Elon Musk - by Walter Issacson
Elon Mus is bold! His actions are indeed shaping the world, but it’s uncertain whether the impact is positive or negative. He’s led himself into a challenging life. I admire his approach to questioning established norms and using first principles to solve problems. His innovative approach included suing and then partnering with NASA, favoring fixed-price contracts over traditional cost-plus ones.
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
They might beat the shit out of me, but if I had punched them hard in the nose, they wouldn’t come after me again.
“Someone once said that every man is trying to live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes,” Barack Obama wrote in his memoirs
This emotional shutoff valve could make him callous, but it also made him a risk-seeking innovator. “He learned to shut down fear,” she says. “If you turn off fear, then maybe you have to turn off other things, like joy or empathy.”
At first she and Errol were going to name him Nice, after the town in France where he was conceived. History may have been different, or at least amused, if the boy had to go through life with the name Nice Musk. Instead, in the hope of making the Haldemans happy, Errol agreed that the boy would have names from that side of the family: Elon, after Maye’s grandfather J. Elon Haldeman, and Reeve, the maiden name of Maye’s maternal grandmother.
Elon had no friends, and by the time he was in second grade he was tuning out. “The teacher would come up to me and yell at me, but I would not really see or hear her,” he says.
Compounding his social problems was his unwillingness to suffer politely those he considered fools. He used the word “stupid” often.
As a result, he was bad at picking up social cues. “I took people literally when they said something,” he says, “and it was only by reading books that I began to learn that people did not always say what they really meant.” He had a preference for things that were more precise, such as engineering, physics, and coding.
Elon developed a reputation for being the most fearless. When the cousins went to a movie and people were making noise, he would be the one to go over and tell them to be quiet, even if they were much bigger. “It’s a big theme for him to never have his decisions guided by fear,” Peter recalls. “That was definitely present even when he was a child.”
Reading remained Musk’s psychological retreat. Sometimes he would immerse himself in books all afternoon and most of the night, nine hours at a stretch. When the family went to someone’s house, he would disappear into their host’s library. When they went into town, he would wander off and later be found at a bookstore, sitting on the floor, in his own world.
Both the religious and the scientific explanations of existence, he says, did not address the really big questions, such as Where did the universe come from, and why does it exist? Physics could teach everything about the universe except why. That led to what he calls his adolescent existential crisis. “I began trying to figure out what the meaning of life and the universe was,” he says. “And I got real depressed about it, like maybe life may have no meaning.”
At age thirteen, he was able to create a video game, which he named Blastar, using 123 lines of BASIC and some simple assembly language to get the graphics to work.
Musk got bored at Queen’s. It was beautiful, but not academically challenging. So when one of his classmates transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, he decided to see if he could do so as well.
He decided to major in physics because, like his father, he was drawn to engineering. The essence of being an engineer, he felt, was to address any problem by drilling down to the most fundamental tenets of physics. He also decided to pursue a joint degree in business. “I was concerned that if I didn’t study business, I would be forced to work for someone who did,” he says. “My goal was to engineer products by having a feel for the physics and never have to work for a boss with a business degree.”
Although Elon loved the vibe of the parties, he never got fully immersed in them. “I was stone cold sober at the time,” he says.
Ressi later marveled that Musk usually seemed a bit detached. “He enjoyed being around a party but not fully in it. The only thing he binged on was video games.”
He felt that bankers and lawyers did not contribute much to society. Besides, he disliked the students he met in business classes.
In the evening he worked at a small Palo Alto company called Rocket Science, which made video games.
This trend toward closed and sealed devices meant that most techies who came of age in the 1990s gravitated to software more than hardware. They never knew the sweet smell of a soldering iron, but they could code in ways that made circuits sing. Musk was different. He liked hardware as well as software. He could code, but he also had a feel for physical components, such as battery cells and capacitors, valves and combustion chambers, fuel pumps and fan belts.
“Most PhDs are irrelevant. The number that actually move the needle is almost none.”
He had conceived by then a life vision that he would repeat like a mantra. “I thought about the things that will truly affect humanity,” he says. “I came up with three: the internet, sustainable energy, and space travel.” In the summer of 1995, it became clear to him that the first of these, the internet, was not going to wait for him to finish graduate school.
Just before the enrollment deadline for Stanford, Musk went to Toronto to get advice from Peter Nicholson of Scotiabank. Should he pursue the idea for the Virtual City Navigator, or should he start the PhD program? Nicholson, who had a PhD from Stanford, did not equivocate. “The internet revolution only comes once in a lifetime, so strike while the iron is hot,” he told Musk as they walked along the shore of Lake Ontario. “You will have lots of time to go to graduate school later if you’re still interested.” When Musk got back to Palo Alto, he told Ren he had made up his mind. “I need to put everything else on hold,” he said. “I need to catch the internet wave.”
