Field guide to the universe of Elon Musk: the ‘risk-seeking man-child who resists potty training’
Biographer Walter Isaacson has produced a deeply researched, eminently readable biography of one of the most confounding technology entrepreneurs of our age.
It is reported that King Alexander the Great, hearing Anaxarchus the philosopher discoursing and maintaining this position: That there were worlds innumerable:
fell a-weeping: and when his friends and familiars about him asked what he ailed. Have I not (quoth he) good cause to weep, that being as there are an infinite
number of worlds, I am not yet the lord of one?
Once again, biographer and editor Walter Isaacson has tackled a larger-than-life global figure to chronicle, analyse, profile and interpret. This time around, he has turned his gaze and an eye for telling detail on to the saga of the temperamental business and electronics visionary Elon Musk. This has come after Isaacson’s previous efforts to define and understand figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin.
Isaacson has said he spent two entire years shadowing Musk on his many perambulations, sitting in on his meetings, interviewing dozens of family members, friends, business associates and the occasional person Musk has fired, and gaining access to vast troves of documents and files about Musk’s life and works. Lest anyone think this is an authorised biography, Isaacson notes the final work came together without receiving the subject’s authorisation for what he eventually wrote.
Isaacson has become a very familiar figure on CNN as a regular contributor, interviewing other authors. His engagement and easy charm, lightly seasoned with a New Orleans attitude in his on-air presence, has made him a popular interviewer of other authors about their new works. This time around, with his own new book, he has been getting star treatment in numerous broadcast interviews, celebrity book launches and a growing sheaf of respectful, thoughtful reviews (although a few elements of the story he has told have come to be disputed).
At the time I started writing this review, Isaacson’s book had been available to readers for less than a week, but the writing was sufficiently engrossing that this reviewer felt compelled to read every word of its 600-plus pages within days of receiving a copy.
In his portrait of Musk, the mercurial business-engineering visionary, Isaacson tries hard to wrestle into place and to integrate into a coherent whole the many sides and complexities of Musk’s life. This ranges from Musk’s difficult youth and relocation from South Africa to Canada and then on to the United States, across his untidy, tangled personal circumstances as an adult with many children from various partners and spouses, his business acumen, his entrepreneurial vision, his engineering genius and his successful gambles – right along with his spectacularly bad guesses largely driven by his personal demons and faults.
Isaacson has made certain to chronicle the psychological storms that have raged throughout Musk’s life and thoughts, and his sometimes impulsive, self-destructive behaviour and decision-making.
As most people know, the Elon Musk saga began in South Africa, where he was a childhood genius surviving in an increasingly dysfunctional family whirlpool. While Isaacson only briefly considers how that crucial period so thoroughly moulded the young Elon, Isaacson paints a vivid portrait of Elon’s father, Errol, a man who both enchanted and tormented his son with his yin-yang personality and behaviour.
If “the child is the father of the man”, early on, Elon had picked up his father’s fascination for and prowess with engineering, his ability to focus – sometimes – on tasks with laser-like intensity and, more ominously, his increasingly conspiratorial turn of mind. This seems to have come in tandem with some unchecked bipolar behaviour. For the younger Musk, this has also come with a self-admitted Asperger’s Syndrome. Along the way, Musk has largely eschewed gaining assistance from therapy or pharmaceutical help, save for copious doses of strong coffee and Red Bull and similar energy drinks.
Musk’s work habits have included lengthy spurts of intense concentration that meant repeated stints of literally moving into his various projects’ offices, labs and factories in order to stay in control of every fiddling aspect of them. What is less thoroughly explored, however, is how Musk’s experiences (one difficult and filled with bullying and the other relatively more benign) at two high schools in South Africa, Bryanston and Pretoria Boys High affected him.
Along the way, Isaacson largely disabuses the story that has often been repeated that the Musk family was immensely wealthy, with a gemstone mine, aeroplanes and other luxuries. Isaacson paints a rather different picture. As the biographer sets it out instead, it is a tale of a father always hoping for the big pay day, the big score, who at one point ended up with a deal to market emeralds (presumably illicitly mined in Zambia). In search of that still-elusive pay-off, Errol Musk eventually moved to Canada to seek his fortune while his sons were still teenagers.
Most of the capital Musk drew on for his early projects was pulled together from his own earnings or from intrigued investors, rather than from some treasure chest of family wealth. In fact, later in life, Elon Musk would largely end up supporting his father and the older man’s newer, second family.
‘One can admire good traits, decry the bad’
Regarding the seemingly mysterious core of what is Elon Musk and what manner of machinery drives him onward, Isaacson concludes: “Do the audaciousness and hubris that drives him [Elon] to attempt epic feats excuse his bad behaviour, his callousness, his recklessness? The times he’s an asshole? The answer is no, of course not. One can admire a person’s good traits and decry the bad ones. But it’s also important to understand how the strands are woven together, sometimes tightly. It can be hard to remove the dark ones without unravelling the whole cloth. As Shakespeare teaches us, all heroes have flaws, some tragic, some conquered, and those we cast as villains can be complex. Even the best people, he wrote, are ‘moulded out of faults’.”
Isaacson then adds: “… But would a restrained Musk accomplish as much as a Musk unbound? Is being unfiltered and untethered integral to who he is? Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training. They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.”
And in many ways, we must acknowledge that he has. The bundle of things that is Elon Musk parallels how some earlier industrial innovators like Henry Ford (a manufacturing genius but a full-on conspiracy thinker) and Thomas Alva Edison (a monomaniacal entrepreneur, who drove his staff unmercifully, but a creator of entirely new industries) carried out their respective lives and careers.
Musk’s legacy, so far
The subject of Isaacson’s newest biography remains actively engaged in planning his next steps, and it seems likely a later biography will need to come to grips with yet more invention, innovation, success and spectacular failure in years to come. And yet, here is a life in which Musk has already virtually willed into being major new technologies.
These include an increasingly vibrant electric vehicle (EV) industry (his Tesla company); reusable, cost-effective space transport (SpaceX); a vast, new, powerful satellite communications net (Starlink); and major strides towards fully autonomous vehicles, new supercomputers and multipurpose robots (Optimus), as well as human neural-machine direct interfaces (X.AI), among others.
These already set out Musk’s legacy so far. But there is also that dog’s breakfast he seems to have made out of his acquisition of Twitter (renaming it X, firing most of the staff, and creating a chaotic mix of policies of what messaging must be restricted or allowed). This, too, must be on the balance sheet that is Elon Musk’s global impact.
Isaacson portrays an Elon Musk who has been animated for years, perhaps most of his life, by deeply held desires to lead humanity’s settlement of Mars, to prevent the impending depopulation of the Earth, and to ensure humans are not – in some near future – overwhelmed by AI’s singularity moment when an interconnected network of computers, machines and robots overmatches humans. For the latter, Musk says he is animated by a need to ensure what he believes are humanistic values are built directly into that overarching electronic structure before it is too late.
There is more than a whiff of Isaac Asimov’s three basic laws of robotics in Musk’s thinking here, that is to say: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”
To demonstrate how widely – and wildly – Musk’s thinking ranges, Isaacson described one conversation he witnessed, writing: “For a moment I was struck by the oddness of the scene. We were sitting on a suburban patio by a tranquil backyard swimming pool on a sunny spring day, with two bright-eyed twins [of Musk’s] learning to toddle, as Musk soberly speculated about the wind of opportunity building a sustainable human colony on Mars before an AI apocalypse destroyed Earthly civilisation. It made me recall the words of Sam Teller on his second day working for Musk, when he attended a SpaceX board meeting: ‘They’re sitting around seriously discussing plans to build a city on Mars and what people will wear there, and everyone’s just acting like this is a totally normal conversation’.”
Of course that is what corporate board meetings do – if they are led by an Elon Musk.
Isaacson periodically returns to Musk’s continuing touchstone of a text, Douglas Adams’ science fiction-philosophical meander, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Musk first encountered this book as a youthful teenager, together with writing by Isaac Asimov and his explorations of a robotic future on Earth, as well as Robert Heinlein’s stories and novels offering a universe of near-libertarian, engineering-heavy science fiction.
Online gaming – especially those that are interactive with other equally competitive gamers – was yet another formative obsession with Elon Musk who, in fact, without much formal coding training, managed to produce his own games and sell them while he was still a teenager. Given his buccaneer-style business style, there should be little surprise in any of this. (It seems there is a thread in Musk’s thoughts that reaches back to the financial and engineering intertwining of Heinlein’s early novella The Man Who Sold the Moon in a way that energises much of Musk’s near-libertarian leanings, married together with his technological and scientific nous.)
It is clear from the way Isaacson records Musk’s words and musings during the time the men spent together that such writings continue to play a role in Musk’s thinking. Like so many other pre-teens and young teenagers, this writer, too, found the imaginative challenges of works like those to be irresistible. But then, most of us eventually moved on to other projects and pursuits, although it is also true that most of us did not create entirely new multibillion-dollar businesses.
Musk clearly hung on to these inspirations – the ideas stayed with him, running in the background. They seem to have been critically important in goading him towards the new industries he has willed into being.
The Musk ‘surge’
Beyond all the insights into Musk’s engineering ideas and flights of fancy and imagination, Isaacson also gives readers detailed play-by-play descriptions of just how Musk grew his varied ventures in association with financiers as well as all the boardroom shenanigans. Then there are depictions of the ways Musk drove innovations and solutions to the challenges he set for his teams.
The idea of the Musk “surge” repeatedly comes up as Musk insists on a full frontal assault on an obstacle or task, calling in reinforcements from every division of his various enterprises. But he also carries out summary firings of team leaders and team members reluctant in any way to engage 110% on the newest, most pressing task or challenge – whether it is ruthlessly driving down the costs of manufacturing rocket casings or moulding in one piece the chassis for a new Tesla model.
