It’s not the Ambien. Or if it is the Ambien, the Ambien is just a symptom. The real message and lesson of the New York Times’ jaw-dropping Elon Musk interview, in which he talks about working 120 hours a week, extreme exhaustion, and taking Ambien to sleep, is about the effects of sleep deprivation.
Musk is by his own admission highly sleep-deprived, a condition that in everybody who suffers from it results in impaired judgment at best, and outright disaster at worst. When you suffer from this affliction, you lose reasoning and problem-solving skills; you also suffer from short-term memory loss and stop being able to learn from your prior mistakes.
As we approach the 10th anniversary of the most desperate days of the financial crisis, many of the principals who suffered endless streams of sleepless nights look back on it as a kind of fugue state: a lot of urgency, of course, but also one where considered, well-rested decision-making was utterly impossible. In his crisis tick-tock, Too Big to Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin described then–New York Fed Chairman Tim Geithner desperately phoning up bank CEOs, trying to push them into forced mergers like some kind of deranged match-maker. That was far from being Geithner’s finest hour, in large part precisely because he was operating at the time on vastly insufficient amounts of sleep.
Earlier this week, James Stewart wrote a piece assessing Musk’s mental health. In it, he focuses on “the traits of entrepreneurs,” who, one psychiatrist says, “have mental health profiles that are associated with higher levels of creativity, higher levels of energy, higher levels of risk tolerance and higher levels of impulsivity.” If you’re already inclined towards implusivity, then a combination of recreational drugs (according to the Times, Tesla board members are “aware that Mr. Musk has on occasion used recreational drugs”) and sleep deprivation will exacerbate that tendency enormously. But there’s a good case to be made here that the dominant driver of Musk’s erratic behavior isn’t a pre-existing tendency—he hasn’t always been like this—so much as it’s just the fact that he’s not getting anywhere near the eight hours a night he needs.
In the Times interview, for instance, Musk—who sounds like he was being very open and vulnerable and honest, and who “alternated between laughter and tears”—says that he doesn’t recall “getting any communications from the board at all” about his now infamous tweet introducing the idea of taking Tesla private. That statement then needed to be walked back by a spokeswoman, because a board member actually did reach out to Musk. It’s possible that Musk made an active, spur-of-the-moment decision to lie to the Times. But it’s more likely that he was being honest, and that he just doesn’t recall those communications. Sleep deprivation will do that to you—just like it will send you to the Ambien bottle.
Musk says that he hasn’t had a full week off work since 2001, when he was bedridden with malaria; he needs much more than that to get balanced and back to health. What’s more, he doesn’t need to look far for proof that he doesn’t have to spend every waking hour micromanaging operations to build a successful company. Musk is the CEO of SpaceX, which is performing extremely well, and where he has managed to delegate virtually all of his duties, just as a CEO should. If he can do it there, he can do it at Tesla, too.
Right now Musk is acutely aware of his current downward spiral, telling the Times that “from a personal pain standpoint, the worst is yet to come.” But it doesn’t need to be that way. If he wants to be able to lead Tesla and SpaceX, the most urgent and important thing that he can do is to simply go on vacation. Take a few weeks off, catch up on much-needed sleep, get off the internet entirely, maybe read some fiction. Recuperate, basically. Then, rested, he can return to work less paranoid about short-sellers, with a focus on the long-term health of his companies. For the time being, however, every extra hour that Musk spends on the job is damaging not only his own physical and mental health, but the corporate health of Tesla, too.