From the very beginning of his career, Musk was a demanding manager, contemptuous of the concept of work-life balance.
When the other engineers went home, Musk would sometimes take the code they were working on and rewrite it. With his weak empathy gene, he didn’t realize or care that correcting someone publicly—or, as he put it, “fixing their fucking stupid code”—was not a path to endearment. He had never been a captain of a sports team or the leader of a gang of friends, and he lacked an instinct for camaraderie. Like Steve Jobs, he genuinely did not care if he offended or intimidated the people he worked with, as long as he drove them to accomplish feats they thought were impossible. “It’s not your job to make people on your team love you,” he said at a SpaceX executive session years later. “In fact, that’s counterproductive.”
“Great things will never happen with VCs or professional managers,” Musk told Inc. Magazine. “They don’t have the creativity or the insight.”
His new wealth allowed his desires and impulses to be subject to fewer restraints, which was not always a pretty sight. But his earnest, mission-driven intensity remained intact.
“I could go and buy one of the islands of the Bahamas and turn it into my personal fiefdom, but I am much more interested in trying to build and create a new company,” he said. “I haven’t spent all my winnings. I’m going to put almost all of it back to a new game.”
She was impressed by his aspirations. “Unlike other ambitious people, he never talked about making money,” she says. “He assumed that he would be either wealthy or broke, but nothing in between. What interested him were the problems he wanted to solve.”
Both of them were energized by drama, and they thrived by fighting.
His concept for X.com was grand. It would be a one-stop everything-store for all financial needs: banking, digital purchases, checking, credit cards, investments, and loans.
One of Musk’s management tactics, then as later, was to set an insane deadline and drive colleagues to meet it.
“Elon will say crazy stuff, but every once in a while, he’ll surprise you by knowing way more than you do about your own specialty. I think a huge part of the way he motivates people are these displays of sharpness, which people just don’t expect from him, because they mistake him for a bullshitter or goofball.”
“Entrepreneurs are actually not risk takers,” says Roelof Botha. “They’re risk mitigators. They don’t thrive on risk, they never seek to amplify it, instead they try to figure out the controllable variables and minimize their risk.” But not Musk. “He was into amplifying risk and burning the boats so we could never retreat from it.” To Botha, Musk’s McLaren crash was like a metaphor: floor it [油门踩到底] and see how fast it goes.
Risk addiction can be useful when it comes to driving people to do what seems impossible. “He’s amazingly successful getting people to march across a desert,” Hoffman says. “He has a level of certainty that causes him to put all of his chips on the table.”
malaria, not meningitis. It turned out to be falciparum malaria, the most dangerous form, and they had caught it just in time.
He found it surprising—and frightening—that technological progress was not inevitable. It could stop. It could even backslide. America had gone to the moon. But then came the grounding of the Shuttle missions and an end to progress. “Do we want to tell our children that going to the moon is the best we did, and then we gave up?” he asks. Ancient Egyptians learned how to build the pyramids, but then that knowledge was lost. The same happened to Rome, which built aqueducts and other wonders that were lost in the Dark Ages. Was that happening to America? “People are mistaken when they think that technology just automatically improves,” he would say in a TED Talk a few years later. “It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better.”
This led him to develop what he called an “idiot index,” which calculated how much more costly a finished product was than the cost of its basic materials.
Musk processed his grief silently.
“He shuts down emotions when in dark places,” she says. “I think it’s a survival thing with him.”
Musk was laser-focused on keeping down costs. It was not simply because his own money was on the line, though that was a factor. It was also because cost-effectiveness was critical for his ultimate goal, which was to colonize Mars. He challenged the prices that aerospace suppliers charged for components, which were usually ten times higher than similar parts in the auto industry.
This would later become step one in a five-point checklist, dubbed “the algorithm,” that became his oft-repeated mantra when developing products. Whenever one of his engineers cited “a requirement” as a reason for doing something, Musk would grill them: Who made that requirement? And answering “The military” or “The legal department” was not good enough. Musk would insist that they know the name of the actual person who made the requirement. “We would talk about how we were going to qualify an engine or certify a fuel tank, and he would ask, ‘Why do we have to do that?’ ” says Tim Buzza, a refugee from Boeing who would become SpaceX’s vice president of launch and testing. “And we would say, ‘There is a military specification that says it’s a requirement.’ And he’d reply, ‘Who wrote that? Why does it make sense?’ ” All requirements should be treated as recommendations, he repeatedly instructed. The only immutable ones were those decreed by the laws of physics.
Musk insisted on setting unrealistic deadlines even when they weren’t necessary, such as when he ordered test stands to be erected in weeks for rocket engines that had not yet been built. “A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle,” he repeatedly declared. The sense of urgency was good for its own sake. It made his engineers engage in first-principles thinking. But as Mueller points out, it was also corrosive. “If you set an aggressive schedule that people think they might be able to make, they will try to put out extra effort,” he says. “But if you give them a schedule that’s physically impossible, engineers aren’t stupid. You’ve demoralized them. It’s Elon’s biggest weakness.”
