With 156 million followers on his own social network and a string of massively successful companies to his name, Elon Musk is not exactly a shy and retiring figure.
Yet behind the bluster and bombast lies a complex and little-understood figure who emerged from a middle-class, but nonetheless rough, upbringing in South Africa to become the world’s richest man.
A new biography by Walter Isaacson lays bare the wild eccentricities, remarkable successes, and fiery ‘demon mode’ outbursts of a man who makes other tech barons look like shy, retiring field mice.
Isaacson gained unprecedented to Elon and his family during the writing of the 600-page book to produce an epic of truly Muskian proportions.
We’ve read this impressive tome and collected together some of our favourite anecdotes about a billionaire who’s variously described as a ‘man-child’, a ‘great innovator’ and a ‘manic genius addicted to risk and drama’.
Read on to journey into the mind of Musk…
Elon still has ‘demons’ from a violent childhood
These days, Elon’s most fearsome physical opponent is Mark Zuckerberg. Back in his youth in South Africa, he faced genuine violence which appears to have permanently shaped his outlook on life.
Musk’s biography features graphic descriptions of vicious knife fights, gangs machine-gunning rivals and one memorable trip to a concert in which Elon had to step over a dead body with a knife sticking out of its head, spending the rest of the night walking around with his trainers covered in blood.
Elon still bears the scars of a particularly awful fight in which a gang pushed him down concrete steps and kicked him in the head so many times that his face became a ‘swollen ball of flesh’ and his eyes were barely visible.
Elon spent many years repairing the physical damage, getting corrective surgery decades later to repair damaged tissue in his nose.
The emotional scars may have proved even more difficult to heal. After the fight, his father reportedly sided with the attackers, claiming one of the boys had just lost his father and Elon had called him ‘stupid’ (more on this beloved Elon insult later).
In the biography, we also hear of Elon clashing with his brother Kimbal throughout his life. One ‘rolling-on-the-office-floor’ altercation took place in a shared workplace during the founding of their company Zip2.
History does not record whether any of these scraps ended in the Musk’s usual childhood fashion. Earlier in the book, we find out that fights between the youthful brothers ended with a swift kick to the testicles – which both siblings regarded as an unrecoverable finishing move.
We do know that one office fight ended when Kimbal bit a chunk of flesh from Elon’s hand, forcing him to go to the hospital for stitches and a tetanus shot.
The argument was about the name Zip2, which Elon hated. After literally taking his pound of flesh, Kimbal now agrees it was indeed a ‘s****y name’.
These formative acts of extreme violence have given Elon an iron constitution which is not at all held back by the emotions felt by mere mortals. Elon himself says that adversity ‘shaped me’ and his pain threshold became ‘very high’.
Zuck might like to take that as a warning!
Elon was almost called ‘Nice’
The billionaire was conceived in Nice, France, which was going to be his name.
Yet he ended up with the name Elon because it was the middle name of his grandfather on his mother’s side (and because his dad thought it sounded ‘biblical’).
The Elon was also the name of a character in a book called Project Mars, who runs a colony on the Red Planet – which is fitting for a billionaire who wants to nuke the poles of Mars and then die there, presumably after a long, fulfilling life as its libertarian billionaire overlord.
We’re glad his parents didn’t follow a Beckham-esque naming convention. Nice Musk doesn’t have the same ring as Elon Musk (and sounds a just little too… fragrant).
Risk is its own reward for Elon Musk
Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of Paypal, says that his former business partner Elon appears to be ‘addicted’ to risk.
This is something of a family trait. The Musks have a motto: ‘Live dangerously – carefully.’
His ancestors were early aviators, long before the days of business class and jumbo jets made flying safe and convenient.
Joshua Haldeman, Elon’s maternal grandfather, removed the backseat from a plane and became the first pilot to fly from Africa to Australia.
However, he was also killed in an accident when his plane hit a power line. Elon was just three years old at the time.
Since then, his attitude to accepting risk has seen him do the impossible by launching huge companies, SpaceX and Tesla, in two very difficult-to-crack industries.
He loves to call people ‘stupid’
Elon was a lonely boy at school and not a particularly high achiever – despite his obvious intellect.
In the classroom, he first discovered his favourite insults: ‘stupid’ and ‘idiot’.
Ever since, he has hurled these epithets at anyone who incurred his wrath – including his former wives and anyone whose ideas he is not a fan of.
The slur appears to have also been used by his father, who reportedly called Elon’s mum ‘boring, stupid and ugly’ before they divorced.
Today he’s regarded as a genius – but his teachers thought otherwise
At school, Elon had few friends and drifted off into a kind of trance during classes.
This spaced-out nature led teachers to think he was deaf, whereupon Elon’s adenoids (glands in the throat which can cause hearing issues) were removed to combat this non-existent problem.
The surgical intervention didn’t make a difference. When Elon is thinking, he has little time for the outside world and meaningless things like human interaction, zoning out and going blank instead.
Musk’s emerald miner father wasn’t quite as rich as you’ve heard
Musk detractors enjoy claiming that he basically turned up in America with a suitcase full of emeralds and bought his way to success.
This wild claim is far from the truth. Although Errol Musk did indeed own an emerald mine in Zambia, it was far from a jewel in his crown by the time young Elon decided to go west to Canada, and had lost much of its value.
Elon arrived in North America armed with $2,000 in travellers cheques from his dad and a further $2,000 that his mum obtained by cashing out the winnings from a beauty contest she won as a teenager.
