Walter Isaacson tried to write a "Great Man" biography of the rockets-and-cars genius. That's not an effective way to understand Elon Musk.
My god, but that really is a telling story, that Isaacson tells the poker story as a story of winning and resolve rather than as a story of stupidity protected by an infinite bankroll. In poker terms, that makes Musk a fish. And one thing hardcore poker players love is the fish who gets up from the table and tells a story of himself as triumphant; that makes the fish not the one that got away but the one that will come back eventually. In one story, Isaacson could remake the narrative: Musk is someone who has always had such a deep bankroll that he could walk away from any table saying that he won, and eventually buy enough people who found him a valuable fish that they'd stake him some more just to keep him coming back.
I love how some games show people for who they really are:
Elon pretending he can compete in poker by going all-in on every hand and buying back until he finally wins a pot.
Trump pretending he can compete in golf because he can always find someone willing to sign his scorecard and attest that he didn’t cheat.
Musk is where he is today because he had access to capital and had friends who had access to capital. Tesla, before it was Tesla, was a small car electric car company with limited capital. Musk changed that, but he also wrote the company's founders out of history. SpaceX was a small rocket company with limited capital. Musk changed that, and, again, he wrote the company's founders out of history. It was probably like that with Paypal as well.
Anyone who has gambled knows that the house has limits for a reason. If gamblers can just keep doubling their bets, eventually, the house will lose. Musk has access to capital. He is the right kind of ambitious asshole that Silicon Valley loves and funds. It's not like venture capitalists are particularly good at investing. Most of the companies they back go broke in short order. They just have so much money that all they need is a winner or two to convince the wealthy that they too should buy a few lottery tickets. It isn't just poor folks who get suckered into buying a lottery ticket now and then. Musk was perfect, and he rolled double or nothing and kept raising the stakes.
My guess is that Isaacson had a contract exchanging access for approval. The biography sounds pretty worthless. Do adults still read that kind of garbage?
P.S. For all of Steve Jobs being an asshole, he always admitted that he was the impresario, not the technologist. He went to Xerox PARC and was shown the future. Jobs managed to turn that future into reality. He hired the people who could make it happen. Many of his decisions were premature. The technology wasn't there yet. Standards didn't exist. Overall, however, his record is pretty good.
It's a shame and sounds like a wasted opportunity for Isaacson. I liked his Jobs book, I found it easy to read between the lines and see the conflicted asshole that was Jobs. Musk's "algorithm" (irony quotes were never so deserved) is a mashup of Startup 101 and Covey's Effective Habits. It works as long as the funding keeps coming in and you can replace the burnouts with promises of founder's stock grants (in the future). If it pans out you're a wealthy visionary, if not you go back to square one with the VCs, who only care about the next pitch, not the last one. Musk fits my stereotype of a Silicon Valley Great Man, a clever ruthless charmer with a towering ego who can skim and retain information. That and 1 or 2 well-timed bets will make you a Great Man. It's no coincidence that Woz is considered a charming relic while Jobs was the Great Man. Woz is a decent human being, a fatal flaw.
"What if there were a rapidly accumulating body of evidence that Elon Musk is an utter boob who has bluffed his way into a position of world-changing wealth and influence?"
(Tom Scocca, https://popula.com/2023/01/17/how-much-did-tesla-gain-since-last-tuesday-2/)
That he is and has is a sign - one of many - that his society, which regrettably is my society too, is wildly dysfunctional.
I grew up in a town between Johannesburg and Pretoria, I would have been about 2 years ahead of Elon at school. I had to go to Veldskool just as every white schoolchild had to. And yes, we had to do it twice, the first time during the final year of primary school and then again during the third year of high school. It was definitely a horrible experience, I don't recall anyone who went enjoying it, you just endured it. But, all of those statements are BS, no one ever died, food was actually fine and there was no rationing or fighting for rations, there was no division into groups and fighting. On the last point, more than one school was thrown together on these camps and given how unhappy everyone was fights did break out. The teachers weren't required to sleep anywhere near where we had to so there wasn't anyone around to break up the fights, but it still wasn't 'Lord of the flies'. There were lots of reasons Veldskool was so unpleasant, but everything mentioned in the book appears untrue and not what really happened.
