THE IRONY ABOUT Elon Musk is that much that makes him all too human in a not particularly nice way, from an easy licence with truth and facts, to behaviour that would make decent men recoil with disgust, is balanced out against the simple fact that he has done more to change the world than any other entrepreneur alive today. It has made him the richest man in the world but is also making the earth a better place in a tangible way—that perfect promise of capitalism, which never seems to ever get entirely borne out. His company Tesla, which once touched US$ 1 trillion in market value (now just short of US$ 800 billion) heralded the electric vehicle revolution, making them desirable not just for those who cared about the environment but also sleeker, faster, sexier cars. He weaned away an entire market that was happy burning gas. As Tesla was so successful, every other automobile maker had to change course towards electric vehicles. If you believe that fossil fuels will eventually destroy the earth, then its denizens owe Musk some gratitude.
Another venture, SpaceX, has revolutionised the industry of space shuttles, by making it increasingly cheaper to transport stuff like satellites to outer space. Its rockets are not just getting more massive in size but were also the first to be reusable. Like planes they go, return and go again. Space X at around US$ 150 billion in valuation is the biggest company in the sector but profit is not Musk’s endpoint. It is to make space travel so cheap that eventually a steady stream of giant rockets would travel between Earth and Mars to establish a colony there. Humanity would then survive beyond Earth. Then there are the other ventures. The Boring Company aims to drill tunnels below cities to change the nature of transportation. Neuralink is implanting chips in the brain to hopefully make paralysed people walk and eventually turn humans into improved cyborg versions. Starlink, a vast array of satellites, is providing internet from outer space and has just helped Ukraine in defending against the Russian invasion. He bought Twitter, the social media company touted as the public square of the world, where the cut and thrust of politics across the globe is conducted. And this he insists is him trying to save free speech from oppressive cultures. His companies are making humanoid robots and self-driving cars that will eventually lead to Robotaxis that make ownership and driving redundant. Musk does not just have his fingers in the pie of what the future should be but is the shoulder pushing us into it. Yet, he is also, as all his critics and many friends term him, and which his latest biography written by Walter Isaacson (Elon Musk; Simon & Schuster; 688 pages; ₹1499) also details in anecdote after anecdote, simply put, an ‘asshole’.
For instance, after trying to fit in with the new dispensation in Twitter, Yoel Roth, head of trust and safety, or content moderation, eventually quit when he couldn’t take Musk anymore. He left amicably hoping Musk wouldn’t slur him online to his hundreds of millions of followers. For a while, that remained true. But then someone dug out a dissertation that Roth had written in 2010 asking whether it was wrong for a teacher to have sex with an 18-year-old student. The book says: “Musk then took up the bludgeon on his own. He tweeted out a screenshot of a paragraph of Roth’s University of Pennsylvania doctoral dissertation, titled ‘Gay Data,’ which discussed ways that gay hookup sites such as Grindr could deal with users under the age of eighteen. Musk commented, ‘Looks like Yoel is arguing in favor of children being able to access adult Internet services.’ Roth had nothing to do with pedophilia, but Musk’s insinuations stirred up Pizzagate-style conspiracists lurking in the dark recesses of Twitter who unleashed a barrage of homophobic and anti-Semitic attacks.”
Isaacson traces much of what Musk is now to his childhood. His father, Errol, was an emotionally destructive influence. Once after being badly beaten by bullies in school, leading him to be hospitalised, Musk’s father sided with his attackers. The book says: “After the school fight, Errol sided with the kid who pummelled Elon’s face. ‘The boy had just lost his father to suicide, and Elon had called him stupid,’ Errol says. ‘Elon had this tendency to call people stupid. How could I possibly blame that child?”’ Musk showed both his genius and drive when very young. At the age of eight, he wanted a motorcycle and just stood next to his father daily arguing for it until he got it. When he was 11, he saw a computer and wanted one. He tried to pester Errol again but it didn’t work. So, he did odd jobs, saved up money and bought one, and finished the 60 hours of a BASIC programming course that came with it in three days.
