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Bestselling author Walter Isaacson has previously written biographies of inventive and dynamic personalities, from Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs. For his latest, “Elon Musk” (published September 12 by Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS’ parent company, Paramount Global), Isaacson received unparalleled access with the billionaire entrepreneur.
The result is a psychological portrait of a visionary whose projects speak to a traumatic and violent childhood and the abusive father that shaped his psyche.
Read an excerpt below, and don’t miss David Pogue’s interview with Walter Isaacson on “CBS News Sunday Morning” September 10!
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Muse of Fire
As a kid growing up in South Africa, Elon Musk knew pain and learned how to survive it.
When he was twelve, he was taken by bus to a wilderness survival camp, known as a veldskool. “It was a paramilitary Lord of the Flies,” he recalls. The kids were each given small rations of food and water, and they were allowed—indeed encouraged—to fight over them. “Bullying was considered a virtue,” his younger brother Kimbal says. The big kids quickly learned to punch the little ones in the face and take their stuff. Elon, who was small and emotionally awkward, got beaten up twice. He would end up losing ten pounds.
Near the end of the first week, the boys were divided into two groups and told to attack each other. “It was so insane, mind-blowing,” Musk recalls. Every few years, one of the kids would die. The counselors would recount such stories as warnings. “Don’t be stupid like that dumb f**k who died last year,” they would say. “Don’t be the weak dumb f**k.”
The second time Elon went to veldskool, he was about to turn sixteen. He had gotten much bigger, bursting up to six feet with a bearlike frame, and had learned some judo. So veldskool wasn’t so bad. “I realized by then that if someone bullied me, I could punch them very hard in the nose, and then they wouldn’t bully me again. They might beat the s**t out of me, but if I had punched them hard in the nose, they wouldn’t come after me again.”
South Africa in the 1980s was a violent place, with machine-gun attacks and knife killings common. Once, when Elon and Kimbal got off a train on their way to an anti-apartheid music concert, they had to wade through a pool of blood next to a dead person with a knife still sticking out of his brain. For the rest of the evening, the blood on the soles of their sneakers made a sticky sound against the pavement.
The Musk family kept German Shepherd dogs that were trained to attack anyone running by the house. When he was six, Elon was racing down the driveway and his favorite dog attacked him, taking a massive bite out of his back. In the emergency room, when they were preparing to stitch him up, he resisted being treated until he was promised that the dog would not be punished. “You’re not going to kill him, are you?” Elon asked. They swore that they wouldn’t. In recounting the story, Musk pauses and stares vacantly for a very long time. “Then they damn well shot the dog dead.”
His most searing experiences came at school. For a long time, he was the youngest and smallest student in his class. He had trouble picking up social cues. Empathy did not come naturally, and he had neither the desire nor the instinct to be ingratiating. As a result, he was regularly picked on by bullies, who would come up and punch him in the face. “If you have never been punched in the nose, you have no idea how it affects you the rest of your life,” he says.
At assembly one morning, a student who was horsing around with a gang of friends bumped into him. Elon pushed him back. Words were exchanged. The boy and his friends hunted Elon down at recess and found him eating a sandwich. They came up from behind, kicked him in the head, and pushed him down a set of concrete steps. “They sat on him and just kept beating the s**t out of him and kicking him in the head,” says Kimbal, who had been sitting with him. “When they got finished, I couldn’t even recognize his face. It was such a swollen ball of flesh that you could barely see his eyes.” He was taken to the hospital and was out of school for a week. Decades later, he was still getting corrective surgery to try to fix the tissues inside his nose.
But those scars were minor compared to the emotional ones inflicted by his father, Errol Musk, an engineer, rogue, and charismatic fantasist who to this day bedevils Elon. After the school fight, Errol sided with the kid who pummeled Elon’s face. “The boy had just lost his father to suicide, and Elon had called him stupid,” Errol says. “Elon had this tendency to call people stupid. How could I possibly blame that child?”
When Elon finally came home from the hospital, his father berated him. “I had to stand for an hour as he yelled at me and called me an idiot and told me that I was just worthless,” Elon recalls. Kimbal, who had to watch the tirade, says it was the worst memory of his life. “My father just lost it, went ballistic, as he often did. He had zero compassion.”
Both Elon and Kimbal, who no longer speak to their father, say his claim that Elon provoked the attack is unhinged and that the perpetrator ended up being sent to juvenile prison for it. They say their father is a volatile fabulist, regularly spinning tales that are larded with fantasies, sometimes calculated and at other times delusional. He has a Jekyll-and-Hyde nature, they say. One minute he would be friendly, the next he would launch into an hour or more of unrelenting abuse. He would end every tirade by telling Elon how pathetic he was. Elon would just have to stand there, not allowed to leave. “It was mental torture,” Elon says, pausing for a long time and choking up slightly. “He sure knew how to make anything terrible.”
When I call Errol, he talks to me for almost three hours and then follows up regularly with calls and texts over the next two years. He is eager to describe and send me photos of the nice things he provided to his kids, at least during the periods when his engineering business was doing well. At one point he drove a Rolls-Royce, built a wilderness lodge with his boys, and got raw emeralds from a mine owner in Zambia, until that business collapsed.
