The opportunity to spend two years shadowing Elon Musk, the South African-born entrepreneur behind Tesla cars and SpaceX rockets and owner, since October last year, of Twitter (now renamed X), would be a fascinating but daunting prospect for any writer. The veteran biographer and journalist Walter Isaacson, whose previous subjects have ranged from Leonardo da Vinci to Henry Kissinger, accepted the challenge and has produced a highly readable portrait of a very unusual personality.
Charismatic but rebarbative, rich beyond dreams but restlessly unhappy, intellectually gifted but bereft of conventional social skills, Musk is truly an original. It is a considerable achievement on Isaacson’s part to have persuaded this reviewer – not generally in tune with big-ego tech titans – to adopt a more sympathetic view of Musk and set aside much of the familiar media caricature of him.
The first fact best discarded, in trying to understand what makes Musk tick, is his status as one of the richest people in the world – jockeying for that position with the French luxury goods tycoon Bernard Arnault and the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also happens to be Musk’s hottest rival in rocketry. Gigantic wealth, generated as a by-product of investors’ enthusiasm for Tesla shares, is not what motivates Musk at all. So little does it excite him that in 2020 he decided to sell all his homes, including mansions in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, because, he said, the label ‘billionaire’ had become ‘a bad thing. They’ll say, “Hey, billionaire, you’ve got all this stuff.” Well, now I don’t have stuff, so what are you going to do?’
After this, he nested in a small rented house in Boca Chica, Texas, close to his SpaceX facility, where his habitual way of unwinding was to play violent video games late into the night. Occasionally he borrowed other houses from friends and eventually he called in the architect Norman Foster