How Elon Musk is using its dark past to shape the future of technology

How Elon Musk is using its dark past to shape the future of technology

Tesla CEO Elon Musk

Some of the greatest minds in history have been driven by demons. Abraham Lincoln suffered from severe depression, Nikola Tesla was obsessive-compulsive and Issac Newton was likely on the autism spectrum.

But for Elon Musk — the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX — his demons were “particularly brutal,” Walter Isaacson told host Steven Bartlett on an episode of “The Diary Of A CEO.” Isaacson, who shadowed Musk for two years, is the authorized biographer of “Elon Musk.”



Musk grew up in South Africa as “a scrawny kid on the autism spectrum,” so he had no friends and was bullied in school.

“But the scars from that were minor compared to what happened when he went home after being beaten up once,” says Isaacson. After being hospitalized for four days after a particularly bad beating, his father proceeded to yell at him for two hours, calling him a loser — even taking the side of the kid who beat him up.

“It’s one of the oldest tropes in mythology,” says Isaacson, “which is the aspiring young superhero fighting the dark side of the force and finding out Darth Vader is his father (and) having to overcome those demons.”

The question is “whether you harness those demons or those demons harness you.” And in Musk’s case, “the answer is both.”

Enter EVs, AI and space travel



But it’s perhaps these demons that pushed Musk to drive innovation and disrupt industries — in the process turning him into the richest man on the planet.

Musk helped usher in the era of electric vehicles, space travel and artificial intelligence, and “he’s the only person who can get astronauts from the U.S. into orbit — NASA can no longer do it, Boeing can’t do it,” says Isaacson.

After co-founding a financial services company called X.com, which later became PayPal, Musk founded SpaceX in 2002. There, in addition to his duties as CEO, he was also chief designer for the Falcon, Dragon and Starship. In 2004, Musk became a major investor in Tesla; after some clashes with the SEC, he continues in the role as CEO. And, of course, in a highly controversial move, he bought Twitter in 2022 and renamed it X.

Musk says if you’re not failing 20% of the time, you’re not risking enough, according to Isaacson — which is why, from Musk’s point of view, a rocket exploding is still a success (he can see what went wrong so he can fix it). Whereas, “if you have a risk-averse culture like NASA or Boeing … you’re not experimenting enough.”



He also tends to get his way. Maybe 20% of his employees are “totally loyal and survive, but he’s not afraid of burning people out and having them leave.”

Musk spends about 80% of his “hardcore mental energy designing the machines that make the machines,” says Isaacson. In other words, he’s designing the Raptor rocket engines that power SpaceX spacecraft or the battery cells that power Tesla EVs.

While he understands physical engineering, Musk doesn’t understand human emotions very well, says Isaacson, “which is why he was better off with Tesla and SpaceX and not buying Twitter.”

Is childhood trauma a prerequisite for genius?



While Musk told Isaacson that adversity shaped him, Isaacson says there’s a part of Musk that “loves drama and rushing into the fire.”

Musk is “almost always trying to recreate the drama, the turmoil of his childhood in apartheid South Africa, seeing people killed, and having a psychologically abusive father.”

Musk’s father, Errol, also had two children with a woman whom he had raised as his step-daughter, so that “really messed up Elon’s mind.” Isaacson, who interviewed Musk’s estranged father for the book, described him as Jekyll-and-Hyde — a brilliant electrical and mechanical engineer, but with “demon-like” modes.

That’s not to say that people with wonderful childhoods will amount to nothing in life, or that childhood trauma is a prerequisite for genius. But having “demons to harness tends to drive you a bit more.”

While the average person can push themselves to do well in life, Isaacson says Musk has a “maniacal intensity and sense of urgency” that’s not instilled in most of us.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, for most of us. Musk “doesn’t value happiness,” he says. “Musk is always pushing for the next thing as opposed to happiness.”

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