A new biography of Elon Musk portrays the billionaire entrepreneur as a complex, tortured figure whose brilliance is often overshadowed by his inability to relate on a human level to the people around him — his wives, his children and those on whom he relied to help develop the space exploration and electric car businesses that made him the wealthiest man on Earth.
Mr. Musk’s life so far — his difficult childhood in South Africa, his stormy romantic relationships, his success as a visionary who built SpaceX and Tesla, and his impetuous decision to buy Twitter — is detailed through scores of interviews with his family, friends, business associates and Mr. Musk himself.
The book, which will be released on Tuesday, is by Walter Isaacson, the journalist whose previous works have chronicled the lives of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin.
It opens with a quote from Mr. Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, who once said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
The New York Times bought copies of the book at a retail store that was selling it in advance of its authorized release.
Twitter, Now Known as X
Mr. Musk bought Twitter in October 2022 for $44 billion, after a surprise bid for the company and then a seeming reluctance to follow through with the deal.
Days after Twitter’s board approved the deal, Mr. Musk told his four teenage sons that he had purchased the social network to sway the next U.S. presidential election. “How else are we going to get Trump elected in 2024?” he said. (It was a joke, Mr. Isaacson writes, but Mr. Musk’s sons still didn’t understand his rationale for buying Twitter, an app they rarely used.)
After acquiring Twitter, Mr. Musk and his lieutenants combed through its employees’ internal communications and social media posts, looking for signs of disloyalty, Mr. Isaacson writes. The “musketeers,” as Musk loyalists were known inside Twitter, searched Twitter’s Slack archives for keywords including “Elon,” and fired dozens of employees who had made snarky comments about Mr. Musk.
Mr. Musk staged a surprise raid on a Twitter data facility in Sacramento, Calif., last winter, shortly after acquiring the company. Mr. Musk had decided to move servers housed in the facility to another Twitter data center to cut costs, but Twitter’s infrastructure leaders warned him that moving the expensive equipment safely could take months. In a fit of anger, Mr. Musk decided to move the servers himself, enlisting a small team and a flock of moving vans to haul them away on Christmas Eve. (He later said he regretted the decision, which led to service outages.)
Mr. Musk’s sprawling family has been a source of comfort amid the frequent turmoil of his industry-spanning business interests, Mr. Isaacson writes. But his relationship with his father, Errol, is a source of trauma that remains with him.
Mr. Musk’s father is described as emotionally and physically abusive and is quoted speaking disparagingly of Black people. When Mr. Musk agreed in 2016 to meet his father, from whom he has been largely estranged, a friend recalls to Mr. Isaacson, “It was the only time I had ever seen Elon’s hands shaking.” Mr. Isaacson writes, “There are certain people who occupy a demon’s corner of Musk’s head space. They trigger him, turn him dark, and rouse a cold anger. His father is number one.”
While the musician Grimes, also known as Claire Boucher, was giving birth to his son X in May 2020, Mr. Musk took a picture of the delivery and shared it with his friends and family, including her father and brothers. Grimes was understandably horrified and scrambled to get it deleted. “He was just clueless about why I’d be upset,” she told Mr. Isaacson.
Politics and Trump
Mr. Musk’s politics defy simple categorization. Despite his attacks on liberal critics, his rants against “woke” Democrats and his occasional promotion of far-right conspiracy theories, he is portrayed as more disillusioned with the leftward drift of the Democratic Party than he is a fan of Republicans.
Mr. Musk repeatedly professes not to be an admirer of former President Donald J. Trump, telling his biographer, “I’m not Trump’s fan. He’s disruptive.” Mr. Isaacson writes that Mr. Musk harbors a “deep disdain” for the former president “whom he considered a con man” and seemed, Mr. Musk says, “kind of nuts.”
But neither is he a Biden supporter, though he tells Mr. Isaacson that he would have voted for Mr. Biden in 2020 had he cast a ballot. (He decided not to vote because he was registered in California and considered it a waste because the state was not competitive in the presidential election.) Mr. Musk describes an encounter with Mr. Biden several years ago in which he came away unimpressed. “When he was vice president, I went to a lunch with him in San Francisco where he droned on for an hour and was boring as hell, like one of those dolls where you pull the string and it just says the same mindless phrases over and over.”
Mr. Musk has long been worried about artificial intelligence, which he considers a potential existential threat. He was a co-founder of OpenAI before breaking ties with the organization in 2018, and recently announced he was forming a rival A.I. company, X.AI.
Mr. Musk “summoned” Sam Altman, the chief executive of OpenAI, to a meeting at Twitter’s headquarters in February 2023, shortly after the release of ChatGPT. Mr. Musk angrily asked Mr. Altman to “justify how he could legally transform a nonprofit funded by donations into a for-profit that could make millions.” The encounter, Mr. Isaacson writes, left Mr. Altman “pained.”
