Walter Isaacson
Elon Musk

Elon Musk

by Walter Isaacson, 680 pages

Finished on 29th of September, 2023
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One of the most accomplished, controversial, and interesting people who are currently alive on this planet. A biography written by one of the best biographers of the recent years. A recipe for success.

🎨 Impressions

History is made by individuals. Our world would look a lot different today if it weren’t for Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, Genghis Khan, Hitler, George Washington, Marie Curie, or Steve Jobs. Elon Musk is a recent addition to the few people who have steered humankind towards a different path. I have followed his career with lots of interest and I have read other Walter Isaacson biographies before, so I highly anticipated the release of this book.

First things first. When reading a good biography about a person, it’s easy to forget it’s a book written by a different person and not just a description of the life of the person in focus. While Walter Isaacson is one of the most renowned biographers right now and used to run CNN, he isn’t infallible, of course. I’ve already read some articles claiming he made mistakes or presented complicated details of Musk’s life in a misleading way, especially regarding the degree of Musk’s involvement in a counter-attack on Russia by the Ukrainians during the ongoing war. While that situation has been publicly cleared up in the meantime and it’s just a tiny speck in the amazing life Musk has lived up until now, it’s still worth noting that biographies aren’t always completely truthful. They can’t be. Isaacson had about two years of close contact with Musk and many of the people in his life in order to write this book and it seems he has become a trusted confidant to them all. That’s the basis you need to be aware of when forming your opinion. The clickbait articles don’t tell the right story, they have different agendas. 

Another point worth making is that Elon Musk is just barely over 50 years old at the moment. There’s hopefully a lot of time left for him to require another biography. His current escapades, which make up nearly a quarter of the book, might be just a tiny little detour in the overall picture as well. We don’t know. Still, it has been really interesting to read about this unusual person who has already shaped the world like few others do, and Walter Isaacson did a 5-star job. Now on to the content.

The many layers of Elon’s character are highlighted in an touching way. It’s easy for me to identify with him and root for him to get out of that horrible family situation during his childhood in South Africa. I wonder if the abusiveness his father displayed influenced him in a way that sparked his incredible drive to reach his goals or if he had that within himself regardless. It certainly made him leave his home country aged 17 for the United States, which was the requirement for his ideas to take root. You can’t really build a tech empire based in any other country, it seems. Or five tech empires, for that matter.

From then on, it’s just insane what he accomplished and how much of a difference he made. Just before he started to turn Tesla into the world’s most valuable car company, all other major car companies had stopped to make serious electric vehicles. It was a bet he took and with his manic mind he might have been the only guy on the planet who was able to make the company succeed in a market rigged against electric and heavily influenced by the oil industry.

Same with SpaceX. Fueled by his drive to fly people to Mars as a first step to making humankind a multiplanetary species, the company he founded from the ground up succeeded in being the first privately started rocketship enterprise which is able to deliver goods and astronauts to the ISS and into orbit, and even land the rocket boosters to have them ready for reusing. This is just incredible to think about.

There have been some failed or sidelined companies in his past as well, for example the tunnel boring company or the fast travel one called Hyperloop. But even some of the side note companies which he either created or had a heavy impact on are industry giants now, like PayPal, which made him his first millions, or OpenAI, which created ChatGPT using mainly his funding after he founded it.

To me, he is one of the most inspiring people, if not the single most inspiring person currently living. I want to root for him to succeed. I want him to build that 25,000 USD Tesla and the Tesla “Robotaxi” which was his initial plan. I want him to fly people to Mars and build a colony there during our lifetime. I want to witness the greatness of humankind or maybe even play an active part in it in some capacity some day.

Before him, it seemed like we had collectively come to a halt. There has been so little innovation and few grand ideas in between, which were all immediately downplayed as too risky or crazy, so they would get no investment or support from the public. I was in the audience at author George R. R. Martin’s panel once, and remember him saying how sad he was when the US announced it would stop going into space and cancel the Space Shuttle program. I felt the same sadness about that. Have we become just an administering species? Trying to keep the status quo alive and seemingly even failing badly at that – see the climate crisis? A society consisting mainly of referees instead of doers, as Elon says?

Elon lit this spark of hope in me that we could become explorers again as well as sustain ourselves on this planet.

But, as you probably are aware, in recent years he lost track of his own visions. That’s the big tragedy of his life. Understandably, all those 20-hour workdays finally led to a sort of mental breakdown. He became intolerable on social media, started to fall for idiotic conspiracies, and moved his attention away from his missions towards the stupid acquisition of Twitter. Some call it “King’s Disease” when a successful person starts to become so arrogant they believe they can fix anything, even a highly dysfunctional social media platform. The book chronicles the Twitter take-over over almost a quarter of the book, and while it’s interesting to read the details, it’s at times hard to believe how a genius engineer like Elon who made rocketship designs which successfully reached space could be so uninformed about the most basic problems of Twitter, which are at its core, societal and ethical questions for which no one even has correct answers – the biggest example being how free you should make free speech.