Typo. I think you meant "ought" not "out" in this passage: "It seems like something a biographer out to take the time to nail down:"
Thanks for this. It’s incredible that Musk has any credibility left, but Isaacson and his ilk are desperately propping him up.
Great essay exposing Isaacson for his lack of sourcing and confirmation.
But I have to quibble with some of your Elon characterizations, most especially your statement on the Ukraine drone issue ("That’s, y’know, actual treason"). First, its not treason. Elon is a US, not Ukrainian, citizen. So if he had cut off coverage its just a refusal of service to provide a commercial service to a foreign country.
Second, I knew as soon as I read Isaacson's original quote that it was likely false because the standard Starlink terminals are geocoded to single countries, and in Ukraine the geocoding wasn't to Ukraine's original boundaries but to their currently held territory. Remember the Ukrainian complaints a year ago when they finally mounted an offensive only to find their Starlink terminals inoperable? They thought Starlink had disabled them, but later reports were that it was just slow in updating the geocoding. So all evidence is Starlink would never have geocoded Sevastapol for Ukraine terminals in the first place except as a mistake.
And this is probably a reasonable decision for SpaceX, though it sucks for Ukraine. Starlink is a commercial internet service, not a military targeting system. SpaceX never agreed to provide Ukraine service into Russian held territory (and it certainly wasn't a requirement of their US DoD contract, the US has been explicit they don't want to provide long range weapons to Ukraine until maybe next week? with ATACMs). I believe the reason SpaceX geocodes is to help get licensed in countries around the world by demonstrating that in country terminals will follow their rules. Do they really want to show the terminals might be used to guide military weapons against countries they want (need) to be licensed in? Probably not. You can argue the risk it creates for losing licensingin key countries is small, but that it would still be a terrible business decision to take a potentially huge open ended risk, no matter how unlikely, for zero gain.
Finally, the problem I have with most opinions on Elon is too many fall into the he's a genius/superman/infallible human camp, or the he's an evil/lying/incompetent camp. The truth is like for all humans, he's a flawed individual. He's clearly accomplished brilliant things. He didn't found Tesla but he is most responsible for its success, it wouldn't be around if not for his contributions (leading all early funding rounds, finding/recruiting JB Straubel, removing the founder when his roadster plan wasn't economically feasible). Same thing with SpaceX, there are a good number of engineers at SpaceX, and from SpaceX, and NASA, and Bob Zubrin, and Jim Cantrell that will talk about the key leadership Elon has provided engineering decisions at SpaceX and how strong a rocket surgeon he's become. Not saying he's running CAD programs to design parts, but he was smart enough to greenlight pivots to retro-propulsive landings instead of parachutes and stainless steel for Starship instead of Carbon Fiber. Tom Mueller has talked about some key Merlin changes Elon championed against his better judgement that made reuse much more achievable (and some that didn't work out)
Then of course then there is overpaying for Twitter by at least 2x and running it into the ground, getting fired at Paypal for some incredibly bad decisions, The Boring Company, The Hyperloop, etc. And then there is are the abhorrent business practices, refusing to pay vendors or severance, picking ridiculous Twitter fights like the "pedo guy" tweets, constantly being bully. His touting of Tesla stock regularly crosses the line, such as the 420 tweet, the robot and FSD claims.
There are two great examples of his dual natures. When kids were trapped in a cave in Thailand he dropped everything, got engineers together to try to build a rescue submarine that proved unworkable. Then when one of the rescue consultants insulted him and the effort, he couldn't shake it off and called him a "pedo guy" without any factual basis. Classic Elon turning a win, a great humanitarian attempt into a loss.
