Elon Musk: A Riveting Journey of Brilliance and Complexity – A Review of Walter Isaacson's Biography
Author: Walter Isaacson
Published by Simon & Schuster
MRP: Rs. 1499/-
Acknowledgment: Thank you @simonandschusterin for a review copy of the book.
Elon Musk is Walter Isaacson’s riveting biography of the world’s most audacious tech entrepreneur. It chronicles how a bullied, bookish boy from South Africa overcame an abusive childhood and went on to build some of the most impactful and revolutionary companies of our time.
The book provides an intimate look into Musk’s brilliant but troubled mind. We see how his childhood traumas shaped his relentless work ethic and uncompromising nature. Musk taught himself computer programming at age 12 and sold his first software company at 22. After making millions from the sale of Zip2 and Paypal, Musk embarked on even more ambitious projects, founding the private space exploration company SpaceX and electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla Motors.
An Incomplete Assessment:
The book provides a glimpse into the life of one of the world's most audacious tech entrepreneurs. It chronicles Musk's journey from a challenging childhood to his founding of influential companies like SpaceX and Tesla and decisions that led to the purchase of Twitter/X.
However, it's worth noting that the biography, as of its last update in April 2023, might be considered an incomplete assessment of Musk's life and career. Elon Musk is a figure who continues to be active in the tech world, and there are undoubtedly more chapters of significance yet to be written in his story. This book captures only a portion of his ongoing journey.
The challenge with writing biographies about individuals as dynamic as Musk is that their stories are still unfolding. Unlike Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, which was released shortly after Jobs's passing, Musk's narrative is far from over. While Isaacson has not hinted at writing a sequel, it's the nature of documenting the lives of the still-relevant that poses this dilemma. The events and achievements that transpired after the book's last update may indeed be groundbreaking and significant, adding more layers to Musk's legacy.
As readers, we must keep in mind that we are only privy to Musk's story up until April 2023, and there is much more to come. Musk's impact on technology, space exploration, and sustainable energy is ongoing and evolving. His journey is not static, and the biography may benefit from an eventual follow-up to capture the full scope of his contributions and the evolution of his character and endeavors. So, while this biography provides insights into Musk's life, it is important to recognize that the story continues, and the best may yet be ahead.
The Biography is written in a chronological order, with chapters separated by his significant ventures. Each chapter is named with subtitles such as "Tesla 2008" or "SpaceX 2012 or“Twitter April 2022”" providing readers with a clear timeline of Musk's accomplishments and challenges.
The pace of the book slows down considerably after mid-2021, and much of the focus shifts to events that took place after this period. It's evident that Isaacson began interviewing and preparing for this book around that time, which allowed him to witness these events firsthand. This transition in the book reflects the evolving nature of Musk's life and career, and it may be attributed to the author's direct experiences with Musk's activities during that period.
As a result, the latter part of the biography may feel more immediate and personal, shedding light on Musk's contemporary ventures and his interactions with the world at large. However, it's important to note that this chronological structure also means that the book does not capture the full scope of Musk's post-2023 achievements, given that his story is an ongoing narrative.
Isaacson details Musk’s against-all-odds journey to build and launch reusable rockets. When Russia quoted an outrageous price to sell ICBMs to Musk for a Mars mission, he decided to build his own. Engineers thought he was crazy to try vertical rocket landings. Yet today his Falcon 9 rockets autonomously land themselves upright back on land and at sea.
At Tesla, Musk insisted on making an electric sports car first, stunning the automotive industry. He faced a constant battle between perfectionism about the product and urgency to get it to market before Tesla went bankrupt. We see Musk make costly design choices against the advice of his chief engineer Martin Eberhard. This caused major strife and led to Eberhard’s ouster. But Musk’s instincts proved right – the Roadster changed public perceptions of electric vehicles.
However, Musk’s intensity creates much collateral damage. His treatment of employees at SpaceX and Tesla verges on callous and abusive. He sets unrealistic deadlines, publicly chastises engineers and demands they work 120 hour weeks. Many close relationships, be it with mentors, friends or his first wife Justine, turn sour over time. Musk acknowledges this, calling it his “biggest flaw...that would probably hurt me the most if uncontrolled.”
Yet he also shows an ability to ruthlessly introspect and course-correct. Despite his faults, Musk attracts incredibly talented and loyal teams who align with his mission of accelerating humanity’s transition to sustainable energy and making us a space-faring civilization.
What makes Isaacson such a great biographer is his ability to step back and analyze his subjects’ lives and choices. He probes the origins of Musk’s brilliance – his intellectual curiosity, appetite for science fiction, passion to understand the fundamental laws of physics. We gain keen insights into how Musk thinks, playing strategy games, bounding from first principles to envisioning interplanetary travel.
The book also examines Musk’s flaws, chiefly his insensitive behavior due to what he believes is "mild Asperger’s". Isaacson diagnoses how Musk’s troubled childhood relationship with his volatile father contributes to “his difficulty regulating his emotional attachments and displaying empathy.”
An ongoing theme is Musk’s “compulsion for drama”. He often creates crises situations at work by setting overly ambitious deadlines. Musk then rallies his team to work crazy hours to claw their way to success, leaving behind bruised relationships and burnout. Ironically Musk admits, “I need to get better at not engaging in self-destructive behavior.”
Isaacson’s engaging, novelistic writing style keeps the 600 page biography moving swiftly. The book beautifully balances the science behind Musk’s companies with insights into his romantic relationships and pop culture references. An episode where a cash-strapped Musk casually pulls emeralds out of his pocket to pay for drinks illustrates his magnetic mystique.
While empathetic to Musk’s flaws, Isaacson does not shy away from questioning his subject’s more dubious actions. He probes Musk’s bitter battles for recognition at Tesla and Paypal, including lawsuits over who gets called founder. Isaacson wonders whether Musk’s harsh management style is actually necessary or just self-defeating hubris.
Musk cooperated in the biography and gave Isaacson extensive access. However the author does not depend solely on Musk’s account. He did over 150 interviews to create a 360-degree perspective. The book features voices of Musk’s mentors, colleagues, investors, ex-wives, and even his bullies. We see Musk from their contradictory viewpoints.
This engrossing warts-and-all portrait depicts Musk as a complex man – brilliant yet flawed, altruistic yet selfish, visionary yet impatient. Elon Musk succeeds in documenting the trials and triumphs in Musk’s quest to shape the future, making it one of the most insightful entrepreneur biographies. It will inspire anyone interested in creating an impact, whether in business, technology, science or the human endeavor to become an interplanetary species.
If you wish to purchase the book, do consider getting it from our affiliate link. We get a small commission at no added cost to you: https://amzn.to/3tvnW5L