Elon Musk – One of the world’s biggest disruptors! Tesla, SpaceX, Starlink, Neuralink, The Boring Company, xAI, X (Twitter), PayPal and OpenAI – The list of disruptive enterprises does not get bigger or impressive than this!
How did a boy, who was bullied and had a difficult childhood, turn into one of the richest and most influential man on earth? What did it take to build his business empire? And who is he as a person?
Sir Walter Isaacson tries in answering the above questions. Walter is one of the best biographers, who has documented the lives of Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Jennifer Doudna and Steve Jobs. Hence the expectations of his work on Elon Musk have been naturally very high! The 600 plus page biography gives a detailed description of his life – the early childhood years, personal relationships, professional journey, beliefs, and controversies.
The book keeps switching between his personal and professional life. A significant spotlight is spent on how Musk spearheaded Tesla and SpaceX – the two game changing enterprises, which are his biggest achievements.
Automobile industry is a complex industry with strong entrenched players and vested interests. His single-minded pursuit of building cool and mass scale electric vehicles redefined the industry. Navigating tough competition and operational challenges, he built Tesla as one of the most valuable companies in the world. During crisis of production at Tesla, he slept at the factory for weeks! Tesla’s success is indeed stuff of legends.
And no less commendable feat is SpaceX – rocket science is not everyone’s cup of tea, and he challenged the leading American aerospace giants. Focussing on reusable rockets and thinking out of box helped him succeed! He broke the “cost plus” model at NASA. Picture this: “When in 2014,” Isaacson writes, “Nasa awarded SpaceX the contract to build a rocket that would take astronauts to the space station, it had on the same day given a competing contract, with 40% 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.”
Musk wants to colonise Mars and is totally paranoid about it – he wants to make humans a multi-planetary species in his lifetime! He has built other equally significant business – the OpenAI, StarLink, NeuraLink, The Boring Company and XAI. He was one of the early investors at Paypal.
Elon Musk has a clear toolkit for business success. He challenges the existing practices in each of the industries he operates in. He believes in engineering and design teams should work together – so they work next to each other. He is totally involved in the engineering and manufacturing activities and likes to be in control. He tries to build everything himself – vertical integration. He drives down the costs with a terrorist fervour. The idiot index is his favourite idea – which calculated how much more costly a finished product was than the cost of its basic materials. If a product had a high idiot index, its cost could be reduced significantly by devising more efficient manufacturing techniques.
He takes big bets, huge risks and makes quick decisions. He is often quoted – the only laws are the laws of physics – everything else is a recommendation. All these traits have helped him become the richest man on the earth and Time’s ‘Person Of The Year’.
But Elon Musk is also a ruthless leader who does not care about people. He does not believe in work-life balance. He thrives in a constant crisis mode. He has no empathy. Walter suggests that his painful childhood could be partly a reason for it. As a kid in South Africa, Elon Musk was regularly beaten by bullies and was even in hospital. His father offered bigger emotional pains with his destructive behaviour.
“I’m just a fool for love,” Musk tells Isaacson. “I am often a fool, but especially for love.” Elon Musk’s relationships have an interesting arc as well. His relationships include actors Talulah Riley and Amber Heard, musician Grimes and Justin. He also his father to the twins of his top executive and venture capitalist Shivon Zilis – conceived by in-vitro fertilization.
He also believes that the declining fertility late is a cause of great concern. People should reproduce more – he has 10 children from multiple partners. When Shivon was pregnant with twins, and was experiencing complications, in a nearby room, a woman serving as a surrogate for Musk and Grimes, was suffering from pregnancy complications too. All three women were nearby as they helped Musk’s vision of reproducing more.
One of his most controversial and interesting acquisition is Twitter, which he has rebranded as X. As I read his tweets regularly, this is where he could slip. This could be his Waterloo. Walterson says that owning the global playground is his revenge at being bulled at the school playground. But Twitter is not a tech company, it is a people business – one area which is not Musk’s strong suit.
Musk indeed comes across an imperfect individual with high degrees of toxicity, disregard, and ego. Walter tires to justify it. “Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training,” Isaacson concludes in the last lines of his life of Musk. “They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.”
Like what Elon Musk said on a live TV Show: “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?”
Are we OK with this?
Another Steve Jobs? Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are very similar in their maddening and relentless pursuit for excellence and success. Both changed the face of industries they operated in. Both had serious issues in people management and showed lack of empathy. One difference was – Steve was more design driven and big thinker. Elon Musk is more engineering driven and loves to get into micromanagement. And yes, Steve never tweeted recklessly!
Unfortunately, while the book is a great source of information of Elon Musk’s life and offers multiple examples of how we broke citadels of traditional industries and created success with Tesla and SpaceX, it offers less insights. The book is paean to Musk the Emperor – our real-life Tony Stark in Iron Man, where he had a cameo!
Sir Walter Issacon’s Elon Musk Biography is a mixed dossier of Musk’s personal and professional lives – rich in information, poor in insights! Not his best work!
Elon Musk – Love him. Hate him. Cannot ignore him. Drives passionate opinions. Worshipped. Crucified.
Elon Musk – An eccentric genius! A flawed innovator! Saving humanity while not being human? The jury is still out on Elon Musk!