Elon Musk: billionaire ‘brutal on himself, brutal as a boss’

Elon Musk’s life is one of those classic rags to riches-beyond-most-people’s-wildest-dreams stories. It is tinged with as much pathos as it is with the drive that has made him one of the  most successful entrepreneurs on the planet. At 43, Musk’s personal life is a bit of a mess. He has five sons from his first wife, married, divorced then remarried actress wife Talulah Riley, and announced in January that they were divorcing once again. He has a reputation for being as hard on his staff as he is on himself, but appears to be very sensitive to criticism. He has denied on Twitter that he ever told a staff member that attending the birth of his child was ‘no excuse’ for missing a work meeting. He also says he has never called himself a ‘samurai’, as one media report suggested. Even if he didn’t say it, I’d say it’s an apt analogy. Musk displays the same steely determination and spirit to overcome all opponents as those ancient Japan warriors. In this review of Musk’s biography, writer Ashlee Vance explains why, aged 17, he was so determined to leave South Africa forever. – Marika Sboros

By Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk
Picture: Twitter

RDM – Since the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, only one Silicon Valley titan seems to carry a similar air of dark mystique. This would be Elon Musk, currently the CEO of the rocket company SpaceX as well as the electric-car company Tesla Motors.

The 43-year-old Musk is also chairman of SolarCity, the largest American solar power installation company.

His wealth at the moment is estimated by Forbes to be around $13 billion, yet Musk emigrated from South Africa to Canada at age 17 with barely enough money to feed himself, living off the kindness of Canadian relatives and working odd jobs — cleaning boilers, cutting wood — before ultimately signing up for undergraduate classes at Queen’s University in Ontario.

Not long after, Musk switched to the University of Pennsylvania to study economics and physics. Then he moved west to Silicon Valley and began to build and sell companies. He is now, quite arguably, the most successful and important entrepreneur in the world.

The actual details of Musk’s ascent are more complicated. As Ashlee Vance explains in his exhaustively reported biography, Elon Musk, written with the cooperation (but not the final approval) of the subject, Musk had left home in Pretoria with the ultimate dream of making it big in the United States.

His emigration was also a way of running from an emotionally abusive father and a country whose small-mindedness he despised.

Dreamy, awkward and bookish, Musk was a teenager with little interest in athletics but a serious interest in science fiction and computers. His natural inclinations explain part of what set his course in life.

For those wondering about the deeper roots, Vance, a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, traces aspects of Musk’s childhood that made him an extraordinary engine of resilience — for instance, the times his father ordered him and his brother to sit silent for four hours as he lectured them. Or when a band of school toughs that constantly bullied Musk pushed him down a concrete staircase and beat him so badly he needed to be taken to the hospital.

“It was just like nonstop horrible,” Musk recalls of his school and home life.

It is a surprise to feel empathy for a jet-setting celebrity billionaire, but Musk’s childhood as recounted in Elon Musk is painful to read about — and no doubt excruciating to have lived through.

The book makes a persuasive case that money never drove Musk; ideas did. But from the evidence Vance compiles, Musk seems to have been motivated by more than just ideas, which, by themselves, might have pushed the brilliant young technologist toward a career in academia.

Rather, he appears to have been driven to show that his beliefs about business and engineering were unassailably correct.

Musk’s first start-ups, both begun in the 1990s, were built on his computer prowess and the commercial potential of the Internet. These were the web software Zip2 (sold to Compaq, netting Musk $22 million) and the online bank X.com (which merged with the company that owned PayPal and was sold to eBay, with Musk making about $180 million after taxes).

He then wagered a large chunk of his fortune on a rocket start-up that aimed to drastically reduce the costs of space travel and, eventually, transport humans to Mars. His friends considered the gamble just shy of insane. Soon after, he invested millions more in a tiny electric-car company, begun by two other Silicon Valley engineers, that ultimately came under his control.

Vance traces the chaotic early years of these two firms — SpaceX and Tesla, respectively — with a compelling ticktock of events. We see that Musk is brutal on himself, routinely working 100-hour weeks. He is brutal as a boss, too, often berating or summarily firing colleagues while hogging credit for others’ accomplishments.

Yet he is without question a leader who pushes risky ideas forward through a combination of long-range vision and deep technical intelligence. He knows how to hire good people and how to motivate them. Most important, he never, ever gives up.

This is not a judiciously contextual biography. While rich in stories and scenery, the second half of the book, which describes the more recent successes of SpaceX and Tesla, is marred by chronologically confusing narratives, frequent gushes of admiration and insider jargon. (At one point we learn that “SpaceX needed an actuator that would trigger the gimbal action used to steer the upper stage of Falcon 1.”)

Readers, moreover, are repetitively told that Musk asks employees for the impossible, though in one instance we’re regrettably informed that he also asks for “the impossible on top of the impossible.”

Most damaging to the latter chapters, I think, are the moments when Vance loses his reportorial distance and adopts Musk’s own Silicon Valley business perspective — on the aerospace industry’s incompetence, for instance, or on the automotive industry’s myriad weaknesses.

All too frequently we’re left without enough background to understand a highly complex global marketplace, or why Tesla and SpaceX still have significant vulnerabilities as well.

These faults hardly make Vance’s book unreadable, however. And until we see how things finish up many years from now — Will Tesla crash? Will SpaceX take us to Mars before NASA? Will Musk become the richest person in the world? – this work will likely serve as the definitive account of a man whom so far we’ve seen mostly through caricature.

By the final pages, too, any reader will sense the need to put comparisons to Steve Jobs aside. Give Musk credit. There is no one like him. — New York Times

  • Jon Gertner is the author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation


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