A Q&A With Elon Musk’s Biographer

“There’s no one Elon Musk,” Walter Isaacson said. “There’s times when he sees himself in epic terms, and there’s times when he says, ‘All right, I have to be more careful.’”Credit…Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

For two years, Walter Isaacson embedded himself with Elon Musk to research his biography of the world’s richest man. Revelations from the book, which will be released on Tuesday, have already generated headlines: the psychological scars Mr. Musk carries from the way his father treated him as a child; his decision to limit Ukrainian access to the Starlink satellite network to prevent military operations; and his last-minute move to fire Twitter’s top executives before their stock options could vest.

Mr. Isaacson wrestles with Mr. Musk’s competing character traits: He is a remarkably talented, tenacious entrepreneur who has led some of the most transformative companies of our age. But he also lacks empathy for many around him, and his impetuous behavior has raised questions about how he manages his extraordinary power.

Mr. Isaacson spoke to DealBook ahead of publication. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Has Musk read the book yet?

I don’t know. He didn’t ask for a copy and I didn’t send him one.

Have you heard from him since some excerpts have been published?

Yeah, but he’s not given me any strong reactions. He seems remarkably sanguine.

What did you think of him before you began working on the book?

It began before his Twitter adventure — as somebody who had become Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” and had made an electric car company that was worth more than all other car companies combined and had gotten astronauts into orbit. Obviously, it became much more interesting and provocative when he started buying Twitter.

How did your view of him change?

I knew he was mercurial. I knew he had an impulsiveness. But seeing it up close, especially after he swerved into the Twitter lane, made for a much more exciting roller coaster.

How does he think about the power and influence he has accumulated from the success of Tesla, SpaceX, Starlink and the enormous megaphone that is X, the company formerly known as Twitter?

He has an epic sense of himself, almost as if he’s a comic book character wearing his underpants on the outside, trying to save the world. But I was surprised as he suddenly realizes the difficulty of having so much power — such as control over where Starlink can be used by Ukraine.

Do you think that he senses the enormity of the power and, therefore, the responsibility?

I don’t think he understands it when it comes to X. He’s impulsive and sometimes contradictory in how he deals with the moderation issues. On the other hand, I do think that he is fully aware of the power and responsibility that comes from being the only entity that can get U.S. astronauts and military satellites into orbit.

Does he relish that power or consider it a weight?

There’s no one Elon Musk. He has multiple moods. There’s times when he sees himself in epic terms, and there’s times when he says, “All right, I have to be more careful.”

Given how much time you’ve spent with him, do you think you now understand what drives him?

We all have some demons in our heads from childhood, and he’s got two orders of magnitude more than most of us. He’s been able to harness those demons into drive. “I have to make humans get to Mars, and I’ve got to bring us into the era of electric vehicles, and I’ve gotta make sure A.I. is safe.” These are three grand missions that I thought was just him spouting off, but he really gets motivated by that. He also just so craves excitement, drama and risk that whenever things are going well, he can’t leave well enough alone or savor it. He’s got to push all of his chips back on the table, which means you can either go into orbit or you can melt down.

You write a lot about his interest in getting attention, including an anecdote early in his career when he was pushed out of the C.E.O. role at PayPal and the one thing he asked to do was remain the face of the company. What’s behind that?

He does have this epic hero complex that he jokes about and is self-aware about. I don’t think he would have let me ride by his side for two years if he didn’t crave to have the story of his life — warts and all — out there.

Was there ever a moment where you thought, “He’s going to push me out of the room” or “I’m going to lose access to him” in the middle of the project?

I kept waiting for that and was genuinely surprised when it never happened. I kept waiting for him to say, “You’ve got to go now.” It happened only at moments around questions involving SpaceX and classified information. He would say, “Can you leave the room for this? You don’t have the security clearance.”

You saw a lot of headlines get made from the inside. How aware were you of the magnitude of the news being made?

There was one Friday night when I had just spent a lot of time with him, and I went back home to New Orleans. I was at a football game at my old high school, and my phone started vibrating. It was the night that Musk was dealing with the Starlink and Crimea issues with Ukraine. I remember standing behind the bleachers being somewhat amazed that all this was happening in real time. Then he showed me the encrypted text messages that he was exchanging with Mykhailo Fedorov, the Ukrainian vice premier.

But I was also just as amazed when I sat through multiple meetings each week, where they would discuss how, once they had colonized Mars, what the government would look like, how decisions would be made, how and where people would live, who would control the robots. And I’m saying, “This is insane.” You know, here I am a normal person, and these people are talking about how to do governance in communities on Mars.

You describe Musk as being almost gleeful when he fired the C.E.O. of Twitter and his lieutenants to prevent them from collecting compensation when the deal closed. This is now the subject of court cases. What did you think as you were watching this play out?

He thought they had misled him. And like a kid going to wilderness camp, he learned, “I’ve gotta punch people in the nose when they do that.” He’s a person who is gleeful in loving combat, whether it’s playing Elden Ring on his phone, or engaging in combative battles on Twitter. Disrupters tend to be really disruptive. And it doesn’t excuse the fact that they do things like that, but it is part and parcel of who they are.

Musk is one of the richest people in the world. He has told me he doesn’t really care about money — that to the extent he has money, he wants to use it to get people to Mars. Do you believe that?

I know that sounds weird, but he said it to you and he said it to me, and I actually believe it. That’s why he has gotten rid of all of his houses. That’s why he puts all of his chips back on the table. And why it so pained him that his transgender daughter, Vivian Jenna Wilson, rejected him because he was a billionaire and she had become a socialist.

When you think about Musk 20, 30, 40 years from now, how would you expect he might change?

I don’t think he’s going to change. He’s not somebody who says, “I’m getting older, I’m going to be more cautious.” At a certain point, he will probably bite off more than he can chew.

You’ve written about a number of people — Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs among them — who have, in one way or the other, changed the world. Where does Musk rank among that cast?

There have been three people who have deeply affected our age that I’ve written about. One is Steve Jobs, who brings us into the digital age with human-friendly computers and a thousand songs in our pocket and smartphones. Another is Jennifer Doudna, who helped discover the tool called CRISPR that allows us to edit our own genes. And now Musk. I think he will have a lasting impact by, having more than anybody else, moved us into an era of electric vehicles, when the major car companies had given up on that, and into space. But in the meantime, I also think he has some downsides. I think in 10, 20 years, he will be seen as somebody who was both consequential and controversial.

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