The Surprising Elon Musk

The Surprising Elon Musk

When I put it on my Christmas list, my wife Yvonne thought I was crazy.

A biography of Elon Musk? Who would want such a thing? Certainly not Yvonne, the person who had announced she would never buy a Tesla because the company was owned by Musk. She was convinced he was a horrible person. Who would want to read about him?

I did. Not because I liked or admired him; I knew virtually nothing about him. My lack of knowledge was in fact the reason I was interested. He was helping to shape the world and was virtually unknown to me.

Yvonne, to her credit, held her nose and bought me the book.

Titled simply Elon Musk, it was written by Walter Isaacson, formerly the chairman and CEO of CNN and an author known for biographies of people considered to be geniuises, including Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Jennifer Doudna, a pioneering gene editor.

Having read most of Isaacson’s books, I was fascinated by this new subject, and I dove in, curious, when the book arrived.

One of the first things I learned was that Musk has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), until recently called Asperger’s syndrome. This means, among other things, that he struggles with socializing and social skills, and he has an unusually narrow range of interests and rigid routines. He can switch from welcoming at one minute to brutalizing at the next, and you never know which you’ll encounter.

In layman’s terms, as Isaacson writes, Musk sometimes acts like an asshole.

In other words, he is a brilliant, highly unusual person who has somehow found a profession in which he can use and even thrive on his unlikely combination of skills and shortcomings.

I had assumed that Musk’s chief goal was to gain money and power, but that’s not so. His life ambitions, chosen as a youth and continued to this day, are saving the planet by reducing global warming; colonizing Mars to save humanity in case the earth is destroyed; and shaping Artificial Intelligence to help us, not rule us.

He has made remarkable progress toward all three goals: attempting to reduce global warming through the work at Tesla; blazing a path to Mars using SpaceX; and controlling artificial intelligence through OpenAI, which he originally started as a nonprofit think tank but which has been wrested from him and, to his chagrin, converted to a money-making enterprise.

In addition to these laudable efforts, he has made some dramatic missteps, including his recent impulsive purchase of Twitter, which he has renamed X, as well as some unfortunate political moves.

Make no mistake, missteps or not, Elon Musk is out there as we speak—buying, selling, analyzing, abusing, trying to save the world, and playing video games. There is no one like him. 

Think of the overgrown child trying to rescue the earth in his crazy, overwhelming, misguided, utterly sincere way. Then think twice before you condemn Elon Musk.


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