Elon Musk gives his Little Emperor center stage
A couple of weeks back, Elon Musk appeared to support an antisemitic view on his social media platform Twitter, now known as X. He later disavowed antisemitism in all its forms, but X is still projected to lose $75M in ad revenue this quarter because of the boycott-and many advertisers haven’t returned.
Last week, an interviewer asked Musk about the issue and Musk responded by saying the boycotting advertisers could go f*ck themselves. Yeah. He said that.
To prevent any misunderstanding, he repeated his words with more gusto.
And here I was-searching for an example to illustrate the perils of ignoring our Little Emperor, the defiant two-year-old part of our psyche who can’t handle it when someone thwarts our will.
Power Outage Syndrome
While some have argued that Musk’s response was brave, I doubt anyone has suggested his big moment helped him.
At the time, I’m sure Musk was convinced his outburst was his only viable choice. I call this scenario Power Outage Syndrome. When we’re in a conflict, it’s easy to feel like we have only two solutions: submit to the other’s will in a state of powerlessness or blow a fuse.
The sense that of being stuck in a bind with only two choices, submission or aggression, is an illusion. There’s always a third way.
There’s a way to move forward that will maintain your dignity while respecting the dignity of others-but you’ll never see the route to the third way until you deal with your Little Emperor.
A double dose of weakness
Far from being brave, Musk’s response was a double dose of weakness.
I don’t say that to shame him. Weakness is, after all, the defining feature of being human. But our valor lies in our ability to recognize and contend with our weaknesses-not our ability to spew forth FU’s to all who oppose us.
The first layer of weakness I’m speaking of is the Little Emperor himself. You see underneath his bluster, the little tyrant is actually afraid. He flairs up to protect us from something he’s afraid we won’t be able to handle.
That thing, as some readers will recall, is the place within our hearts where insecurities reside. I call it the Garden of Vulnerability
The garden is the second layer of weakness. It’s the vulnerable feeling that Elon’s Little Emperor was trying to protect him from feeling.
What was the particular fear that drove Musk? You don’t have to search too far for possibilities. It could have been a fear of his inadequacy, a fear of failure, or perhaps simply the fear of the damage to his pride that admitting he was wrong would bring. Or it could be something else entirely.
The only person who can uncover the precise makeup of that fear is Musk, of course. And if he ever wants to prevent his Little Emperor from having another break-out moment, he’ll need to come to a precise understanding of what it is. Vagaries don’t suffice.
Tragically, our Little Emperor always courts the very experience that we most fear. If Musk feared the failure of X due to advertisers leaving, he made it far more likely with his grand gesture.
The truly courageous act
True courage is the ability to feel whatever is within you-not the willingness to double down on stupid. Maybe you’ll agree with me that there are a lot of people in the world who could stand to hear that message right now.
What’s striking for me about Musk is that he was already so close to where he needed to be to turn his situation around. In that same flamboyant interview, Musk asserted that he is a philosemite (someone with special appreciation for the Jewish people) and expressed regret for the posting that prompted the boycott.
Had Musk found the courage to take one more step-had he encountered, processed, and resolved the fears in his garden-he would have found access to his true power, not been ruled by his flimsy, self-destructive Little Emperor.
It’s quite possible that his interview could then have spelled the end of the boycott rather than entrenching people in their opposition. Once you’ve overcome shame, it’s easy to swallow your pride with grace because your true pride lies in virtue.
Fortune favors the brave, after all-not the bravado.
You would think being the richest man in the world would make that easy. And by the way, the fact that it doesn’t is definitely something I would have preached about when I was a monk.
The missing piece
I’d hate for someone to think that courage alone is the solution so I’ve one last thing to add. Important as it is to muster the courage of self-confrontation, something else is more important: love.
We hide our Little Emperor from others as a courtesy. The problem is that we hide our Little Emperor from ourselves as well. We deny his existence altogether or, even, in cases like this, mistake his tirade for virtue because we wish to be so much better than we are.
But here’s the thing. If you can’t accept the fact that you have a Little Emperor smashing about in your psyche you’ll never see him at work. That task will remain too painful. The only way to see your Little Emperor is with love and acceptance.
Likewise, if you can’t love yourself in your Garden of Vulnerability you’ll never pass through the gate to that sacred place. Your Little Emperor won’t let you.
Simon is the author of An Introduction to the Self Salutation: How to resolve negative feelings through mindfulness meditation. He spent sixteen years as a Hindu monk and later earned a Masters Degree in Ethics from Yale. You can find out more at selfsalutation.com.