A pattern was set: try new ideas and be willing to blow things up. The residents in the area got used to explosions. The cows, however, did not. Like pioneers circling the wagons, they would run in a circle protecting the young calves in the center when a big bang happened. The engineers at McGregor set up what they called a “cow cam” so they could watch.
Shotwell has a special insight that helps her when dealing with Musk. Her husband has the autism-spectrum disorder commonly called Asperger’s. “People like Elon with Asperger’s don’t take social cues and don’t naturally think about the impact of what they say on other people,” she says. “Elon understands personalities very well, but as a study, not as an emotion.”
Musk met with officials at NASA headquarters in May 2004 and, ignoring the advice of Shotwell, decided to sue them over the Kistler contract. “Everyone told me that it might mean we would never be able to work with NASA,” Musk says. “But what they did was wrong and corrupt, so I sued.” He even threw Sarsfield, his strongest advocate within NASA, under the bus by including in the lawsuit his friendly email explaining that the contract was meant to be a lifeline for Kistler.
The victory was crucial not only for SpaceX but for the American space program. It promoted an alternative to the “cost-plus” contracts that NASA and the Defense Department had generally been using. Under those contracts, the government kept control of a project—such as building a new rocket or engine or satellite—and issued detailed specifications of what it wanted done. It would then award contracts to big companies such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin, which would be paid all of their costs plus a guaranteed profit. This approach became standard during World War II to give the government complete control over the development of weapons and to prevent the perception that contractors were war-profiteering.
The problem with a cost-plus system, he argued, was that it stymied innovation. If the project went over budget, the contractor would get paid more. There was little incentive for the cozy club of cost-plus contractors to take risks, be creative, work fast, or cut costs. “Boeing and Lockheed just want their cost-plus gravy trains,” he says. “You just can’t get to Mars with that system. They have an incentive never to finish. If you never finish a cost-plus contract, then you suckle on the tit of the government forever.” SpaceX pioneered an alternative in which private companies bid on performing a specific task or mission, such as launching government payloads into orbit. The company risked its own capital, and it would be paid only if and when it delivered on certain milestones. This outcomes-based, fixed-price contracting allowed the private company to control, within broad parameters, how its rockets were designed and built. There was a lot of money to be made if it built a cost-efficient rocket that succeeded, and a lot of money to be lost if it failed. “It rewards results rather than waste,” Musk says.
One of the most important decisions that Elon Musk made about Tesla—the defining imprint that led to its success and its impact on the auto industry—was that it should make its own key components, rather than piecing together a car with hundreds of components from independent suppliers.
No detail was too small to escape Musk’s meddling.
Only at the moment of launch did Musk again focus on the present.
Later that day he posted a statement: “SpaceX is in this for the long haul. Come hell or high water, we are going to make this work.
Musk has a rule about responsibility: every part, every process, and every specification needs to have a name attached. He can be quick to personalize blame when something goes wrong.
“That’s just the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said at a couple of meetings. That was a line that Steve Jobs used often. So did Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. Their brutal honesty could be unnerving, even offensive. It could constrict rather than encourage honest dialogue. But it was also effective, at times, in creating what Jobs called a team of A players who didn’t want to be around fuzzy thinkers.
“I’ve come to put him in the same category as Steve Jobs, which is that some people are just assholes, but they accomplish so much that I just have to sit back and say, ‘That seems to be a package.’ ”
The next day, Musk awoke with stomach pains, which was not unusual. He can pretend to like stress, but his stomach can’t.
“I’m very bad at this, but please may I have your phone number because I would like to see you again.”
“I know my daughter very well, and I trust her judgment, so off you go,”
“Optimism, pessimism, fuck that,” Musk answered. “We’re going to make it happen. As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”
Talulah watched in horror as, night after night, Musk had mumbling conversations with himself, sometimes flailing his arms and screaming. “I kept thinking he was going to have a heart attack,” she says. “He was having night terrors and just screaming in his sleep and clawing at me. It was horrendous. I was really scared, and he was just desperate.” Sometimes he would go to the bathroom and start vomiting. “It would go to his gut, and he would be screaming and retching,” she says. “I would stand by the toilet and hold his head.”
Musk’s tolerance for stress is high, but 2008 almost pushed him past his limits. “I was working every day, all day and night, in a situation that required me to pull a rabbit out of the hat, now do it again, now do it again,” he says. He gained a lot of weight, and then suddenly lost it all and more. His posture became hunched, and his toes stayed stiff when he walked. But he became energized and hyperfocused. The threat of the hangman’s noose concentrated his mind.
Then a surprising group came to the rescue: his fellow cofounders of PayPal, who had ejected him from the role of CEO eight years earlier.
Musk’s decision to reverse his orders about quality controls taught Buzza two things: Musk could pivot when situations changed, and he was willing to take more risk than anyone.
Falcon 1 had made history as the first privately built rocket to launch from the ground and reach orbit. Musk and his small crew of just five hundred employees (Boeing’s comparable division had fifty thousand) had designed the system from the ground up and done all the construction on its own. Little had been outsourced. And the funding had also been private, largely out of Musk’s pocket. SpaceX had contracts to perform missions for NASA and other clients, but they would get paid only if and when they succeeded. There were no subsidies or cost-plus contracts.
On December 22, as if to ring down the curtain on the horrible year of 2008, Musk got a call on his cell phone. NASA spaceflight chief Bill Gerstenmaier, who would later end up at SpaceX, gave him the news: SpaceX was going to be awarded a $1.6 billion contract to make twelve round trips to the Space Station. “I love NASA,” Musk responded. “You guys rock.” Then he changed his password for his computer login to “ilovenasa.”
Over the years, one criticism of Tesla has been that the company was “bailed out” or “subsidized” by the government in 2009. In fact, Tesla did not get money from the Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), commonly known as “the bailout.” Under that program, the government lent $18.4 billion to General Motors and Chrysler as they went through bankruptcy restructuring. Tesla did not apply for any TARP or stimulus package money. What Tesla did get in June 2009 was $465 million in interest-bearing loans from a Department of Energy program. The Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program lent money to companies to make electric or fuel-efficient cars. Ford, Nissan, and Fisker Automotive also got loans.
This followed the principle that Steve Jobs and Jony Ive had instilled at Apple: design is not just about aesthetics; true industrial design must connect the looks of a product to its engineering. “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer,” Jobs once explained. “Nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers.”
There was another principle that came out of Apple’s design studio. When Jony Ive conceived the candy-colored, friendly iMac in 1998, he included a recessed handle. It was not very functional, because the iMac was a desktop computer that was not meant to be carried around. But it sent a signal of friendliness. “If there’s this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible,” Ive explained. “It’s approachable. It gives you permission to touch.”
The latches used by NASA in the Space Station cost $1,500 each. A SpaceX engineer was able to modify a latch used in a bathroom stall and create a locking mechanism that cost $30.
Musk liked Obama. “I thought he was a moderate but also someone willing to force change,” he says. He got the impression that Obama was trying to size him up. “I think he wanted to get a sense if I was dependable or a little nuts.”
As awesome as it was, Musk had a sobering realization. The Mercury program had accomplished similar feats fifty years earlier, before either he or Obama had been born. America was just catching up with its older self.
Hearing the phrases that Errol had used in berating Elon shocked her, not only because they were brutal but because she had heard Elon use some of the same phrases when he was angry.
By sending their factories abroad, American companies saved labor costs, but they lost the daily feel for ways to improve their products.
Oracle founder Larry Ellison joined only two corporate boards, Apple and Tesla, and he became close friends with Jobs and Musk. He said they both had beneficial cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder. “OCD is one of the reasons for their success, because they obsessed on solving a problem until they did,” he says. What set them apart is that Musk, unlike Jobs, applied that obsession not just to the design of a product but also to the underlying science, engineering, and manufacturing. “Steve just had to get the conception and software right, but the manufacturing was outsourced,” Ellison says. “Elon took on the manufacturing, the materials, the huge factories.” Jobs loved to walk through Apple’s design studio on a daily basis, but he never visited his factories in China. Musk, in contrast, spent more time walking assembly lines than he did walking around the design studio. “The brain strain of designing the car is tiny compared to the brain strain of designing the factory,” he says.
The month after Tesla bought the factory, Musk was able to take the company public, the first IPO by an American carmaker since Ford’s in 1956.
At the dinner, Tsuga agreed to be a 40 percent partner in the Gigafactory. When asked why Panasonic decided to do the deal, he replied, “We are too conservative. We are a ninety-five-year-old company. We have to change. We have to use some of Elon’s thinking.”
Maye Musk sympathized with Talulah. “She would invite me for dinner, and Elon wouldn’t show because he’s working late,” she says. “She loved him to bits, but she understandably got tired of being treated that way.”
Musk argued that unless we built in safeguards, artificial intelligence systems might replace humans, making our species irrelevant or even extinct. Page pushed back. Why would it matter, he asked, if machines someday surpassed humans in intelligence, even consciousness? It would simply be the next stage of evolution. Human consciousness, Musk retorted, was a precious flicker of light in the universe, and we should not let it be extinguished. Page considered that sentimental nonsense. If consciousness could be replicated in a machine, why would that not be just as valuable? Perhaps we might even be able someday to upload our own consciousness into a machine. He accused Musk of being a “specist,” someone who was biased in favor of their own species. “Well, yes, I am pro-human,” Musk responded. “I fucking like humanity, dude.”
Musk insisted that the system should be judged not on whether it prevented accidents but instead on whether it led to fewer accidents. It was a logical stance, but it ignored the emotional reality that a person killed by an Autopilot system would provoke a lot more horror than a hundred deaths caused by driver error.
“Tesla is not just an automotive company,” he said when the Powerwall was announced in April 2015. “It’s an energy innovation company.”
“Trump might be one of the world’s best bullshitters ever,” he says. “Like my dad. Bullshitting can sometimes baffle the brain. If you just think of Trump as sort of a con-man performance, then his behavior sort of makes sense.” When the president pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord, an international agreement to fight climate change, Musk resigned from the presidential councils.
Musk was not bred for domestic tranquility. Most of his romantic relationships involve psychological turmoil. The most agonizing of them all was with the actress Amber Heard, who drew him into a dark vortex that lasted more than a year and produced a deep-seated pain that lingers to this day. “It was brutal,” he says.
His brother and friends hated her with a passion that made their distaste for Justine pale. “She was just so toxic,” Kimbal says. “A nightmare.” Musk’s chief of staff Sam Teller compares her to a comic-book villain. “She was like the Joker in Batman,” he says. “She didn’t have a goal or aim other than chaos. She thrives on destabilizing everything.” She and Musk would stay up all night fighting, and then he would not be able to get up until the afternoon.
The fact that Elon was attracted to Amber was part of a pattern. “It’s really sad that he falls in love with these people who are really mean to him,” Kimbal says. “They’re beautiful, no question, but they have a very dark side and Elon knows that they’re toxic.”
Musk flipped from being an apostle of automation to a new mission he pursued with similar zeal: find any part of the line where there was a holdup and see if de-automation would make it go faster.
By 2018, Tesla had become the most shorted stock in history. This infuriated Musk. He believed that short-sellers were not merely skeptics but evil: “They are leeches on the neck of business.”
The Tesla board granted him the boldest pay package in American history, one that would pay him nothing if the stock price did not rise dramatically but that had the potential to pay out $100 billion or more if the company achieved an extraordinarily aggressive set of targets, including a leap in the production numbers, revenue, and stock price. There was widespread skepticism that he could reach the targets. “Mr. Musk will be paid only if he reaches a series of jaw-dropping milestones based on the company’s market value and operations,” Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in the New York Times. “Otherwise, he will be paid nothing.” The payout would top out, Sorkin wrote, only “if Mr. Musk were somehow to increase the value of Tesla to $650 billion—a figure many experts would contend is laughably impossible.”
Musk took responsibility for the over-automation. He even announced it publicly. “Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” he tweeted. “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”
His executives sometimes move their lips and mouth the words, like they would chant the liturgy along with their priest. “I became a broken record on the algorithm,” Musk says. “But I think it’s helpful to say it to an annoying degree.” It had five commandments:
- Question every requirement. Each should come with the name of the person who made it. You should never accept that a requirement came from a department, such as from “the legal department” or “the safety department.” You need to know the name of the real person who made that requirement. Then you should question it, no matter how smart that person is. Requirements from smart people are the most dangerous, because people are less likely to question them. Always do so, even if the requirement came from me. Then make the requirements less dumb.
- Delete any part or process you can. You may have to add them back later. In fact, if you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you didn’t delete enough.
- Simplify and optimize. This should come after step two. A common mistake is to simplify and optimize a part or a process that should not exist.
- Accelerate cycle time. Every process can be speeded up. But only do this after you have followed the first three steps. In the Tesla factory, I mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that I later realized should have been deleted.
- Automate. That comes last. The big mistake in Nevada and at Fremont was that I began by trying to automate every step. We should have waited until all the requirements had been questioned, parts and processes deleted, and the bugs were shaken out.
The algorithm was sometimes accompanied by a few corollaries, among them:
- All technical managers must have hands-on experience. For example, managers of software teams must spend at least 20% of their time coding. Solar roof managers must spend time on the roofs doing installations. Otherwise, they are like a cavalry leader who can’t ride a horse or a general who can’t use a sword.
- Comradery is dangerous. It makes it hard for people to challenge each other’s work. There is a tendency to not want to throw a colleague under the bus. That needs to be avoided.
- It’s OK to be wrong. Just don’t be confident and wrong.
- Never ask your troops to do something you’re not willing to do.
- Whenever there are problems to solve, don’t just meet with your managers. Do a skip level, where you meet with the level right below your managers.
- When hiring, look for people with the right attitude. Skills can be taught. Attitude changes require a brain transplant.
- A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle.
- The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.
But for Musk, good times are unsettling.
Despite such dramas, Grimes was a good partner for Musk. Like Amber Heard (and Musk himself), she was inclined toward chaos, but unlike Amber, hers was a chaos that was undergirded by kindness and even sweetness.
Musk was allergic to joint ventures. He didn’t share control well. So he emphasized, deploying his silly-humor mode, that Tesla did not want to get married. “Tesla is too young,” he said. “Like, we are barely a baby. Now you want to marry?” He got up and mimicked two toddlers walking down a wedding aisle, then laughed his signature cackle. Everyone else in the room laughed, the Chinese a bit hesitantly.
As part of President Xi Jinping’s plans to make China a clean-energy innovation center, China finally agreed in early 2018 to let Tesla build a factory without having to enter into a joint venture. Ren and his team were able to negotiate a deal for more than two hundred acres near Shanghai along with low-interest loans.
Within two years, China would be making more than half of Tesla’s vehicles.
The plan was to send satellites into low-Earth orbit, about 340 miles high, so that the latency of the signals would not be as bad as systems that depended on geosynchronous satellites, which orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth.
Bezos and Musk were alike in some respects. They both disrupted industries through passion, innovation, and force of will. They were both abrupt with employees, quick to call things stupid, and enraged by doubters and naysayers. And they both focused on envisioning the future rather than pursuing short-term profits. When asked if he even knew how to spell “profit,” Bezos answered, “P-r-o-p-h-e-t.” But when it came to drilling down on the engineering, they were different. Bezos was methodical. His motto was gradatim ferociter, or “Step by step, ferociously.” Musk’s instinct was to push and surge and drive people toward insane deadlines, even if it meant taking risks.
Like Optimus, the idea for Neuralink was inspired by science fiction, most notably the Culture space-travel novels by Iain Banks, which feature a human-machine interface technology called “neural lace” that is implanted into people and can connect all of their thoughts to a computer. “When I first read Banks,” he says, “it struck me that this idea had a chance of protecting us on the artificial intelligence front.”
“Let’s change the rigged tax code so the Person of the Year will actually pay taxes and stop freeloading off everyone else,” Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted at the end of 2021. Musk shot back, “If you opened your eyes for 2 seconds, you would realize I will pay more taxes than any American in history this year. Don’t spend it all at once… oh wait you did already.”
From 2007 onwards, until maybe last year, it’s been nonstop pain. There’s a gun to your head, make Tesla work, pull a rabbit out of your hat, then pull another rabbit out of the hat. A stream of rabbits flying through the air. If the next rabbit does not come out, you’re dead. It takes a toll. You can’t be in a constant fight for survival, always in adrenaline mode, and not have it hurt you. But there’s something else I’ve found this year. It’s that fighting to survive keeps you going for quite a while. When you are no longer in a survive-or-die mode, it’s not that easy to get motivated every day.
Grimes and Zilis connected to opposite facets of Musk’s personality. Grimes is feisty in a fun but also fiery way, often getting into fights with Musk and sharing his attraction to tumult. Zilis, on the contrary, says, “In six years, Elon and I have never, never gotten in a fight, never argued.” That’s a claim that few can make. They talk to each other in a low-key, intellectual way.
“It’s certainly possible that the road to hell to some degree is paved with good intentions—but the road to hell is mostly paved with bad intentions.”
“Take the red pill.” It was a reference to the 1999 movie The Matrix, in which a hacker discovers that he has been living in a computer simulation (a concept that has always intrigued Musk) and is given a choice of taking a blue pill, which will allow him to forget everything and return pleasantly to his life, or a red pill, which will expose him to the real truth of the Matrix. The phrase “Take the red pill” was adopted by many, including some men’s-rights activists and conspiracy theorists, as a rallying cry that signaled willingness to face the truth about secretive elites.
He had developed a deep disdain for Donald Trump, whom he considered a con man, but he wasn’t impressed by Joe Biden. “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.” Nevertheless, he says he would have voted for Biden in 2020, but he decided that going to the polls in California, where he was then registered, was a waste of time because it was not a contested state.
“I don’t have a scheduler,” Musk replied. He had decided to get rid of his personal assistant and scheduler because he wanted complete control of his calendar. “Just have your secretary call me directly.” Gates, who thought it was “bizarre” that Musk had no scheduler, felt weird having one of his assistants call Musk, so he did so directly and arranged a time they could meet in Austin.
Gates argued that batteries would never be able to power large semitrucks and that solar energy would not be a major part of solving the climate problem. “I showed him the numbers,” Gates says. “It’s an area where I clearly knew something that he didn’t.” He also gave Musk a hard time on Mars. “I’m not a Mars person,” Gates later told me. “He’s overboard on Mars. I let him explain his Mars thinking to me, which is kind of bizarre thinking. It’s this crazy thing where maybe there’s a nuclear war on Earth and so the people on Mars are there and they’ll come back down and, you know, be alive after we all kill each other.”
Gates had shorted Tesla stock, placing a big bet that it would go down in value. He turned out to be wrong. By the time he arrived in Austin, he had lost $1.5 billion.
