center their lives on housework or serving the needs of men and children, well, they could write and they did. They could write seriously and they did. They could become Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, the Bronte sisters.
One of the leading novelists of the Victorian era was a writer named George Eliot, also considered to be one of the greatest writers in English language. George’s real name was Mary Ann Evans and she grew up as a bit of an odd doc because she was a brilliant girl in an age when brilliant girl was an oxymoron. And she was considered to be ugly, you know, she was considered to be unmarriageable and she never did marry.
But when she hit middle age, she shacked up with this younger guy, who really adored her and they lived together at wedlock for the rest of their lives and society, of course, was like shocked and appalled and they would not invite Mary Ann to join them in any of their reindeer games.
So, and on the edge, she created her own circle, you know, of free thinkers and Bohemians and some of the leading intellectuals of the day and she wrote the seven novels that made her name. See, Mary Ann Evans was a fallen woman but George Eliot was a literary genius.
The dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, who founded modern dance has a famous quote about creativity that I just love and it goes like this: ‘There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that translates through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, it is unique. If you block it, it will not exist in any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine if it is good or if it is valuable or how it compares to any other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly and to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself and your work, you just have to stay open and aware to the urges that motivate you and keep the channel open. And part of the work of keeping the channel open is to show up day after day after day at a room of your own or a corner of your own where you can pursue your obsessions’.
The mythologists and the academic Joseph Campbell refer to this as your bliss station and he recommended that everybody have one, because it’s at your bliss station, where you can discover who you are is creative and you can get on and you could stay on the road to mastery because it’s when you get really good at whatever it is that you do, that the meaning you create for yourself resonates with the inner lives of others. The best stories are the ones that resurface from the dark.
I was in San Francisco recently and a friend of mine called around 1 o’clock in the morning and you live just up the street. And he told me that a friend of ours, a mutual friend of ours had just dropped by with his new girlfriend, Courtney Love and did I want to come hang out and so I was like ‘yeah’.
And the Courtney had a band Hole and they did this album ‘Live Through This’, which I listened to over and over in college and it got me through a difficult time and I wanted to tell Courtney this. So, I meet my friend and as we’re going up in the elevator, he says to me very casually, ‘You know, Courtney was just telling us how she spent the last twenty years listening to the women of Generation X, tell her how much they loved her album Live Through This and they’ve been listening to it over and over and over, then it got them through a difficult time and she’s really sick of hearing this’.
So, I thought ‘oh, good to know’. So, we talked about Britney instead, but I believe that there are people who learn how to carry the sins of a village, who learn how to interrogate that darkness instead of being crushed by it. And they are the ones who become the truth-tellers, the provocateurs, the artists and the visionaries of the culture and they use their art and their magic and their tech and their intellect to not only show us who we are in a way that we can understand and accept but also who we can be. They create new tribes and new worlds that call their people home.
During my years with Elon, I became familiar with a distinct and deeply tribal mentality known as Engineers. And once when my dad came to visit, I was taking him to see Elon at Elon’s first company, at Zip2 and we were crossing through the office park and we saw these lanky dudes in jeans and t-shirts and they were racing these remote-controlled contraptions around the parking lot and banging them into cars.
And my dad said to me ‘Oh, are these the children of the engineers?’
And I said ‘No, dad. These are the engineers.’
And when Elon and I would travel and we had to fill out those forms of customs that wanted to know your occupation, you know, Elon never wrote down CEO or king of the world or studly international playboy, he wrote engineer and he wore jeans and t-shirts to work.
And whenever we went shopping for clothes or later consulted with the stylist, whose name was Martin, he would say ‘No, you don’t understand. I can’t look cool or hip because I have to look like an engineer.’
And one of the things that he told me, although I don’t know if it’s true now, it was back then, was that engineers could not quite figure out why it was that the suits made the big money when it was the engineers who actually built the stuff that they were selling.
And meanwhile the suits would listen to the engineers talk and they would have no idea what they were saying. And that’s when I realized that Elon was somebody who had learned to speak both languages and he could move between the tribes because he was an engineer in a suit and he brought together world.
And this is what an engineer does, I mean, this is what a visionary does. It not only creates something new but they become the living embodiment of it, they don’t just tell us a new story, they are that story. And soon they don’t even have to open up their mouth, they just walk into the room.
I recently read a profile on Elon and he’s quoted as saying something to a friend and this happened during the time we were still married together and he said something to this friend that he never said to me. And he was saying that he was prepared to sacrifice everything, his entire fortune to get a rocket into orbit, and he said ‘I don’t care if Justine and the kids and I end up living in Justine’s parents basement, I’m going to make this happen.’
And so I read this and I kind of wanted to go back in time and go up to him and take him by the shoulders and look him very seriously in the eyes and say ‘Have you seen my parents basement?’.
So, I’d like to wrap up by getting to Elon’s advice, which is to always go beyond memorizing formulas, passing tests, to always go deep into the underlying principles of a subject to track any problem down to the root cause, bury it in the dirt in the dark.
And I would add to that and say be brave enough, be bold enough and be insane enough to see things more completely, more vividly, more fully than everybody else around you and refuse to look away from what you see and what you know even if people want to burn you at the stake, because visionaries, they take all that passion and their badass personalities and their mad skills and the mastery of their chosen subject matter and they use it to put themselves on the line unlike anybody else you’ll ever meet.
And it’s this that allows them to open up windows into another deeper reality in which transformation is possible and things of Awe happen on a regular basis, because in the beginning, we don’t trust them because we think they’re crazy but by the end, we trust them because we know they’re crazy.
They’re crazy enough to accomplish anything and risk it all in order to bring us something new to believe in. They might make lousy husbands and terrible wives, they might be the friend who never sends you a birthday present and forget to show up for coffee but they bring light to the dark and they show us the universe.
Keep the channel open.
Resources for Further Reading: