When Elon Musk was eight years old, he became obsessed with owning a motorcycle. He tried to persuade his father – known for his bullying and brutality – to allow him to have one, standing next to his chair every night and making his case, but his father would just take up his newspaper and tell him to be quiet.
According to his brother, Kimbal, it was torturous to watch. “He would stand there silently, then resume his argument, then stand silent. This happened every evening for weeks.”
His father finally caved in and got Elon a blue-and-gold 50cc Yamaha. And that seems to have been the beginning of Musk’s refusal to take no for an answer.
In Walter Isaacson’s new book, simply titled Elon Musk, we hear again and again of Musk’s refusal to accept reason or logic as a reason not to embark on some new venture, whether sending rockets into space or building electric cars, in timeframes and with design features the engineers and designers involved were bemused by.
Even as a young child he was bad at picking up on social cues and, according to his mother, Maye, “he says he has Asperger’s, and I’m sure he’s right, although he was never actually diagnosed as a kid”.
What is certainly true is that he seems to lack the emotional receptors that produce everyday kindness and warmth – empathy – and does not suffer fools gladly. His favourite words for those who disappoint him are “stupid” and “dumb”, and it didn’t help that his father was a violent and abusive man who encouraged physical toughness in his boys.
Because of his propensity to “space out” and read a lot, he was also mercilessly bullied at school and certainly received no comfort at home.
After one particularly brutal attack by school bullies, his face was so badly damaged he had to spend a week in hospital. But when he came home, his father sided with the bully. “That boy had just lost his father to suicide and Elon called him stupid. How could I possibly blame that child?” Errol Musk said.
Elon had to stand for an hour while his father yelled at him and told him he was a worthless idiot. “It was the worst memory of my life,” said Kimbal. “My father just lost it, went ballistic, as he often did. He had zero compassion.”
Who knows if this early emotional scarring played a big role in Musk’s future endeavours – Isaacson certainly seems to think so, as do his two ex-wives. Justine, whom he married in Canada aged 27, said: “Maybe his only response was to turn off any emotional dimension that he didn’t have tools to deal with. He learned to shut down fear, but then maybe you have to turn off other things like joy or empathy.”
What we do know, however, is that as soon as he possibly could – aged 17, after matric – Musk went to the Canadian embassy, on his own, got application forms and filled them out for his mother, sister, brother and himself. His maternal grandfather was Canadian and, in May 1989, the approval came through. He left in May, armed with $2 000 in traveller’s cheques from his father and another $2 000 from his mother, and no prospects.
In 1990, he enrolled at Canada’s Queen’s University and on his first day met another “international” student, Navaid Farooq, who was to remain his friend until today. He studied computer programming and performed adequately, but most importantly, it was the first time he’d met likeminded people. Until then he’d had no friends. Later he transferred to Penn and registered for a degree in physics and business.
In summer of 1994, Musk got two internships that allowed him to indulge his penchant for his major passions: electric vehicles, space and videogames. By day he worked at Pinnacle Research Institute and by night at a small Palo Alto company called Rocket Science, which made games. Then he planned to enrol for a PhD at Stanford – but in the meantime, he and Kimbal had devised the Virtual City Navigator, combining business listings with map data.
On the advice of Peter Nicholson of Scotiabank, who told him to “catch the internet” wave, Musk deferred his Stanford application and embarked on the first of his enterprises, in an office with two desks, two futons and an electric coil for boiling water. They showered at the YMCA. Elon slept under his desk without a pillow or sleeping bag, a habit which was to become customary with him over the years, especially at Tesla.
They named the company Zip2 and were soon offered US$3-million from Mohr Davidow Ventures. The venture capitalists brought in “adult supervision” and Elon was moved aside to chief technology officer. He learned a lesson then that has motivated his business decisions ever since: “I learned that you could not truly be the chief technology or product officer unless you were the CEO.”
To anyone I’ve offended, I just want to say, I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket. Did you also think I was going to be a chill, normal dude? – Elon Musk, Saturday Night Live, May 2021
This belief stayed with him through all the ventures that followed – along with his inability to work with other people for long. One of the exceptions was Adeo Ressi, his “party” pal from Penn, whom he went to visit in 2001 when talk turned to building a rocket. Was it too expensive for an individual to build one? All that was needed was fuel and metal, Musk worked out.
When they got to their hotel that night, Musk logged onto the Nasa website to bone up on plans to go to Mars. People thought he was mad. One of his PayPal colleagues, Reid Hoffmann, asked how this was a business. But then he realised a fundamental trait of Musk’s personality: he wasn’t interested in making money per se. “Elon starts with a mission and later finds a way to backfill in orders to make it work financially,” he said.
Isaacson describes the tensions and dramas that accompanied Musk’s journey to achieving success with SpaceX, the bids to oust him as CEO and the financial burdens that almost sank the company. But there was always Musk’s refusal to be thwarted, his ability to absorb risk and his practical agility, allowing him to circumvent problems by taking short cuts few other entrepreneurs would dream of.
Less than eight years after it was founded and two years after facing bankruptcy, in 2010 it had already become the most successful private rocket company in the world.
Musk’s foray into electric vehicle production with his Tesla cars suffered similar roller-coaster financial and management upheavals, with most of the top executives resigning after his unrealistic production schedules in 2018. Musk himself was sunk in mental anguish and would spend long hours lying in a dark room on the floor.
Isaacson catalogues Musk’s forays into artificial intelligence, his belief that humanity has to be saved by science and the development of Neuralink, Musk’s effort to create “an integrated brain-machine interface platform”.
The author also reports on Musk’s second marriage, to the British actress Tallulah Riley and subsequent divorce; his affair with Amber Heard, which caused him untold distress, and his current on/off relationship with Grimes – Claire Boucher, the mother of two of his many children.
Isaacson’s authorised biography comes in at 607 pages and is an exhaustive catalogue of Musk’s achievements, his missions and obsessions, his brilliance and personal failings, as well as his relationships and inability to lead any kind of calm or settled life.
Despite the wealth of detail and length, it is a page turner. By the time the book ends, one feels one knows as much as one is able to know about Musk, ostensibly one of the great minds of our time, but also one of the most tortured.
Elon Musk, by Walter Isaacson, is published by Simon & Schuster.