No stranger to crafting biographies about creative people many consider among the world’s most innovative and influential, Walter Issacson (Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo Da Vinci) now turns his attention to Elon Musk, a man many feel is both admirable and deplorable, a Gen Xer more likely to find inspiration from Mel Brooks and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy than the Great Books of the Western World.
Whether you consider Elon Musk (the man) a hero or villain could depend largely on your personal politics, or your appetite for hero worship. With Elon Musk (the book), Issacson chronicles his journey as a gifted student from a wealthy South African family, his migration to North America, parlaying early success into becoming the world’s richest man, and among its most controversial.
He is the rarest of celebrities; an industrialist engineer as likely to check over code as he was to get his hands dirty with wrenches and bolt-cutters, a couch surfer who preferred a two-bedroom apartment over multi-level mansions. More than anyone of his generation, Musk has embodied the ideal that it is the responsibility of true innovators not to work towards the status quo but to change it. By any means necessary, some might add, though not as a compliment.
In many ways Issacson’s book is positioned as the spiritual sequel to his own 2011 Steve Jobs biography, probably by design. The book opens with a line from Musk’s opening monologue hosting Saturday Night Live in 2021 contrasted with Jobs’ famous quote about crazy people changing the world. Even the cover showing a steely-eyed Musk, hands pressed together in contemplative fashion, evokes Jobs’ iconic chin pinching portrait. It’s a comparison the author will make often as he positions Musk as Jobs’ rightful heir to our culture’s de facto iconoclast inventor.
Or, more appropriately, an iconoclast that actually gets things done. Example after example has Issacson reminding us that Musk is the person most responsible for innovating, often creating, new paradigms for digital payments, electric and self-autonomous vehicles, space rockets, satellite internet, electrical brain interfaces, AI, and, perhaps one day, interplanetary travel. As he quipped on SNL, “Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”
It’s not so much the “why” that Issacson is concerned with, though, but the “how” Musk was able to influence so much in so little time. Early chapters have Issacson attempting to draw parallels between Musk and his father Errol, a dominant and often cruel figure he would work hard to distance himself from. While the two share many similarities (high intelligence, temper, fertility), father and son would have a lifelong toxic relationship, and remain largely estranged to this day.
Issacson suggests that while both father and son share similar sociopathic personalities, it was Elon who would attempt to channel them into the greater good, with occasional stumbles. It’s here where Issacson recalibrates his efforts to examine how Musk’s abrasiveness allowed him to avoid the pull of adulation and focus on the tasks at hand. As an adult Musk would self-diagnose himself with Asperger’s syndrome, and in his world basic empathy could be seen as a disability, the desire to be “liked” by others a wasteful ambition. As a child this made him the object of bullying; as an adult, perpetrator of the bullying.
It’s yet another area where similar temperamental traits/defects (Jobs’ fabled “reality distortion field” with Musk’s “weak empathy gene”) may explain the dynamic sway both men had on those around them. Issacson labels Musk (like Jobs) a “drama addict”, which attracted him to other intensely talented people, some willing to tolerate his abrasive attitude and behavior and some not so much.
Michael Marks, an early Tesla investor and whom Musk appointed the company’s interim CEO, reinforced this connection better than most. “Some people are just assholes,” he says of Jobs and Musk, but concedes “they accomplish so much that I just have to sit back and say, ‘That seems to be a package.’ ” The type of success one can both admire yet not aspire to.
But there is one big difference; Issacson’s biography on Apple’s late founder was released just weeks following his death in 2011, whereas Elon Musk is still very much alive, and very much still making headlines. Earlier this year he’d become embroiled in a pugilistic pissing match with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and the week of the book’s publishing questions arose regarding his personal involvement regarding Ukraine’s Starlink military access while tweeting his opinions about Bethesda’s Starfield game.
Even in these times of social media excess the world may not be ready for having the thoughts and opinions of those capable of substantially affecting the world served daily, sometimes on the hour; many of us would prefer to stay ignorant of how the sausage is made. Like it or not, this intimacy has affected how many view the game changers of the world, and through his prolific tweeting Musk has caused many to question if it’s possible to distance the art from the artist.
