When the guy who plays a Marvel superhero is awed by the actual human that he partly based his character, Tony Stark, on—well, that’s a bit next-level meta.
Robert Downey, Jr. couldn’t help feeling fanboyish when Elon Musk toured him round his SpaceX factory in 2010, Downey said, “My mind is not easily blown, but this place and this guy were amazing.” A Tesla Roadster—as well as Musk himself—ended up making a cameo appearance in that movie.
The enigmatic Musk manages to challenge our views of him, as well as confirm our worst fears, in Walter Isaacson’s hefty biography (the journalist also managed to capture the prismatic Steve Jobs in an earlier book).
Like Jobs—and like Tony Stark, actually—Musk possesses a sometimes-problematic personality determined to smash and reinvent many, many things in the name of progress. Or his version of progress. He’s described himself as having signs of Asperger’s—but some instead call his lack of empathy, mood swings and lashes of fury signs of being a huge a-hole. Of course, both things could be true at the same time.
Born in South Africa to a difficult father who sent him to a survival camp for boys called veldskool, something like Lord of the Flies, he fled early on to Canada, and then the land of opportunity—specifically, California, to bring his burgeoning problem-solving skills to Silicon Valley. Musk provides evidence, in a way, that immigration is and has always been an important driver of American success.
Early fixations seem to have shaped his permanent world-view. Long convinced that the human race will perish unless we become “multiplanetary” and hop on spaceships to colonize Mars and other places, Musk proceeded to learn everything about rockets and create SpaceX. He then went ahead and built a satellite network called Starlink, and was hired by the US government to deliver satellites to space using his rockets. (He relied on stainless steel for the hull of his reusable ships, which makes them oddly retro-futuristic, like some 1950s sci-fi space film.)
Tesla came from a fixation on battery-operated cars. He had his engineers lash together hundreds of lithium-ion cells and mount them in the frame of his Tesla Roadsters, which he was determined to make hot and futuristic, not boxy and boring. It’s now the most valuable car company in the world.
The sheer audacity of each venture is striking. Influenced by the robot Johnny Cabs in the Schwarzenegger film Total Recall, he went all-in on driverless car technology (despite at least five fatal car crashes when the Tesla AI failed to register actual road obstacles). He envisions a vast “Robotaxi” service for the future, with no steering wheels in sight. Oh, and he’s building humanoid robots (Optimus) and a brain-chip company called Neuralink that allows computers to communicate directly with the brain. Yet he’s terrified that artificial intelligence could spell our doom, and is half-convinced that we’re living inside a simulated reality à la The Matrix.
It would all sound like crazy science fiction, if Musk didn’t actually bring most of his ideas to fruition (the travel tubes from LA to San Francisco idea seems to have stalled for now).
Isaacson doesn’t exactly dissect what makes Musk tick, but then it is harder to hit a moving target. There is certainly the damaged relationship with his dad, and a large number of grudges held against workers he considers too lazy, incompetent or slow to realize his visions. (He can’t abide WFH.)
There is also the damaged relationship with his transitioned daughter, Jenna, who has renounced billionaires and wealth (her dad is the richest man on the planet), which seems to have fueled his raging disdain for the “woke-mind virus” that he thinks is killing America.
Along with the Asperger’s self-diagnosis, Musk appears to experience “manic” phases (what he terms “demon mode”) in which he might get his best work done, but also manages to erupt at people who don’t share his fanatical drive. It’s pretty hard not to be convinced there’s something alien about Musk’s sangfroid when it comes to fellow humans. But he kind of balances it out by being a huge goofball at times, engaging in puns and fart jokes (his early Teslas even had a hidden fart button for the passenger seat). His gift for bestowing oddball names on his many offspring—including X AE A-XII, Exa Dark Siderael and Techno Mechanicus—rivals that of Filipino parents.
Then there is the fact that his biggest successes, Tesla and SpaceX, have managed to become trillion-dollar ventures by appealing to our aesthetic side as well as his design instincts. Also not unlike Steve Jobs.
Where the Musk saga hits a ditch is his takeover of Twitter. By this point in the story—2021—America had lived through COVID and the trauma of Trump’s itchy Twitter fingers. After Trump’s account was banned, following the Jan. 6 attempt to overthrow election results, Musk fumed that free speech was being targeted. He paid way too much ($45 billion) for the company, which wasn’t even particularly profitable, because he could. And he couldn’t resist the challenge of tinkering around with his new toy—the biggest bully megaphone in the schoolyard—and putting his brand on it.
He quickly renamed it X (he has a long fascination with the letter because it stands for an unknown quantity). He next proceeded to sack 80 percent of his Twitter engineers, coders and content gatekeepers whom he felt were standing in the way of a free exchange of ideas. But quickly, the worst ideas—anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist—took over that schoolyard. He seems to have made the mistake of viewing the human side of Twitter as just another unnecessary bolt or part that could be junked to make things more efficient.
As Isaacson writes: “Musk has an intuitive feel for engineering issues, but his neural nets have trouble when dealing with human feelings, which is what made his Twitter purchase such a problem. He thought of it as a technology company, when in fact it was an advertising medium based on human emotions and relationships.”
The on/off switch of Musk’s personality has caused countless believers to quit, like Twitter go-between Yoel Roth: “You could totally be inspired by it,” but when Musk showed an authoritarian, mean, dark streak, “He was the bad Elon, and that’s the one I couldn’t take.”
So what does it all add up to? There is the “great man” theory of history, which never really takes into account the personal destruction left in its wake. It amounts to saying: if someone makes great things, they are allowed a lot of leeway. Isaacson quotes Shakespeare to sum up the paradox of Musk: “Even the best people are molded out of faults.” Isaacson’s portrait doesn’t rest on labeling Musk either a mad genius or flawed human; you’re left to draw your own conclusions.