“How can someone say they are passionate about fighting climate change and then do something that reduced the overall investment in the company doing the most?” he asked me a few days after Gates’s visit. “It’s pure hypocrisy. Why make money on the failure of a sustainable energy car company?”
Gates was truly puzzled about why Musk was upset that he shorted the stock. And Musk was just as puzzled that Gates could find it puzzling. “At this point, I am convinced that he is categorically insane (and an asshole to the core),” Musk texted me right after his exchange with Gates. “I did actually want to like him (sigh).”
“Extended periods of calm are unnerving for him.”
Usually at such moments of unnerving success, Musk manufactures a drama. He launches a surge, scrambles the jets, announces an unrealistic and unnecessary deadline.
When asked why he doesn’t restrain himself, he merrily admits that he too often “shoots himself in the foot” or “digs his own grave.” But life needs to be interesting and edgy, he says, then quotes his favorite line from the 2000 movie Gladiator: “Are you not entertained? Is that not why you are here?”
If you ask Musk what are the traits needed in a CEO, he would not include “being a really nice guy.” One of his maxims is that managers should not aim to be liked. “What Twitter needs is a fire-breathing dragon,”
“If China gets to the moon before we do again, it will be a Sputnik moment,” he told the NASA directors. “It’s going to be a shock when we wake up and realize they got to the moon while we were suing each other.” He said that when he visits China, he is often asked how that country can be more innovative. “The answer I give is to challenge authority.”
“I feel like he’s developing a higher than average tolerance for danger,” Musk said. Showing only the tiniest bit of self-awareness, he added, “His tolerance for danger is almost problematic, honestly.”
Phil Duan, a young machine-learning expert on the Autopilot team, studied optic information science in his hometown of Wuhan, China, then got a PhD at Ohio University. He joined Tesla in 2017, just in time for the crazed surges that culminated with Musk’s push to unveil a self-driving car on Autonomy Day in 2019. “I worked for months without a day off and got so tired that I quit Tesla right after Autonomy Day,” he said. “I was burned out. But after nine months, I was bored, so I called my boss and begged him to let me come back. I decided I’d rather be burned out than bored.”
He had always believed that Tesla’s design engineers needed to be located right next to the assembly line, rather than allowing manufacturing to be done at a remote location. That way, engineers could get instant feedback on how to design innovations that would both improve the car and make it easier to manufacture.
Between Twitterland and the Muskverse was a radical divergence in outlook that reflected two different mindsets about the American workplace. Twitter prided itself on being a friendly place where coddling was considered a virtue.
Musk let loose a bitter laugh when he heard the phrase “psychological safety.” It made him recoil. He considered it to be the enemy of urgency, progress, orbital velocity. His preferred buzzword was “hardcore.” Discomfort, he believed, was a good thing. It was a weapon against the scourge of complacency. Vacations, flower-smelling, work-life balance, and days of “mental rest” were not his thing. Let that sink in.
At SpaceX he had at least fifteen direct reports, and at Tesla there were about twenty. At Twitter, he told his team, he was willing to have more than twenty. And he decreed that they and the most dedicated engineers should all work in a huge open workspace on the tenth floor, where he would deal with them directly each day and night.
“Twitter now has twenty-five hundred software engineers,” Musk told them. “If each wrote only three lines of code per day, a ridiculously low bar, that should make three million lines a year, which is enough for a whole operating system. This is not happening. Something is deeply amiss. I feel like I’m in a comedy show here.”
“We have one hundred fifty engineers doing Autopilot. I want to get down to that number at Twitter.”
Musk approved Roth’s idea of using “visibility filtering” to de-amplify problematic tweets and users as an alternative to permanent bans. He also agreed to hold off on reinstating the Babylon Bee or Jordan Peterson.
Musk’s tweet showed his growing tendency (like his father) to read wacky fake-news sites purveying conspiracy theories, a problem that Twitter had writ large. He quickly deleted the tweet, apologized, and later said privately that it was one of his dumbest mistakes. It was also a costly one. “It’s definitely going to be a problem with advertisers,” Roth texted Alex Spiro.
Twitter was supposed to be a billion-dollar business, not an extension of Elon Musk’s flaws and quirks.
Henry Kissinger once quoted an aide saying that the Watergate scandal had happened “because some damn fool went into the Oval Office and did what Nixon told him to do.” Those around Musk knew how to ride out his periods of demon mode. Roth later described the encounter in a conversation with Birchall. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Birchall told him. “That happens with Elon. You need to just ignore it and don’t do what he says. Then later on, go back to him after he has processed the inputs.”