Ukraine is an even better example. The first week of the war they made a desperate plea for Starlink to him on Twitter and he flew them terminals within 24 hours and provided over $60M in free terminals and service over the months that followed. No private business/entrepreneur has given more to them for free than Elon. Yet, maybe because he tired of the cost and constant Russian hacking attacks, he promoted a "peace plan" that would have de facto given Putin all his captured territory with a breather to rebuild his forces to eventually crush the remaining stub of Ukraine. He's turned his formerly biggest boosters, the Ukrainians, wary of him and his intentions and no one talks about his charity there any more, instead people call him a traitor and a tool of Putin.
When discussing Elon we should be objective and never downplay his actual accomplishments or his failings, lies and sins. Let our evaluation be factual and well sourced, unlike Iaacson's pop history written as if he was Elon's PR agency.
Not long after Twitter was acquired I saw a piece about how at his other companies, the rank and file learned early on that Musk has to be managed from below -- knowing what to take seriously, what to ignore, how not to take it personally etc.
The Twitter acquisition has been a disaster because Elon is not self aware enough to realize he’s better off taking over very early in a company’s history, not 15 years after when a culture has been established.
But will this post survive contact with the reality distortion field?
Just jostling, loved this.
Thanks for this; I'd been debating whether to read the book, and you've settled me on "don't bother". That said, I think you're overly harsh regarding SpaceX.
It's true that SpaceX's first three launch attempts all blew up, that the company nearly went bankrupt as a result, and that the failures can be traced to corner-cutting. The fourth, successful attempt, the one that saved the company, came within an inch of failure due as well; in their rush to get the flight off the ground, they transported the rocket to the launch site by plane rather than ship, and didn't properly account for the effects of the change in air pressure, which nearly crumpled the rocket like a beer can.
In the context of private space launch, this is an *astoundingly good showing*. Many companies have burned through quite a bit more capital than SpaceX before reaching orbit; many (most?) well-funded entrants never reached orbit at all. I believe SpaceX took six years to reach orbit. Blue Origin is 23 years old, has burned through at least $7.5 billion (as of 2021, per Forbes), and has yet to even get as far as *attempting* an orbital launch – despite the advantage of getting to hire experienced staff from SpaceX. Of the many other space startups in the current century, so far only SpaceX and Rocket Lab have managed to develop reliable orbital launch, and Rocket Lab is operating at far smaller scale.
Yes, SpaceX benefited from some key strokes of luck, including but not limited to the financial rescue. But Blue Origin is evidence that "access to enough money to keep rebuying until you succeed" is not nearly sufficient to reach orbit at all, let alone to match what SpaceX has accomplished – which is nothing less than drastically out-competing the entire rest of the world, combined. Per Ars Technica, "In the first half of 2023, SpaceX delivered ... roughly 80 percent of all the material launched into orbit worldwide."
Musk is a bully, a liar, erratic, and often ridiculous. His accomplishments owe much to luck and to being in the right place at the right time. Of late, he seems to have gone off the rails entirely. But I can't explain the success of Tesla and SpaceX without giving him genuine credit. Each company revolutionized its market, and did so in the same way: by going back to first principles, identifying multiple long-held assumptions about how things "must be done" that had been obsoleted by technological progress, and having the courage to act on those heresies. I've seen him speak at length about SpaceX, and it is clear that he has much too deep an understanding of how and why they've succeeded to be written off as a mere figurehead or money man.
this clears up some puzzlement from me about why Musk did such an astoundingly bad job at Twitter. I've worked in tech long enough by now to see that simply doing absolutely nothing would have resulted in not only a better outcome for Twitter-the-service but would have far better preserved Musk's fortune and reputation. I thought perhaps he might just have floundered in the new milieu due to ego or media vs. engineering, but no, of course he was simply incompetent (but bulletproof) the whole time.
Can we please also address the fact that every single person discussed here is a white man? Including the author of this Substack piece ?
That’s a significant part of this dynamic. And of the books fading resonance with the public. This all needs to go in the dustbin of history. We’re long overdue for a larger narrative of potential and success.
Having read Isaacson’s terrible biography of Steve Jobs I would expect exactly what you describe.
This is perfection.