Mr. Musk’s decision to start X.AI came partly out of concerns about underpopulation. (He is the father of 10 children.) “The amount of human intelligence, he noted, was leveling off because people were not having enough children. Meanwhile, the amount of computer intelligence was going up exponentially,” Mr. Isaacson writes. Mr. Musk believed that “at some point, biological brainpower would be dwarfed by digital brainpower.”
Mr. Musk’s gave X.AI’s early employees three goals: Create an A.I. chatbot capable of writing code, an A.I. chatbot trained to be politically neutral and an artificial intelligence that could reason and pursue truth. “You should be able to give it big tasks, such as ‘Build a better rocket engine,’” Mr. Musk told Mr. Isaacson.
Elon and the Media
Mr. Musk’s relationship with the media, which was already strained before he bought Twitter, reached new levels of tension after the deal was announced.
The “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David confronted Elon Musk at the wedding in 2022 of Ari Emanuel, the chief executive of the media conglomerate Endeavor, who had seated them at the same table. “Do you just want to murder kids in schools?” Mr. David asked Mr. Musk, grilling him on his support of Republican candidates in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 students dead. “No, no,” Mr. Musk replied, according to Mr. Isaacson. “I’m anti-kid murder.” Mr. Emanuel also seated the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, another Musk critic, at the same table. “It ended up being a microcosm of Twitter,” Mr. Isaacson wrote.
As Mr. Musk’s erratic tweets damaged Twitter’s relationship with advertisers, he sought counsel from boldfaced names in the media industry on how to repair the rift. One was David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns HBO, the Warner Bros. movie studio and CNN. They spoke for more than an hour. “Zaslav told him that he was doing self-destructive things that made it harder to attract brands that were aspirational. He should focus on improving the product by adding longer video offerings and making ads more effective.”
For years, Tesla has been the highest-profile business in Mr. Musk’s portfolio of companies, serving as a constant source of pride and stress.
The company’s early struggles contributed to a long, difficult period for Mr. Musk, one that took a physical and mental toll, he told Mr. Isaacson in a 2021 interview. “You can’t be in a constant fight for survival, always in adrenaline mode, and not have it hurt you,” Mr. Musk said. But he also acknowledged that he had found purpose under pressure: “When you are no longer in a survive-or-die mode, it’s not that easy to get motivated every day.”
Even as the company found success, it attracted critics in the form of short-sellers who bet against Tesla’s stock. That practice reached a fever pitch in 2018 as Tesla struggled to meet production goals, infuriating Mr. Musk, who called short-sellers “leeches on the neck of business.” But he acknowledged that some of those traders had also collected an impressively accurate picture of the company from insiders and even drones flying over Tesla’s factory. “The degree of inside information they had was insane,” he said.
Production sprints and struggles at Tesla and the space exploration company SpaceX also sharpened Mr. Musk’s philosophy, which he distilled into a five-step approach that he called “the algorithm” and which he repeatedly invoked to employees. It involved, in order: questioning requirements, deleting parts or processes, simplifying and optimizing, accelerating processes, and, finally, automating. “I became a broken record on the algorithm,” Mr. Musk told Mr. Isaacson.
Mr. Musk created SpaceX to help humanity become a multi-planetary species. The company’s success so far is a credit to his willingness to accept risks, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.
During the countdown to a pivotal launch in 2015, an unidentified liquid began dripping from a Falcon 9 rocket, frightening Mark Juncosa, a top SpaceX official. Mr. Musk deliberated briefly before deciding to proceed, resulting in a successful launch. At the time, Mr. Juncosa assumed that Mr. Musk had based that decision on a complicated risk assessment, but realized he was wrong after reviewing footage years later. “I thought he had done some complex quick calculations to decide what to do, but in fact he just shrugged his shoulders and gave the order,” Mr. Juncosa said of Mr. Musk. “He had an intuition of what the physics were.”
To achieve interplanetary flight in the future, SpaceX needed to find a way to make money in the present. So in 2015, Mr. Musk announced Starlink, seeking to tap into the lucrative market of providing internet service, in this case through a constellation of low-orbit satellites. The service has become a vital lifeline to people in war zones and helped the Ukrainian military defend against Russian invasion. But Mr. Musk has also been criticized for not allowing Ukraine to use the service to launch a drone attack on a Russian naval base last year, fearing that it would have provoked a major escalation in the war. “We did not want to be a part of that,” Mr. Musk said.
In 2021, SpaceX for the first time successfully sent a crew into orbit without a professional astronaut aboard. Afterward, Mr. Musk reflected on the role that he and his company had played in advancing space exploration. “Building mass-market electric cars was inevitable,” he said. “It would have happened without me. But becoming a space-faring civilization is not inevitable.” He added, “This flight was a great example of how progress requires human agency.”
SARAH NIR contributed reporting.