At the age of five, a lonely boy named Elon Musk (b. 1971) decided to walk on his own to his cousin’s birthday party. Elon was being punished for getting into a fight and had been told to stay home. Determined, he trekked nearly two hours to the other side of Pretoria, and arrived as the party was ending.
His mother was livid when she spotted him coming down the road. Afraid of being punished again, Elon climbed a maple tree and refused to come down. Kimball, his younger brother, stared up in awe. “[Elon] has this fierce determination that blows your mind and was sometimes frightening, and still is.”
As Walter Isaacson, the former editor of Time and biographer of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Henry Kissinger, makes clear in this revealing biography—written after shadowing the dazzling entrepreneur for two years—Musk’s “fierce determination” helps account for his enormous business successes at Tesla and SpaceX and reflects a complex emotional background.
Elon was shaped by parental abuse, schoolyard bullying, and debilitating Asperger’s, an autism-spectrum disorder that can affect a person’s social skills, relationships, emotional connectivity, and self-regulation.
“Out of this cauldron, Musk developed a fervor that cloaked his goofiness, and a goofiness that cloaked his fervor,” writes the author. “Slightly uncomfortable in his own body, like a big man who was never an athlete, he would walk with the stride of a mission-driven bear and dance jigs that seemed taught by a robot.
“His heritage and breeding, along with the hardwiring of his brain, made him at times callous and impulsive. It also led to an exceedingly high tolerance for risk. . . . He became one of those people who feels most alive when a hurricane is coming.”
Like his adventurer father (and his adventurer father), Musk was drawn to “dramatic intensity. At 33, he announced, “I’m going to colonize Mars. My mission in life is to make mankind a multi-planetary civilization.” His listener responded, “Dude, you’re bananas.”
Is Elon bananas? Or is he brilliant? Reading Elon Musk, one suspects he is a bit of both. He is certainly a fine engineer.
Isaacson says much of Musk’s success derives from his love of engineering. He may lack emotional intelligence, but he is a superb engineer. He is obsessive in insisting his engineers think and rethink their projects.
“Like a mountain climber paring the contents of his knapsack, Musk obsessed over reducing the weights of his [SpaceX] rockets,” writes the author. “That has a multiplier effect: removing a bit of weight—by deleting a part, using a lighter material, making simpler welds—results in less fuel needed, which further reduces the mass the engines have to lift.
“When he walked through SpaceX’s assembly lines, Musk would pause at each station, stare silently, and challenge the team to delete or trim some part. At almost every encounter, he maniacally hammered home the message: ‘A fully reusable rocket is the difference between being a single-planet civilization and being a multiplanet one.’”
Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, knows and supports his behavior. She has worked closely with Musk for more than 20 years, sitting in a cubicle right next to his at SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles, writes Isaacson. An engineer herself, she has an “easygoing assertiveness” that “allows her to speak honestly to Musk without rankling him and to push back against his excesses while not nannying him. She can treat him almost like a peer but still show deference.”
Shotwell has an added advantage when dealing with Musk. Her husband has Asperger’s. “Asperger’s can make a person seem to lack empathy,” writes Isaacson. Shotwell tells him that “Elon is not an ass, and yet sometimes he will say things that are very assholey. He just doesn’t think about the personal impact of what he’s saying. He just wants to fulfill the mission.”
Shotwell “does not try to change him, just salve people who get singed,” says the author.
Isaacson has gathered information from the man’s admirers and critics. He lays all of it out—Elon’s co-founding of PayPal and Tesla, his creation of his own rocket company, his amassing of the world’s largest fortune, as well as his “almost freakish love of risk” (he once braved a blindfolded knife-thrower at a party), his addiction to video games, his mercurial moods (“from light to dark to light”) and his mass firings of employees.
He says Musk is a man “brooding and encrusted with layers of complexity.”
As for his purchase of Twitter (now X): “Whenever he was in a dark place or felt threatened, it took him back to the horrors of being bullied on the playground. Now he had the chance to own the playground.”
Explains Justine, an ex-wife: “The strong will and emotional distance that makes him difficult as a husband may be reasons for his success in running a business.”
Musk talks like a superhero, and it is not surprising to learn he was the model for title character Tony Stark in Iron Man, as played by Robert Downey, Jr.
The book is bursting with stories: How Musk used his Starlink satellites in the Russian-Ukrainian War, how he crusades against the “woke mind virus,” and his impulsive, self-destructive stewardship of Twitter.
Small wonder that some drivers of his path-breaking Tesla electric cars display bumper stickers saying: “I bought this car before we all knew Elon was a jerk.”
A deeply engrossing tale of a spectacular American innovator.