WHO is Elon Musk and what motivates him? Two biographies have appeared in the last year or so, by Michael Vlismas and by Walter Isaacson, the latter with Musk's cooperation. Isaacson was allowed to follow Musk for two years, attend meetings, read e-mails, and Musk encouraged friends, employees and ex-wives to talk to him. However, he allegedly did not try to steer the book in a certain direction or read it beforehand.
After all these pages, the man remains an enigma with a manically active brain, burning impatience and a compulsion to take wild risks. And undiagnosed Asperger's: he cannot gauge people's emotions. His facial expression is often tight, like that of a robot. When he thinks deeply, he's like a computer processing. His sensory systems switch off and he can't take in any data. His mother says, “It's best not to try to break through when he has that vacant stare."
Besides a problematic personality, his core wound is his father. Errol Musk is a flamboyant, impulsive old goat, a grandiose braggart described by Elon as “pure anger". Errol spoke to both biographers, ad nauseam. He comes across as crazy and totally narcissistic, and not a friend of the truth.
From a young age, the world felt too small for the ideas exploding in Elon's head. At school he was quiet, nicknamed Bunny because of his prominent front teeth. He wore train-track braces and liked to tell people they were dumb and uninformed. He wasn't into sport. He read encyclopaedias and remembered everything. He was ruthlessly bullied and ended up in the hospital for two weeks after a beating by thugs.
His mother's family is from Canada. The Haldemans were a wealthy, eccentric bunch. His grandfather runs a chiropractic practice at his home in Rietfontein. The family likes to fly around in a private plane. Elon's mother Maye and her sister Kaye were known as the flying twins. His father's family is from Britain but both his parents grew up in South Africa.
After school, Elon goes to Canada, where he works with his hands and starts studying. Instead of pursuing a doctorate, he wants to be where the internet is taking its baby steps. He moves to Silicon Valley and starts his own company, Zip2, which puts phone directories on the internet. It's sold for $3 million.
He starts many other companies. He's an unconventional CEO who gets kicked out by his own board, among other things, at PayPal. Start-ups and entrepreneurs break rules, but when companies grow they get swallowed by regulations. Elon has never been good at playing nicely with people. He believes you have to work day and night. He regularly sleeps on the factory floor and doesn't believe in holidays, not for himself or his employees. He drives them relentlessly with unrealistic deadlines. “A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle," he declares.
Money is a side issue for Musk. He says he wants to make the world a better place where people can look forward to the future, that he wants to ensure the survival of human consciousness (a delightful phenomenon, according to him), even if it's on another planet. He believes we should have more children. But what is his true driving force? Ego, it seems, between the lines. To be a saviour of humanity, a kind of Superman, elevates him, like a risk.
Few people are admired and hated on a global scale like the richest man on the planet. He doesn't want to quietly work behind the scenes — he wants to be on the cover of Rolling Stone and Time. His followers call themselves the Musketeers. Then there are the haters. Many websites are dedicated to proving he is psychopathic, dishonest and dangerous.
His personal life is a catastrophe. There simply isn't time, and his personality isn't conducive to a relationship of mutual respect. His first wife, Justine, is a recognised writer. One of their sons is autistic. When Justine explains to the child how his photographic memory works, he says: you mean other people don't think like that? His father's child. One child has transitioned, and she doesn't speak to her father because she's a Marxist. Musk also had a relationship with Amber Heard, after her disastrous relationship with Johnny Depp. All of these ended in messy separations.
He has 11 children by three women, all through in vitro fertilisation. As with everything, he approaches reproduction like an engineer.
Space travel is increasingly privatised because it's prohibitively expensive. Of course, rockets catch Musk's eye. He wanted to buy one from the Russians, but decided to design his own, the cheapest yet. This is the beginning of his company SpaceX, which launches ordinary people into space. There are three major private players in the space race: Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Musk. Musk is light years ahead.
In 2002 he launches SpaceX. In 2004 he gets involved with electric cars and Tesla. In 2006, SolarCity (roofs made of of solar panels). In 2008, all his companies are in trouble due to a global economic collapse. He doesn't get rid of anything but starts new ones such as The Boring Company (TBC), which aims to dig tunnels under major cities to solve the traffic problem. TBC also sells flamethrowers guaranteed to wipe out an entire wall of approaching zombies. Top sellers.
Tesla is the largest car manufacturer in the world, despite issues with its autopilot. Musk has faced a multitude of lawsuits, including defamation claims, because his Twitter finger has always been quick.
Musk is outspoken against AI. He has long supported stricter regulations and believes it's already too late. Dictators can be killed or imprisoned but AI can't be stopped. His objection is also that bots are programmed to be woke, something that really irks him. His annoyance with political correctness and what he calls the woke-mind virus makes him lean towards the Republicans, even though he's not a Trump supporter like his father.
He advocates for closer collaboration between humans and AI, with Neuralink aiming to connect the human brain to computers. He wants to implant chips in people's brains and let them “mind-melt" with computers. This has already been successfully done with chimpanzees.
Musk's wives appreciate the mischievous boy in him, but there is also a darker side when he plunges into the abyss and causes damage. His brother and friends refer to it as “going openloop". This means he doesn't get feedback to guide him and seems indifferent to the consequences of what he does or says. He makes impulsive and reckless decisions, such as acquiring Twitter. Now, the boy who was once bullied has his own playground and he writes the rules. But he's come close to messing it up. He viewed it as a technology company, while it's actually an advertising medium based on human emotions and relationships: things that perplex him. He cut the staff drastically and renamed it X.
An incident that reflects his gung-ho cowboy attitude is when Twitter's servers had to be moved from Sacramento to Portland. His employees told him the move would take six to nine months. “Let's do it now," he said, three days before Christmas. His engineers suggested they hire a contractor to lift the floor panels with suction cups. The next set of contractors would then have to go under the floor panels to disconnect the electrical cables and seismic rods.
Musk borrowed a security guard's knife and used it to lift one of the ventilation grates in the floor to loosen the floor panels. He crawled under the floor himself, used the knife to jimmy open an electrical cabinet. Nothing exploded, and the server was ready to be moved, he declared: “Well, that doesn't seem super hard." Indiana Jones meets MacGyver.
He also disregarded all regulations about transporting the servers. The consequence was that Twitter was offline for a while. His words: “My main regret is how often I stab myself in the thigh with a fork, how often I shoot my own feet and stab myself in the eye."
He has achieved a lot, such as keeping Ukraine online when Russia invaded, through his Starlink satellite internet service.
Musk's restless, unconventional mind turns to the Red Planet to colonise space, the last frontier. The book that shaped him was Douglas Adams's novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which he read as a depressed teenager. It features a supercomputer designed to figure out the question of life, the universe and everything.
One of his friends has said, “I wish Musk knew how to be a bit happier." He believes happiness doesn't suit him. He's made for fighting, for adrenalin and crisis. His hobby is computer games in which he wages war.
For someone who isn't even focused on money to amass a net worth of $252.6 billion while believing he's making the world a better place — that commands respect.
It's a fascinating portrait, as one would expect from Isaacson. What does bother me, however, is the photo on the cover, so heavily Photoshopped or dated that Musk looks about 18.
♦ VWB ♦
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