It is actually easier to make electric cars mainstream and send rockets into orbit than it is answering these questions. I knew that before and he must have known that, too. That’s the puzzling part.

Still, to a degree, he was right. When he fired about 60 percent of the bloated 7,500 people Twitter staff and the platform stayed mostly operational in spite of what all the critics said, he was vindicated. Reading about how weak and sleepy that employee culture within the Twitter company actually was when he took over, convinced me he was right to clean up. And the Sacramento trip he did with his entourage to personally start moving the servers which were costing him 100 million dollars per year, despite the IT people telling him this would take 6-9 months and require many different contractors, was just super funny and it felt good to read how he again proved these negative referee type of people all wrong.

What’s lovely is learning about how his mother Maye and brother Kimbal still play such an important role in his life and often try to get him back on track. I especially love Kimbal’s quote about the whole Twitter situation which he said directly to his brother: “I really don’t give a shit about Twitter. It’s just a pimple on the ass of what should be your impact on the world.”

Of course, his personal life plays a big role in the biography. He has had three different wives and ten kids total. For unexplained reasons they all have been IVF or surrogate pregnancies, so there are two sets of twins and one set of triplets among them, which is typical for IVF conceptions. I felt really bad for him when I learned that one of his children decided to hate him and everything he stands for and break off all contact. It doesn’t seem like he’s a bad father, he just isn’t around a lot, of course. Apparently the reason was him becoming the world’s richest man, representing the capitalist structure of society which many people deem inherently unfair. This break made him sell all his houses and start living quite modestly, which I respect. Unfortunately it didn’t fix the relationship, though.

Rather heartwarming is his relationship to the famously named child he has with genius artist Grimes, called X Æ A-12. Little X seems to be his mascot. He takes him to many of the meetings, the two-year-old runs around the rockets and through his Gigafactories, explores the roofs of the houses which receive the solar panel roof tiles, and learned how to count down from ten before learning how to count up because of all the rocket launches he witnessed. And although Grimes and Elon are not really a couple anymore, they seem to have such a deep friendship and parenting partnership, it makes me feel like he has that love in his life which many highly successful people are missing.

Elon still has so much potential. It would be a shame if he would let Tesla stay at this level of producing solid electric cars at decent prices while all the other car companies are slowly catching up, and keep SpaceX at this level of doing NASA contract launches for government satellites et cetera so it can gain more stakeholder support. Both companies need to be put on track for reaching the next level and fulfilling their respective missions, and Elon’s big actions are a requirement for it. He has already made such a huge impact on the world, but there’s a lot more to do for him.

📔 Highlights

Prologue: Muse of Fire

“Someone once said that every man is trying to live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes,” Barack Obama wrote in his memoirs, “and I suppose that may explain my particular malady.”

Chapter 4: The Seeker: Pretoria, the 1980s

Both the religious and the scientific explanations of existence, he says, did not address the really big questions, such as Where did the universe come from, and why does it exist? Physics could teach everything about the universe except why.

That lesson stuck with Musk. “I took from the book that we need to extend the scope of consciousness so that we are better able to ask the questions about the answer, which is the universe,” he says.

Chapter 12: Palo Alto, 1999-2000

“One by one, we all said, ‘Shit, he’s right,’ ” Levchin recalls. “Elon will say crazy stuff, but every once in a while, he’ll surprise you by knowing way more than you do about your own specialty.

Chapter 13: The Coup: PayPal, September 2000

Musk remained in intensive care for ten days, and he did not fully recover for five months. He took two lessons from his near-death experience: “Vacations will kill you. Also, South Africa. That place is still trying to destroy me.”

Chapter 14: Mars: SpaceX, 2001

“What I didn’t appreciate is that Elon starts with a mission and later finds a way to backfill in order to make it work financially,” he says. “That’s what makes him a force of nature.”

“People are mistaken when they think that technology just automatically improves,” he would say in a TED Talk a few years later. “It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better.”

“To have a base on Mars would be incredibly difficult, and people will probably die along the way, just as happened in the settling of the United States. But it will be incredibly inspiring, and we must have inspiring things in the world.”

Chapter 15: Rocket Man: SpaceX, 2002

“I was pretty mad, and when I get mad I try to reframe the problem.”

Chapter 17: Revving Up: SpaceX, 2002

If you’re unwilling to invest in a company, he felt, you shouldn’t qualify as a founder. “You cannot ask for two years of salary in escrow and consider yourself a cofounder,” he says. “There’s got to be some combination of inspiration, perspiration, and risk to be a cofounder.”

