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"Elon Musk," | Reviewed by Bill Schwab

Walter Isaacson has captured the life story of egotistical, explosive Elon Musk with a detailed, intimate report on one of the most energetic and untethered innovators of our time. Isaacson shadowed Musk for 2 years—sitting in on his meetings, walking his factories, and spending hours interviewing coworkers and former coworkers, family members and friends. The result is a 688-page portrait of an eccentric visionary.

Musk became a multi-millionaire at 27 when he sold the web software company Zip2 to Compaq. In the 25 years since then, he has helped to facilitate the development of electric cars, artificial intelligence, space exploration, and social media communications.

The author suggests that the Tesla mogul’s huge mood swings have their origin in his childhood experiences in an unstable and threatening environment shaped by his upbringing with his mother Maye and his relationship with his father, Erroll, who is recalled as an unhinged, conspiracy-minded, verbally abusive Jekyll and Hyde figure. As a kid growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, the brilliant and talented Elon was frequently beaten by bullies.  One day, for example, Elon was pushed down a concrete staircase and kicked until his face was so swollen  he had to be hospitalized for a week.

Isaacson postulates that this menacing childhood resulted in a young man with wide, abrupt mood swings, a high tolerance for risk, and a fanatical drive to complete projects in unreasonably short time frames. The book repeatedly relates incidents that demonstrate how, when Musk sets his mind on a project, his behavior becomes inexplicable. He sleeps on floors in factories to ensure workers are functioning efficiently, forgets to eat, ignores his family, and impulsively fires employees using irreverent, unfiltered language. Many excellent employees have quit because of his continual “maniacally urgent” conduct.

Elon Musk has been married twice and divorced three times (he remarried his second wife only to divorce her again.) He also has had numerous additional intimate relationships with women and fathered 11 children with three of them.

After losing their first child, Nevada, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, he and his first wife, Justine Wilson, had twins and triplets, Griffin, Vivian, Kai, Saxon, and Damien. After two marriages to “Westworld” star Talulah Riley and a brief relationship with actress Amber Heard, Musk started dating singer Grimes in May 2018. She gave birth to their son, X and his first daughter, Exa Dark Sideræl Musk, nicknamed Y. Musk quietly welcomed twins with Shivon Zilis in November 2021, Strider and Azure. On September 9, 2023, the tech giant welcomed a third child with Grimes and named him Techno Mechanicus.

Isaacson’s biography does not lack for melodrama, as when he reports that one of Musk’s girlfriends, Grimes, was in an Austin hospital visiting the surrogate pregnant with their secret second child in 2021 at the same time Musk’s employee Shivon Zilis was in the same hospital pregnant with secret twins fathered by Musk, a fact unbeknownst to Grimes.

Isaacson’s biography portrays the founder of SpaceX and the owner of social media platform X as a fantasist given to self-destructive behavior, someone “not hardwired to have empathy.” Musk recently announced he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome during his childhood. Symptoms of Asperger's include impaired social skills, an inability to form friendships or act in socially appropriate ways. Isaacson maintains this diagnosis probably accounts for much of Musk’s “appalling behavior.”

The Musk we are presented with today is different from the Musk Isaacson began to follow in 2021. Since then, the billionaire has publicly moved politically right, embracing conspiracy theories and ranting that the “woke mind virus” could unravel civilization. He has restored banned accounts on X—including Donald Trump’s account—alienating advertisers and the mainstream media. He has been accused of fathering multiple additional children and actively becoming a power broker in both the Ukraine War and Republican politics.

Isaacson’s excellent writing skills make this lengthy book a fast-paced, intriguing read. The 95 chapters are short, each one focused on a particular anecdote which makes the book easy to pick up and put down without losing continuity. The author balances Musk’s outrageous personal behavior with the relentless drive that has made him an important innovator and a financially successful entrepreneur of our era.

About the Author: The Musk biography is a fitting addition to Isaacson's other biographies about science and technology figures including Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Jennifer Doudna, and Steve Jobs. He also is the author of many other books. Isaacson has been the editor of Time, the CEO of CNN, and the CEO of the Aspen Institute. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2023 and is a professor at Tulane University.

            Buy the Book.



 

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