Most notably, this meant reversing Twitter’s policy, announced by Jack Dorsey early in the pandemic and reaffirmed by Parag Agrawal in 2022, that employees could work at home forever. “Remote work is no longer allowed,” Musk declared. “Starting tomorrow, everyone is required to be in the office for a minimum of 40 hours per week.” His new policy was partly motivated by his belief that being together in an office facilitated the flow of ideas and energy. “People are way more productive when they’re in person because the communication is much better,” he told a hastily gathered employee meeting in the ninth-floor café. But the policy also arose from his personal work ethic. When one of the employees at the meeting asked why it was necessary to come into the office if most of the people they dealt with were based elsewhere, Musk got angry. “Let me be crystal clear,” he began, slowly and coldly. “If people do not return to the office when they are able to return to the office, they cannot remain at the company. End of story. If you can show up in an office and you do not show up at the office: resignation accepted. End of story.”
Roth’s feelings toward Musk were complex. Most of their interactions had been good. “He was reasonable, funny, engaging, and would talk about his vision in a way that was a bit bullshit but mainly something you could totally be inspired by,” Roth says. But then there were the times when Musk showed an authoritarian, mean, dark streak. “He was the bad Elon, and that’s the one I couldn’t take.” “People want me to say I hate him, but it’s much more complicated, which, I suppose, is what makes him interesting. He’s a bit of an idealist, right? He has a set of grand visions, whether it’s multiplanetary humanity or renewable energy and even free speech. And he has constructed for himself a moral and ethical universe that is focused on the delivery of those big goals. I think that makes it hard to villainize him.”
Roth didn’t ask for a severance package. “I just wanted to walk away while my reputation was still intact and I could still be employable,” he says, wistfully.
The moderator asked what advice he would give to someone who wanted to be the next Elon Musk. “I’d be careful what you wish for,” he replied. “I’m not sure how many people would actually like to be me. The amount that I torture myself is next level, frankly.”
“New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach,” he wrote. “Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter. You won’t find the tweet unless you specifically seek it out.”
He drew the line at Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who claimed that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was “a giant hoax.”
That’s when Musk started pushing the idea of using Neuralink to enable paralyzed people to actually use their limbs again. A chip in the brain could send signals to the relevant muscles, bypassing any spinal-cord blockage or neurological malfunction.
More than 98 percent of the donations made by people at the company went to Democrats.
At the extreme was a practice known as “shadow banning,” in which users could post tweets and see them, but they were never told that those tweets were invisible to every other user.
The Twitter Files brought some transparency to how Twitter had handled content moderation, but they also showed how difficult the task can be.
“My commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk,” he tweeted in early November.
SpaceX and Tesla were successful because Musk relentlessly pushed his teams to be scrappier, more nimble, and to launch fire-drill surges that extruded all obstacles.
One Christmas tradition that Kimbal and Christiana had was to ask everyone to reflect on a question. This year it was “What regrets do you have?” “My main regret,” Elon answered, “is how often I stab myself in the thigh with a fork, how often I shoot my own feet and stab myself in the eye.”
Ever since the Twitter purchase, Musk had been in war mode, feeling the siege mentality that had suffused his childhood and bred inside him easily triggered resentments.
For years, Tesla’s Autopilot system relied on a rules-based approach.
“Instead of determining the proper path of the car based only on rules,” Shroff says, “we determine the car’s proper path by also relying on a neural network that learns from millions of examples of what humans have done.” In other words, it’s human imitation.
Technology revolutions usually start with little fanfare. No one woke up one morning in 1760 and shouted, “OMG, the Industrial Revolution has just begun!” Even the Digital Revolution chugged away for many years in the background, with hobbyists cobbling together personal computers to show off at geeky gatherings such as the Homebrew Computer Club, before people noticed that the world was being fundamentally transformed. But the Artificial Intelligence Revolution was different. Within a few weeks in the spring of 2023, millions of tech-aware and then ordinary folks noticed that a transformation was happening with head-snapping speed that would change the nature of work, learning, creativity, and the tasks of daily life.
Altman then formed a for-profit arm of OpenAI, got a $13 billion investment from Microsoft, and recruited Karpathy back.
There was another data trove that Musk had: the 160 billion frames per day of video that Tesla received and processed from the cameras on its cars.
The explosion of Starship was emblematic of Musk, a fitting metaphor for his compulsion to aim high, act impulsively, take wild risks, and accomplish amazing things—but also to blow things up and leave smoldering debris in his wake while cackling maniacally.
One can admire a person’s good traits and decry the bad ones. But it’s also important to understand how the strands are woven together, sometimes tightly. It can be hard to remove the dark ones without unraveling the whole cloth. As Shakespeare teaches us, all heroes have flaws, some tragic, some conquered, and those we cast as villains can be complex. Even the best people, he wrote, are “molded out of faults.”
“I’ve shot myself in the foot so often I ought to buy some Kevlar boots,” he joked. Perhaps, he ruminated, Twitter should have an impulse-control delay button.
Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training. They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.
Elon Musk allowed me to shadow him for two years