When silence is golden

When silence is golden


WE ALL have that friend – the one who’s the expert on everything, thinks they can fix everything and, just because they did something quite well once in the past, imagines everything they’ve done since then and will do in future is the best there is. 

I had such a friend at school, who the teachers used to say was “mechanically gifted, for a girl”. She was mechanically gifted, full stop. She made things with her brain and with her hands that were not only fantastically useful but also beautiful. Even before we left school she disappeared into her dad’s shed and emerged with an elegant air-driven device for putting caps on bottles of her boyfriend’s home-brewed beer; several decades later it still works perfectly, and he still uses it. 

‘Some of the smartest people I know are cheerfully financially challenged; some of the richest people I know are as dumb as a sack full of hammers.’

She embarked on a successful career as an engineer and was doing brilliantly, generating one great idea after another. But she also generated some odd ideas about immigration and because all her other ideas were routinely so well received she thought these other ones would be too. Let’s just say they got in the way of her being promoted within the firm that employed her once they found their way to head office, which happened to be in Mumbai.

For a certain cohort of acquaintances, the equivalent friend is Elon Musk. I’ve written about Elon before, after he put a Tesla Roadster into orbit on live TV. That impressed The Companion, in his capacity as amateur rocketeer and drone pilot; but I, too, had to admit to a certain admiration for the feat. Not just the technical aspect of it, but the sheer showmanship.

And good on him for what he’s done since founding PayPal – an idea so neat that eBay bought it for $US1.5 billion in 2002, back when a billion and a half dollars was a lot of money – including developing SpaceX and the Tesla car business. But let’s not forget Elon didn’t found Tesla; he took control of it after it ran into financial trouble in 2008. Right time, right place, as so many of these self-made billionaires seem to be. (At the time of writing, however, the definition of “self-made” is undergoing furious revision in the wake of Kylie Jenner’s proclaimed status as a “self-made” billionaire).

But I’ve gone back to my pre-Roadster-in-space opinion of the PayPal founder. Having a neat idea and getting a lot of money for it doesn’t prove anything except he had a neat idea and got a lot of money for it. Significant wealth does not necessarily and automatically equal being smart and I’m reminded of the line in Citizen Kane: “It's no trick to make an awful lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money.” Some of the smartest people I know are cheerfully financially challenged; some of the richest people I know are as dumb as a sack full of hammers.

Just because he’s become fabulously wealthy doesn’t mean every idea Elon has had since PayPal is equally as good; and it doesn’t mean we need to hang on his every pronouncement about every issue that catches his eye. I’m talking about his recent attempt to get involved in the rescue of the Wild Boars football team players, and their coach, from the cave in Thailand.

Elon has for a while now looked like he is morphing into a one-man International Rescue. You’re a state that has an electricity supply problem? Elon will fix it with his Big Battery. Want to shoot stuff into space? Let Elon do it for you, with his rockets. Got some kids trapped in a cave? Elon will get them out with a mini-sub and a big drill. 

On hearing the news of the proposed cave rescue The Companion shifted slightly and grunted from behind his copy of Drone Pilot Monthly, observing that it would only have half-surprised him if Musk were to have arrived in Thailand aboard Thunderbird 2.

When you fall into the trap of thinking your ideas are unbeatable and your opinion is the final word on any number of issues  – and must be heard by as many people as possible – then you do things like offer to build a mini-submarine to aid a rescue, and to airdrop water pumps and batteries and a drilling team to the cave site, and you get all grumpy when your offer of “help” is rejected by the people who really do know what they’re talking about and what they need to get the job done. Then you make tasteless and ill-advised comments on social media and people like me write about what a dick you actually are.

So he came out and apologised, which is really the least he could do, but it doesn’t change the petulance and poor judgement he displayed in the first place. And there’s a lesson for all of us in Elon’s travails. Like my grandmother used to tell me, and someone should have told Elon: never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.