Nothing showcased this better than his interactions with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, whom Musk thought a hypocrite for publicly touting climate change initiatives yet privately betting against Tesla by short-changing its stock for financial gain. Like Jobs, Musk has demonstrated little interest in public philanthropy, and like Jobs didn’t suffer fools easily. Only Musk would (and still does) vent his frustrations publicly on Twitter for all to see.
After dismissing his concerns Musk would tweet an unflattering photo of Gates, calling him a boner-killer. “At this point, I am convinced that he is categorically insane (and an asshole to the core).” Gates would continue to praise Musk with platitudes that suggested he’d rather avoid the subject than have others begin to challenge this ethical discrepancy. Issacson calls Gates’ response “gracious”, but it honestly sounds more facetious.
Again and again it would be Musk’s singular focus on optimization that would see him through his greatest accomplishments, usually the result of noticing what worked and what didn’t. Musk saw how California’s failed mandate to have “zero-emission” vehicles by 2003 was proof that true innovation couldn’t be legislated but must be aggressively implemented by those best in positions to implement real change. And who better than him?
He’d take this stance in everything, questioning the necessity of everything and anything. Like how questioning the cooling-off period of steel (“Can steel be like a cookie, baked hard on the outside and gooey in the middle?”) resulted in faster manufacturing of Tesla vehicles or his son Saxon asking “Why doesn’t the future look like the future?” led to the polygonal Cybertruck. Question everything, he demanded, his edicts to what he thought wasteful or excessive was simple yet ruthless: delete, delete, delete.
Issacson would diagnose employees who survived his missives as suffering from post-Musk distress disorder, though is quick to add this process usually led them to reexamining their way at looking at problems, so see new possibilities of solutions – usually with positive results.
Regrettably, yet understandably, Issacson spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on the most recent of Musk’s adventures, his acquisition of Twitter (to which he would resurrect and apply his original intended name for PayPal, “X”). It’s understandable because of the obvious: few things have ignited the tech world as much as the world’s richest man taking over one of the world’s biggest social media platforms on the basis of “saving free speech”, especially in the wake of 2020’s presidential election.
It’s here that Issacson argues, persuasively, that few moments in Musk’s career would see his myriad of personal and professional strengths and weaknesses so intertwined, some working in tandem and others in opposition.
It’s also regrettable because, as we’ve also seen, this saga is still very much in motion. Intentional or not, the fervor around Twitter’s new boss has revealed a disproportionate bias against Musk by many who once exhibited bias towards him, with little to explain the change other than crass politics. He’d develop a persecution complex, but one with some validity, behaviors that were at one time openly celebrated by many of the same people now castigating his every move and tweet.
Did you know he was the model for Tony Stark / Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, “a celebrity industrialist and engineer”, who would cameo as himself in Iron Man 2? He’d even appear on a popular episode of The Simpsons (“possibly the greatest living inventor!”) as himself, of course.
Since then the fawning coverage has mostly stopped, with even positive or neutral news about Musk or his companies spun negatively – if covered at all. Independent observers might say they were actively wanting him to fail, maybe influencing news coverage to guarantee it. These lapses in journalistic integrity aside, in regards to Twitter almost none of the many doomsday scenarios “experts” predicted have come to pass.
One area Issacson spends some time exploring but, ironically, not enough analyzing is just how important videogames were to Musk’s development and management style. He taught himself to program at a young age, discovered ways to “hack” arcade machines, and spent countless hours playing videogames as both respite from the real world and perhaps as virtual roadmaps to change it.
For Musk, qualities he found desirable could be honed in the world-building of Civilization, the twitch-like accuracy of Quake, the precision timing of Street Fighter, the brutal survival ethos of Elden Ring, and, among his favorites, the limited-resource management of Polytopia. To someone who lacked “empathy” it’s not a stretch they might see reality itself as a videogame, a massive simulation where someone could exercise godlike powers over fictional worlds and those within them.
As with most of Issacon’s biographies Elon Musk does a good job demonstrating “why” we should care about the man behind many of the greatest industrial pushes of the 21st century, but his desire to create a sequel/companion to his own Steve Jobs biography results in a surprisingly detached overview of his accomplishments that probably won’t fully satisfy the Musk devout or disbelievers. Such is the peril of documenting a life and career that’s still unfolding, still holding the potential for greater success – and possible failure.