To really get to understand irascible billionaire Elon Musk, the author Walter Isaacson shadowed him for two years. The resulting biography is long, very long, and having ploughed through it all, I almost feel as if I have devoted a similar chunk of my life to Musk.
However, it is a magnificently impressive piece of work, chronicling the rise of this mega nerd from a deeply unhappy childhood in SA to an astounding tally of hall of fame achievements — any one of which would earn him a place in history.
These include work on artificial intelligence, robots and self-driving cars, the start up of PayPal, the development of the first reusable rockets, the creation of the world’s largest automotive company, the formation of a satellite-based communications system and, of course, the acquisition of the social network X (formerly Twitter).
Musk is a big fan of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and this may help to explain his most ambitious goal of all — the colonisation of Mars, which he thinks is needed to save humanity from extinction.
A central theme of this book is that we are dealing with someone with almost none of the social skills most of us adopt — but the reader is guided to the conclusion that this antisocial, self-driven, unempathetic person has achieved so much because he is such a jerk.
The construction and formation of Musk seems to have had immensely strong nature and nurture elements. He is very bright and gifted in analysing situations, in coding, in gaming, in working out how to better produce things. However, the nurturing side of his development was honoured more in the breach than in the observance.
His father, Errol, is said to have bullied, tormented and belittled little Elon, while the friendless child was beaten up at school, and outside. This was not helped by his short stature and his tendency to call his schoolmates “stupid”.
At the age of 17, having already developed impressive computer coding skills, Musk went to Canada to study, and then moved on to the US. He made his first millions through a form of online yellow pages, before progressing to his other projects, often juggling more than one at the same time.
Whether he is bipolar, has Asperger’s syndrome, or is just equipped with the energy, drive and determination of a dozen mere mortals, his focus on achieving what others find too daunting seems to have driven him forward.
Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training
Hardly sleeping, napping under his office desk, he is capable of working virtually nonstop, inhuman hours — and of demanding the same of those who work for him. You snooze, you lose. Your job.
Many of us have suffered bastard bosses. Few could have been as bad as Musk. This book is littered with tales of those who have been sacked after having failed to meet his demanding standards, having told him something was impossible, or who were just in the wrong place when his demons took control and he threw a tantrum.
However unpleasant he can be, and often is, this no-compromising approach has reaped dividends. When setting up a factory, Musk will patrol the conveyor belt, probing, challenging, questioning, suggesting, trying to shave costs, not taking “no” or “it can’t be done” for an answer. Either you get results, or you get the push.
Meanwhile, if a regulation is in his way, he will challenge the regulators. He is a force of nature, and not a forgiving one. No gentle breeze, Musk is a tsunami, an earthquake, a tornado, and God help anyone who stands in his path.
Possibly because of his love of gaming, he is willing to take enormous risks, with a recklessness that is sometimes destructive. His first three rockets blew up before his successful fourth launch.
His personal life is also unconventional. He has many, many children, has had several partners. He believes it is his duty to boost the world’s population. He also seems to enjoy endowing his offspring with weird names. He not only renamed Twitter as X; X is also the name of one of his sons. And, yes, there is also Y, a daughter.
I had hoped this book might tackle and help to explain why Musk, for a while the world’s richest man, appears to have done so little for the land of his birth. He returned to SA after 11 years in the US, went on safari, contracted malaria and nearly died. The quote from him after that experience might partly help to explain his animosity for the country where he had such miserable schooldays. “Vacations will kill you,” he said. “Also, SA. That place is still trying to destroy me.”
However, I doubt it is that simple. I suggest that he has kept away because the business environment in SA is everything that Musk despises. Corruption, overregulation, labour laws that make hiring and firing difficult ... All of this is anathema to someone who strives for efficiency, loves to tear up red tape, to trim costs and to speedily and ruthlessly shed deadwood from any organisation in which he operates.
The rollout of Musk’s Starlink uncapped satellite internet service elsewhere in Africa, but not in SA, may help to shed some light on his lack of engagement with SA. SA wants an empowerment stake to be offered in the business, but Starlink isn’t playing ball. So no Starlink for us.
There would also be different, but impactful BEE requirements were Musk to site a Telsa factory in SA, or to move some of his rocket business to his homeland, as one must assume the SA government has invited him to do. And he was an early pioneer of solar panels and battery storage — which could only assist SA in its power crisis. If you are serious about attracting investment, Musk must be on your radar. Maybe our government’s radar, like so much else in SA, is on the blink.
While this biography dwells on Musk’s drive and genius, there is balance, and it also exposes his weaknesses. Fear of the woke culture drove him to take over Twitter, though he also has ambitious plans (when are his plans not ambitious?) to develop a financial services capability for the social media platform.
However, he has struggled to handle the competing demands of curbing hate speech while also promoting free speech. He seems to have overpaid for Twitter, and the acquisition has lost him many billions. His own careless tweets, some possibly made when he had made himself physically sick from stress and overwork, have also taken their toll on his reputation.
Musk, then, is a flawed genius, and often a vile, offensive bully, yet he is a genius. As his fellow billionaire Bill Gates put it: “You can feel whatever you want about Elon’s behaviour, but there is no-one in our time who has done more to push the bounds of science and innovation than he has.”
In ending this marathon volume, Isaacson concurs: “Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training,” he concludes. “They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.”
What’s the bet that if anyone will get man to Mars, it will be Elon Musk?
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