Walter Isaacson on Elon Musk: “It’s almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
Whether you love Elon Musk or despise him, you have to admit he’s interesting. As he himself stated while hosting “Saturday Night Live” in 2021, “I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars on a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”
Walter Isaacson has written biographies of Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, and this coming week CBS’ sister company, Simon & Schuster, will publish his biography of Elon Musk. “You just have to say, ‘I want to talk to you about Elon Musk,’ and boom! People love talking,” Isaacson said.
Simon & Schuster
When asked what kind of access he had to Musk, he replied, “I said, ‘I want to be by your side for two or three years. I want to be in every meeting.’ And he said, ‘Fine.'”
As far as what Musk is like, Isaacson said, “There’s no single Elon Musk. He has many personalities. Almost multiple personalities. And you can watch him go from being very giddy and funny, to being deeply in engineering mode. And then, suddenly the dark cloud happens. It’s almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Isaacson writes that Musk’s volatility stems from a brutal childhood in South Africa, with his abusive father, Errol. “Everything is related to the traumas and the drives of childhood,” he said. “It made him adventurous. It made him so that he felt more comfortable with drama.”
Musk himself said, in a 2022 TED Talk, “I did not have a happy childhood, to be frank. It was quite rough.”
“It has left deep scars on him, the way his father treated him,” said Isaacson. “When he was bullied on the schoolyard, when his face was pounded into the concrete steps, and his father took the side of the person who beat him up instead of Elon. Errol Musk said, ‘I raised him to be tough.’ So, Errol Musk doesn’t make a whole lot of apologies.”
By age 31, Musk had founded and sold two software companies, making him a multimillionaire. One of them was PayPal. With thatmoney, he founded SpaceX.
Isaacson says the SpaceX factory floor is not like, say, Boeing’s: “Everybody here is willing to take risks, and they know how to move fast. When Musk and I would walk along this corridor and he would see people being a bit lethargic, or not enough people, he’d say, ‘Where’s everybody? Get this moving! This needs to be done by tonight!’ That would never happen in Boeing.”
And why the urgency? “He feels there’s an urgency for humans to become multi-planetary, to get to Mars,” Isaacson said. “He feels there could be a crisis on Earth, or something could happen, and we need to be a multi-planetary species.”
Pogue said, “If you’re the employee, your blood has gotta run cold when he comes by your station.”
“You know, there are people who really try to avoid eye contact, because he can be brutal,” Isaacson said. “He can get really mad. He can unload on people.”
Biographer Walter Isaacson, with correspondent David Pogue on the SpaceX factory floor.
Musk is open about his Asperger’s syndrome, but he believes that expressing empathy with his employees will only slow things down. As Isaacson explained, “He’d say to me, ‘Yeah, I don’t have as much empathy. I’m not like you, I don’t want the person in front of me just to love me. I gotta get this mission done.'”
If anyone’s learned how to get along with Musk, it’s design chief Franz von Holzhausen. He’s been at Tesla for 15 years, shaping every Tesla model, including the radically designed, stainless steel Cybertruck. “Sometimes it’s not easy. You have to put some personal things aside, but ultimately the reward’s worth it,” he said.
Pogue asked, “Let’s say I’m Elon, and I’m saying, ‘We have to do it this way.’ And you, based on your entire career and wisdom, disagree?”
“Those moments, you agree to disagree,” von Holzhausen said. “But ultimately it’s Elon’s company. He’s the boss.”
These days, SpaceX and Tesla aren’t Musk’s only projects. There’s his brain-implant company, Neuralink; a tunnelling operation, The Boring Company; Tesla’s solar-roof division; and a new artificial-intelligence company, xAI. Tesla is also developing Tesla Bot, a humanoid robot designed to do our dirty work for us.
And then there’s Starlink, a constellation of 5,000 satellites that can bring an internet signal to the entire planet, including to remote regions and disaster areas.
Last year, Musk shipped thousands of Starlink terminals to help the Ukrainian military at no charge. But when he believed that Ukraine was going on the offensive, attacking Russian ships in Crimea last September, Isaacson says that Musk shut off their service there. “Musk felt that would lead to World War III,” Isaacson said, “and so, on his own, he decommissioned Starlink along the Crimean coast.”
In fact, as Isaacson has now acknowledged, that’s not quite what happened. Starlink wasn’t running in that region in the first place, but when Ukraine asked for service there, Musk did decline to activate it.
Pogue asked, “How does Elon feel about having this much global power?”
“You know, he says to me, ‘How am I in the middle of this?'” Isaacson replied. “But frankly, he loves it. He loves drama. He loves being the epic hero. I think it is a little bit dangerous, because he loves it too much.”
But when it comes to controversy, it’d be hard to top Musk’s purchase of Twitter last year for $44 billion. He immediately fired over 80% of the employees; reinstated Donald Trump’s account; and loosened the rules against hate speech and misinformation.
In July, he changed Twitter’s name to X.
Huh? “He loves the letter X,” Isaacson said. “It’s mysterious to him. There’s SpaceX. There was X.com, his first payments company, that becomes PayPal. His son has a name that looks like a Druid auto-generated password [X Æ A-12 Musk], but they call him X.”
Musk has had 11 children with three women. Isaacson’s book reveals that Musk’s ex-girlfriend, musician Claire Boucher, whose stage name is Grimes, had a new baby boy last year. His full name is Techno Mechanicus Musk.
Of course, Musk has never been a typical CEO. He’s smoked marijuana on camera during an interview; he’s challenged Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to a cage match; and he’s frequently in trouble with the government, whose regulations he despises.
Isaacson said, “If you ask him what the biggest problem facing America these days is, [he’ll say] that we’re too risk-averse, we have too many referees and not enough doers, and that’s why we don’t build high-speed trains or rockets that can get to orbit.”
Already, the U.S. government hires SpaceX to carry our astronauts into orbit; contracts with Starlink to connect our military; and plans to pay Tesla to open its network of electric-car charging stations to all drivers.
But in a recent New Yorker article, journalist Ronan Farrow writes that the U.S. is becoming dependent on Musk even as he’s becoming more erratic. Farrow notes in his article that members of the Tesla board had expressed concern about Musk’s use of the prescription sleep aid Ambien, and also that Musk has not disputed he uses ketamine.
But whatever his eccentricities, Elon Musk really has changed the world. Tesla’s success triggered a global shift to electric cars, and SpaceX has now conducted 261 successful launches in a row for a fraction of the traditional cost to taxpayers, in large part, because the company figured out how to land its boosters after each launch and reuse them.
After helping launch the Falcon Heavy, its twin side booster rockets detach and then land upright near Cape Canaveral, April 11, 2019.
When asked if he admires Musk, Isaacson replied, “A biographer has to show the light and the dark strands. And you’ve got to be critical of the dark strands, you’ve got to be admiring of the light strands. But then the toughest thing is to show how they intertwine.”
“And how about his legacy?” asked Pogue. “Do you think we’ll be talking about Elon Musk a hundred years after he’s gone?”
“He brought us into the era of electric vehicles when GM and Ford had given up,” Isaacson said. “He said, ‘Yes, we can shoot astronauts into orbit,’ when NASA had decommissioned the space shuttle. So, a hundred years from now, we’ll still be baffled in some ways about how dark he could be, but we’ll say, ‘Yeah, yeah. He put his finger on the surface of history, and the ripples came out.'”
READ AN EXCERPT: “Elon Musk” by Walter Isaacson
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Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: Joseph Frandino.
First published on September 10, 2023 / 9:14 AM
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