“If you were negative or thought something couldn’t be done, you were not invited to the next meeting,” Mueller recalls.

Chapter 18: Musk’s Rules for Rocket Building: SpaceX, 2002-2003

All requirements should be treated as recommendations, he repeatedly instructed. The only immutable ones were those decreed by the laws of physics.

Chapter 25: Taking the Wheel: Tesla, 2007-2008

“Elon is just not a very nice person and didn’t treat people well,” says Marks, who was appalled that Musk had not even read most of his wife Justine’s novels.

“That’s just the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said at a couple of meetings. That was a line that Steve Jobs used often. So did Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. Their brutal honesty could be unnerving, even offensive. It could constrict rather than encourage honest dialogue. But it was also effective, at times, in creating what Jobs called a team of A players who didn’t want to be around fuzzy thinkers.

“I’ve come to put him in the same category as Steve Jobs, which is that some people are just assholes, but they accomplish so much that I just have to sit back and say, ‘That seems to be a package.’

Chapter 28: Strike Three: Kwaj, August 3, 2008

“Optimism, pessimism, fuck that,” Musk answered. “We’re going to make it happen. As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”

Chapter 32: The Model S: Tesla, 2009

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer,” Jobs once explained. “Nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers.”

Chapter 51: Cybertruck: Tesla, 2018-2019

After all, this was a pickup truck. “I don’t care if no one buys it,” he said at the end of the session. “We’re not doing a traditional boring truck. We can always do that later. I want to build something that’s cool. Like, don’t resist me.”

Chapter 54: Autonomy Day: Tesla, April 2019

The result was another of Musk’s hallmark surges: an all-hands-on-deck 24/ 7 frenzy to produce an outcome by a deadline that was artificial and unrealistic.

Chapter 57: Full Throttle: SpaceX, 2020

When NASA had awarded SpaceX the contract to build a rocket that would take astronauts to the Space Station, it had, on the same day in 2014, given a competing contract, with 40 percent more funding, to Boeing. By the time SpaceX succeeded in 2020, Boeing had not even been able to get an unmanned test flight to dock with the station.

Chapter 62: Inspiration4: SpaceX, 2021

“Technology does not automatically progress,” Musk said. “This flight was a great example of how progress requires human agency.”

Chapter 65: Neuralink: 2017-2020

After they left the meeting, the engineers went through the usual stages of post-Musk distress disorder: baffled, then angry, then anxious. But within a week they got to the stage of being intrigued, because the new approach, they realized, might actually work.

Chapter 67: Money: 2021-2022

But there’s something else I’ve found this year. It’s that fighting to survive keeps you going for quite a while. When you are no longer in a survive-or-die mode, it’s not that easy to get motivated every day.

Chapter 70: Ukraine: 2022

“No good deed goes unpunished,” his friend David Sacks tweeted. “Even so, we should still do good deeds,” Musk replied.

Chapter 79: Optimus Unveiled: Tesla, September 2022

“I worked for months without a day off and got so tired that I quit Tesla right after Autonomy Day,” he said. “I was burned out. But after nine months, I was bored, so I called my boss and begged him to let me come back. I decided I’d rather be burned out than bored.”

Chapter 81: “Let that sink in”: Twitter, October 26-27, 2022

Musk let loose a bitter laugh when he heard the phrase “psychological safety.” It made him recoil. He considered it to be the enemy of urgency, progress, orbital velocity. His preferred buzzword was “hardcore.” Discomfort, he believed, was a good thing. It was a weapon against the scourge of complacency.

Chapter 88: Hardcore: Twitter, November 18-30, 2022

“In some ways, Musk was vindicated,” they wrote. “Twitter was less stable now, but the platform survived and mostly functioned even with the majority of employees gone.

Chapter 92: Christmas Capers: December 2022

“You’re an idiot,” Kimbal said. “Stop falling for weird shit.” The same was true for his Fauci tweet. “It’s not okay. It’s not funny. You can’t do that shit.” Kimbal also lectured James and Andrew for abetting him. “This is not okay, guys. This is not okay.”

When Elon brought it up, Kimbal refused to talk about it. “I really don’t give a shit about Twitter,” he said. “It’s just a pimple on the ass of what should be your impact on the world.” Elon disagreed, but they didn’t argue about it.

This year it was “What regrets do you have?” “My main regret,” Elon answered, “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.”

Chapter 94: AI for Humans: X.AI, 2023

“I can’t just sit around and do nothing,” he finally said softly. “With AI coming, I’m sort of wondering whether it’s worth spending that much time thinking about Twitter. Sure, I could probably make it the biggest financial institution in the world. But I have only so many brain cycles and hours in the day. I mean, it’s not like I need to be richer or something.”

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