Elon Musk led Tesla and SpaceX to success. At the same time, he often appears reckless, unpredictable and prone to conspiracy theories. A biography takes a look behind the scenes of Musk’s life.
Just before Christmas 2022, Elon Musk decided that moving a data center couldn’t be that difficult. He had bought Twitter almost two months earlier, the company was losing money – and operating the facility in Sacramento, California, cost over $100 million a year.
Managers warned that a safe move of the servers to a Twitter data center in Portland would only be possible in six to nine months. But from Musk’s point of view, two weeks would be more than enough: “With a damn moving truck, you can probably do it yourself.”
It shouldn’t just be words. When Musk was on a private jet with friends and family heading to Texas for the Christmas holidays and venting his anger, his cousin James had a spontaneous idea. “Why don’t we do it now?” he asked.
Musk had the pilot filmed, and a little later the company was standing in the data center between 5,200 refrigerator-sized server racks on Friday evening. Armed with his security chief’s pocket knife, he climbed under the floor, broke open a console and pulled the plug. After Christmas, Musk’s people and moving helpers removed 700 server cabinets weighing tons from the facility within three days – and the rest in January.
Not resist talking
The episode, which Musk biographer Walter Isaacson describes in his book published on Tuesday, exemplifies the attitude with which the 52-year-old whipped the electric car manufacturer Tesla and the space company SpaceX to success.
Musk questions authorities and rules, doesn’t tolerate any objections, sets crazy deadlines, expects a lot from employees, and gets involved himself. And sometimes it falls flat on its face. The fact that the first three SpaceX rockets crashed was also due to Musk’s impatience and desire to save money. Likewise, the hasty move of the Twitter servers was not a good idea: the result was months of disruption and “real meltdowns in the system.”
Few have as much influence on the world as Elon Musk does today. The fact that he set the car industry on the path to electric vehicles with Tesla and became the richest person in the world thanks to his shares is not even the most important thing. The USA cannot do without rockets from SpaceX. Ukraine is dependent on its Starlink satellite system in Russia’s war of aggression. And when Musk decided, as described in the book, that he didn’t want to let them use Starlink to attack Russian warships, then that was it. His decisions on Twitter, which he renamed X, could influence the next election campaign for the White House – which could have serious consequences with the possible return of Donald Trump.
And all of this while Musk not only increasingly drifted into the right-wing political spectrum, but also spread absurd conspiracy theories, downplayed the dangers posed by the coronavirus, accused the media of being “racist” against white people and accused the financier George Soros of hating humanity. There’s more to the question of what’s going on in Musk’s head and how it can affect everyone than just voyeuristic interest in the life of a billionaire. Isaacson, who has been in close contact with Musk since 2021, is making every effort to lift the curtain.
“Addicted to risk and drama”
The book, which is over 800 pages long, contains a psychological portrait of Musk. He is “addicted to risk and drama,” writes Isaacson. He is a driven person who cannot enjoy success for long. His emotional state fluctuates “between hard-hearted, needy and exuberant.” Musician Grimes, who gave birth to three of his children, speaks of “demon mode” in which Musk becomes dark and retreats “into the storm in his head.” “But in this mode he gets a lot of whacking.”
In many places it is clear that the success of Musk’s companies Tesla and SpaceX is no coincidence. Not only because he keeps finding people who are willing to work around the clock, but also because he doesn’t stop questioning the current situation.
When he saw that the underbody of a Tesla model car was cast in one piece of metal, he wanted to know why the same could not be done on the real vehicle. As it turned out, there were no die-casting machines of that size – but an Italian company agreed to build one. From then on, an aluminum chassis was created using a mold within 80 seconds. Previously it consisted of more than 100 parts.
Trump unlocked again
What is striking in some places is the ease with which Musk sets double standards for himself and others. When he bought Twitter, he promised “absolute freedom of speech,” and under this banner he also had blocked right-wing accounts unblocked and the permanently banned Trump returned. When users called for a boycott of the service following his changes, he demanded that Twitter manager Yoel Roth block them. “It is morally right for Twitter to exist,” Musk argued. He also ran searches for terms like “Elon” in employee public messages to identify and fire critics.
Musk’s first wife, Justine, already acknowledged a lack of empathy. Years later, when Grimes gave birth to his son X (full name: X AE A-12), Musk took a photo during the C-section and sent it to friends and family. “He didn’t have the slightest idea why I was upset about it,” Grimes Isaacson said, attributing Musk’s behavior to Asperger’s syndrome.
When a surrogate mother delivered Musk and Grimes’ third child – Techno Mechanicus (nickname: Tau) – last year, he was also on the verge of becoming a father with another woman. One of his closest employees had decided to have children – and, according to his biography, Musk offered to be a sperm donor. Grimes later found out about this from the media.
“Would a restrained Musk accomplish as much as an unleashed one?” asks Isaacson in conclusion. Isn’t “being unfiltered and free of all ties” an essential element of what defines him? The biographer himself seems to accept Musk as he is: “Sometimes great innovators are risk-taking, boyish men who resist cleanliness training.”