In fact, in recent weeks, Musk’s vision for a fundamental change in the personal transportation industry through EVs is increasingly being vindicated. Analyses of the automobile industry are pointing to the sector having reached an inflection point in 2023 as demand for EVs is expected to grow rapidly (and internal combustion engine-powered vehicles to decline as a consequence), especially powered by demand by the vast market that is China and East Asia.
Because Musk’s Tesla has a major manufacturing presence in China in Shanghai, Tesla is well positioned to ride that ascending curve for years to come. He probably will be just as lucky or successful over the longer term with the future generations of his rockets, his neural-linked chips, his autonomous driving systems, and his satellite net, even if Twitter, er, now called “X”, remains the problem child of Musk’s empire.
One problem now being reported is that some subcontractors for Tesla may have operations in Xinjiang and that at least some of those plants may have troubles with coerced labour – an indication of how problematic foreign issues are entangled in the supply chains of American companies and their subsidiaries.
Speaking of Starlink, there has been one controversy in Isaacson’s biography of Musk. As reported by Isaacson, Musk had decided to shut down Ukraine’s access to Starlink coverage over Crimea in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for fear that Ukraine’s use of the network to guide drone attacks on Russian naval vessels might provoke a Russian retaliation that conceivably might include the use of nuclear weapons.
Musk reportedly was concerned his products were becoming directly part of a war, rather than being designed for humanity’s benefit as he saw it. It turns out, however, that Isaacson’s reporting on this incident was flawed and that it relied too much on comments from Musk. Instead, coverage over Crimea had already been shut down, and, in fact, the company has continued to provide connections (as well as numbers of the necessary dishes and related equipment, either funded by Starlink or procured by the US Defence Department for Ukraine). Isaacson has indicated new printings of his book will make the appropriate corrections.
That said, so far, there have been relatively few other complaints about how Musk has been portrayed in this volume, although there is some muttering Isaacson may have fallen a bit too much under the spell of Musk’s powerful reality distortion field, leading the biographer to become too enamoured of his subject.
Such a thing, of course, is always a challenge for a biographer. They must wrestle with either embracing or being repelled by their subject. Inevitably, eventually, later biographies will offer new judgments – and likely contesting views – about the subject at hand. Someone always discovers an unsettling feature in a prominent person’s life that refocuses a prior view of the subject, although Musk has seemed perfectly capable of using social media to let us all know about his flaws and eccentricities all by himself.
Isaacson has a flair for depicting vignettes with a screenwriter’s keen eye for details and visual effects. There are dozens of scenes that leap off the page and seem ready-made for a docu-drama of Musk’s life, including some of the highly unusual family meetings, surge efforts to streamline production of various projects when engineers are called on an emergency basis over Christmas or Thanksgiving, or in those tense meetings in his newly acquired Twitter offices where Musk’s ideas of a lean, mean, fighting machine run right into the woke, touchy-feely style of San Francisco/Silicon Valley’s dot.com world in full flower.
A rich tapestry
One particular incident left me chuckling for hours after reading about it. Back when Musk was first beginning to think about rockets, he looked for a way to access a surplus rocket or two from someone, anyone, anywhere. The search led him to Russia and so he and his team had flown to Moscow to negotiate the use (and eventual adaptation) of surplus rocket boosters he had learnt were available there. Still suffering jet lag and after sitting through strenuous negotiations where the Russians kept upping the price, at dinner, an overwhelmed, increasingly inebriated, dazed Elon Musk actually passed out face down on the dining table. Needless to say, they did not purchase the Russian rocket boosters, although that particular failure to launch pushed him towards developing his own reusable rockets instead.
While reading this biography, I found myself wishing there was an appendix listing the vast cast of characters in Musk’s children and families, his various businesses and all the people they dealt with over the years in so many different fields, locations, countries, businesses and deals. The tapestry of Musk’s world, with all those hordes of people, resembles the universe of people inhabiting Balzac or Dickens worlds — except that Musk’s are all real people.
In addition, I also found myself wishing there was one of those charts like a genealogy of a royal family, but for all the different businesses Musk started, merged with others, or renamed. Even with Isaacson’s admirably clear text, it was sometimes difficult to remember which company was doing what and when before it became something else.
One final observation, and this comes from the realm of American sociology and business development. Similarly with Silicon Valley proper, many of the people in Musk’s world appear to be recent immigrants or perhaps first-generation Americans. They come from places as far afield as Bulgaria, Israel, the various nations of South Asia, China, and Taiwan. This roster of talent gathering from afar is an indicator of the continuing power of the world of American technological innovation to attract bright minds from everywhere to work in new and evolving technologies.
The gravitational field of Musk’s many companies (like other companies at the technological cutting edges of things) can be enormously attractive to bright minds, even if it means they also run the risk of being run out of town for any failure to work 24/7/365 on whatever project Musk has deemed priority number one at any given time. For such people, the challenge and allure will always be there, and with this biography, Isaacson has actually given them a handy field guide to understand what might be in store for them should they choose to join his world. DM
Elon Musk, by Walter Isaacson, published by Simon and Schuster, 2023, ISBN 978-1-3985-2749-2 (hardback); ISBN 978-1-3985-2751-5 (ebook)