The eventual move to the US took a circuitous route, as he first went to Canada and then he gave up an engineering seat in Stanford on realising in the early 1990s that the internet revolution had begun and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Musk is entirely self-taught in programming and, along with his brother, started an online yellow page called Zip2, which they sold to Compaq in 1999 and by age 27 he had US$ 22 million. He then founded X.com, a one-stop online gateway to service financial needs. He jumped up another orbit following a merger with PayPal that made him CEO of the joint entity. Never an easy partner, he found himself ousted but walked away with yet another fat cheque. From then on, his ambitions became broader than just software products. Uniquely for the great entrepreneurs that the internet boom unleashed, he changed direction to get into manufacturing by way of Tesla and SpaceX.
Both weren’t in any way given to be phenomenal successes and not even his most bitter enemies doubt that he was solely responsible for this feat. The first three launches of SpaceX, for instance, all exploded and Musk was on the verge of running out of money. Isaacson recounts what followed the third failure: “The team worried that he would, as he often did, try to single out people to blame. They prepared for a cold eruption. Instead, he told them that there were components for a fourth rocket in the Los Angeles factory. Build it, he said, and transport it to Kwaj as soon as possible. He gave them a deadline that was barely realistic: launch it in six weeks. ‘He told us to go for it,’ says (chief launch engineer Hans) Koenigsmann, ‘and it blew me away.’ A jolt of optimism spread through headquarters. ‘I think most of us would have followed him into the gates of hell carrying suntan oil after that,’ says Dolly Singh, the human resources director. ‘Within moments, the energy of the building went from despair and defeat to a massive buzz of determination.”’
Musk is wired to take gargantuan risks and when they fail, he meets it by doubling down. To those working under him, at the height of the crisis, he advances deadlines to make it impossible. And he himself gets into the middle of the arena leading the fightback. The best example of it was in 2018 when Tesla needed to manufacture 5000 Model 3 cars per week to prevent bankruptcy. It was only doing 2000 and no one except Musk believed the target could be achieved. Already, investors were shorting the stock expecting it to crash. He lived in the factory and began to make it more efficient as he walked down the floor from station to station. “Musk calculated that on a good day he made a hundred command decisions as he walked the floor. ‘At least twenty percent are going to be wrong, and we’re going to alter them later,’ he said. ‘But if I don’t make decisions, we die.’” By May that year, they were making 3500 cars per week, still short by 1500. They would need another factory to make up the number, an impossibility. So, he just created one in the parking lot under a giant tent. The book says: “In two weeks, they were able to complete a tented facility that was 1,000 feet long and 150 feet wide, big enough to accommodate a makeshift assembly line. Instead of robots, there were humans at each station. One problem was that they did not have a conveyor belt to move the unfinished cars through the tent. All they had was an old system for moving parts, but it was not powerful enough to move car bodies. ‘So, we put it on a slight slope, and gravity meant it had enough power to move the cars at the right speed,’ Musk says. At just after 4 p.m. on June 16, just three weeks after Musk came up with the idea, the new assembly line was rolling Model 3 sedans out of the makeshift tent.”
MUSK HOWEVER IS addicted to crisis. When everything is going well he has to invite one. This happened last year when, just as all his ventures had stabilised, he decided to buy Twitter on a whim for US$ 44 billion, instantly regretted it, tried to get out of it and, when he couldn’t, decided to turn it around like Tesla and SpaceX. He started living in the Twitter headquarters, fired over three quarters of the staff, changed its name to X, and despite predictions that the platform would collapse, he is now gradually making it into a social media cum financial transactions company. His paeans to free speech have been hollowed out by his own actions, where he sought to get accounts censored and banned because he didn’t like them. The term that is often used to describe him is aptly “man-child”. Twitter really has nothing to do with the survival of humanity but Musk seems to have convinced himself that it is part of that endeavour. The biographer Isaacson’s reading is that it is just a playground that he used to enjoy being in and so bought it. In any other person, such self-deception would be ridiculed but Musk might eventually prove himself right.
Those close to him attribute his meanness to Asperger’s Syndrome but it is something he has self-diagnosed and lack of empathy does not really need a medical condition. His life is also an abiding monument to that cliché: money can’t buy you happiness. The portrait that Isaacson paints is a man who is relentlessly miserable by taking on things no other human would. He gets them done and they give him no contentment because he now has to chase his next impossibility. Perhaps a good reading of Musk is a line he spoke while appearing in the comedy show Saturday Night Live: “To anyone I’ve offended, I just want to say, ‘I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship.’ Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?’”