But he admits that he encouraged a physical and emotional toughness. “Their experiences with me would have made veldskool quite tame,” he says, adding that violence was simply part of the learning experience in South Africa. “Two held you down while another pummeled your face with a log and so on. New boys were forced to fight the school thug on their first day at a new school.” He proudly concedes that he exercised “an extremely stern streetwise autocracy” with his boys. Then he makes a point of adding, “Elon would later apply that same stern autocracy to himself and others.”
“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.” In Elon Musk’s case, his father’s impact on his psyche would linger, despite many attempts to banish him, both physically and psychologically. Elon’s moods would cycle through light and dark, intense and goofy, detached and emotional, with occasional plunges into what those around him dreaded as “demon mode.” He would be caring with his kids, craving their affection, but in other ways, his behavior would hint at a danger that needed to be constantly battled: the specter that, as his mother put it, “he might become his father.” It’s one of the most resonant tropes in mythology. To what extent does the epic quest of the Star Wars hero require exorcising demons bequeathed by Darth Vader and wrestling with the dark side of the Force?
“With a childhood like his in South Africa, I think you have to shut yourself down emotionally in some ways,” says his first wife Justine, the mother of five of his surviving ten children. “If your father is always calling you a moron and idiot, maybe the only response is to turn off anything inside that would’ve opened up an emotional dimension that he didn’t have tools to deal with.” This emotional shutoff valve could make him callous, but it also made him a risk-seeking innovator. “He learned to shut down fear,” she says. “If you turn off fear, then maybe you have to turn off other things, like joy or empathy.”
The PTSD from his childhood also instilled in him an aversion to contentment. “I just don’t think he knows how to savor success and smell the flowers,” says Claire Boucher, the artist known as Grimes, who is the mother of three of his other children. “I think he got conditioned in childhood that life is pain.” Musk agrees. “Adversity shaped me,” he says. “My pain threshold became very high.”
During a particularly hellish period of his life in 2008, after the first three launches of his SpaceX rockets exploded and Tesla was about to go bankrupt, he would wake up thrashing and recount to Talulah Riley, who became his second wife, the things his father had once said. “I’d heard him use those phrases himself,” she says. “It had a profound effect on how he operates.” When he recalled these memories, he would zone out and seem to disappear behind his steel-colored eyes. “I think he wasn’t conscious of how that still affected him, because he thought of it as something in his childhood,” Riley says. “But he’s retained a childlike, almost stunted side. Inside the man, he’s still there as a child, a child standing in front of his dad.”
Out of this cauldron, Musk developed an aura that made him seem, at times, like an alien, as if his Mars mission were an aspiration to return home and his desire to build humanoid robots were a quest for kinship. But his childhood also made him all too human, a tough yet vulnerable boy who decided to embark on epic quests.
He developed a fervor that cloaked his goofiness, and a goofiness that cloaked his fervor. Slightly uncomfortable in his own body, like a big man who was never an athlete, he would walk with the stride of a mission-driven bear and dance jigs that seemed taught by a robot. With the conviction of a prophet, he would speak about the need to nurture the flame of human consciousness, fathom the universe, and save our planet. At first I thought this was mainly role-playing, the team-boosting pep talks and podcast fantasies of a man-child who had read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy once too often. But the more I encountered it, the more I came to believe that his sense of mission was part of what drove him. While other entrepreneurs struggled to develop a worldview, he developed a cosmic view.
His heritage and breeding made him at times callous and impulsive. It also led to an exceedingly high tolerance for risk. He could calculate it coldly and also embrace it feverishly. “Elon wants risk for its own sake,” says Peter Thiel, who became his partner in the early days of PayPal. “He seems to enjoy it, indeed at times be addicted to it.”
He became one of those people who feels most alive when a hurricane is coming. “I was born for a storm, and a calm does not suit me,” Andrew Jackson once said. Likewise with Musk. He developed a siege mentality that included an attraction, sometimes a craving, for storm and drama, both at work and in the romantic relationships he struggled and failed to maintain. He thrived on crises, deadlines, and wild surges of work. When he faced tortuous challenges, the strain would often keep him awake at night and make him vomit. But it also energized him. “He is a drama magnet,” says Kimbal. “That’s his compulsion, the theme of his life.”
At the beginning of 2022—after a year marked by SpaceX making thirty-one successful rocket launches, Tesla selling close to a million cars, and him becoming the richest man on Earth—Musk spoke ruefully about his compulsion to stir up dramas. “I need to shift my mindset away from being in crisis mode,” he told me, “which it has been in for about fourteen years now, or arguably most of my life.”
It was a wistful comment, not a New Year’s resolution. Even as he made the pledge, he was secretly buying up shares of Twitter, the world’s ultimate playground. That April, he snuck away to the Hawaiian house of his mentor Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, accompanied by the actress Natasha Bassett, an occasional girlfriend. He had been offered a board seat at Twitter, but over the weekend he concluded that wasn’t enough. It was in his nature to want total control. So he decided he would make a hostile bid to buy the company outright. Then he flew to Vancouver to meet Grimes. There he stayed up with her until past 5 a.m. playing a new war-and-empire-building game, Elden Ring. Right after he finished, he pulled the trigger on his plan and went on Twitter. “I made an offer,” he announced.
Over the years, whenever he was in a dark place or felt threatened, it took him back to the horrors of being bullied on the playground. Now he had the chance to own the playground.
From “Elon Musk” by Walter Isaacson. Copyright © 2023 by Walter Isaacson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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