After sleeping in a rundown youth hostel, he wandered the streets of Montreal in shock that there were no bars in the window before happily realising that ‘not everyone was a murderer’ – unlike South Africa, where he says ‘people will just rob and kill you’.
Unfortunately, the streets of Montreal were not immediately paved with gold and he lost his travellers cheques when a bus driver accidentally drove off without his suitcase on board.
His chat-up lines are really cringey
When asking Elon’s wives and partners what first attracted them to the billionaire, we can rule out one explanation.
It’s fair to say that Elon is not a seductive smooth-talker with a golden tongue.
When he went to a party with a young woman, his first question was about whether she liked electric cars.
Then, after being introduced to actress Talulah Riley, Elon charmed her with talk of his rockets before asking if he could put his hand on her knee.
This stellar charm offensive culminated in Elon asking for Talulah’s number and admitting he was ‘bad at this’. Musk’s ungainly opening gambit led to him marrying Talulah not just once, but twice.
Two weeks after the couple met, they agreed to get tie the knot with a handshake, because Elon hadn’t bought an engagement ring.
After throwing caution to the wind, Talulah jokingly asked Elon what the worst thing was that could happen to a couple in love.
‘One of us could die,’ he responded.
Which she found ‘romantic’. And who are we to say otherwise?
Musk does not appear to be a fan of over-protective parents
Elon’s own mother and father were not the pushy helicopter parents of today.
They bought him a blue and gold Yamaha motorcycle when he was just eight years old and left him playing alone in parks in strange cities.
During one solo outing in Liverpool during the same year he was given a motorbike, Elon was found wandering the streets alone and was picked up by another family, who gave him a biscuit and phoned the police.
Although Musk agrees it was ‘insane’ to leave him alone in a park, he appears to criticise overprotective modern parents in the biography and is depicted as letting his son X roam around a rooftop construction site.
He’s a dungeon master – and you’d better respect his authority
Throughout his life, Elon has been a sci-fi nerd and hardcore gamer who disappears into virtual worlds for hours or even days at a time.
He keeps as strong a rule over his imaginary realms as he does his real-life dominions.
Elon usually took on the role of dungeon master whilst playing role-playing games. During one tournament, he was given a subordinate role and given the mission of figuring out which other player was the bad guy and then killing him.
Clever clogs Elon cracked this puzzle in moments and the organisers of the game claimed he was cheating, so initially refused to hand over his prize.
Elon still regards these lesser dungeon masters as, you guessed it, ‘idiots’.
The billionaire is a sober raver
There is no shortage of parties in Elon’s life. We hear of him hob-knobbing with celebs including Paris Hilton and Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as raving at the student get-togethers he threw in his younger days.
However, although Elon enjoys organising parties, he seems to be rather restrained, admitting that he was stone cold sober at his student knees-ups – even though everyone else was absolutely off their chops.
In fact, despite his famous weed-smoking session with Joe Rogan, Elon does not like taking drugs whatsoever, famously telling the New York Times: ‘Weed is not helpful for productivity. There’s a reason for the word ‘stoned’. You just sit there like a stone on weed.’
He also furiously denied taking LSD after Azelia Banks accused him of sending ill-advised tweets whilst ‘on acid’ – an allegation that is also clearly refuted in his biography.
Elon does like a drink, although he does not appear to be a grizzled boozehound. When he visited Russia to try to buy a rocket, he drank too much vodka with his new comrades and passed out with a bang as his head hit the table.
Today the only thing Elon binges on, we learn in his biography, is video games.
Elon really does have a teenage sense of humour
After buying Twitter, the billionaire announced his arrival by walking into the reception clutching a large bathroom fixture and tweeting the words: ‘Let that sink in.’
The biography confirms that this level of humour is actually rather more sophisticated than his usual fare.
Today, he is convinced that wokeness is killing comedy – particularly the sort he prefers, which focuses on poos, farts, sex acts, bodily fluids and ‘topics that would crack up a dorm room of stoned freshman’.
Naming a child X Æ A-Xii wasn’t the strangest thing about having a baby with Grimes
Elon and Grimes called their newborn baby X Æ A-Xii, which is a reference to the elven language and a spy plane called the Archangel.
The name was not the most unusual thing about the birth. Elon reportedly snapped a picture of Grimes undergoing a caesarian and sent it to friends and family.
The singer rushed to get the image deleted – even though Musk was ‘clueless’ about why it upset her.
Elon’s staff issue ‘open-loop warnings’ during meltdowns and dread his ‘demon mode’ outbursts
Life as a billionaire is not as easy as many people might expect. Elon is known for switching into ‘demon mode’ during times of particular stress, which is described as the polar opposite of the light, easy-going personality we observe through his Twitter, sorry, X profile.
Grimes, his former partner and mother of three of his children, says demon mode causes ‘chaos’ but gets the job done.
During one incident, he went to a SpaceX facility called Starbase in Nevada, where staff were not at work because it was late on a Friday evening.
This was unacceptable to Musk, who then ordered a surge of activity and asked for 500 workers to be flown in from across the US to ensure the booster and second stage of his Starship rocket were completed within 10 days.
Staff also issue ‘open loop warnings’ when Elon appears to be facing a crisis of some sort. These alerts were unleashed during the incident in which the billionaire called a cave diver ‘Pedo Guy’ after he refused Musk’s offer of a submarine to help free Thai kids who were trapped in a flooded cave.
Another was issued during the purchase of Twitter. Open loop refers to a type of system that does not use feedback to control its outcomes.
When applied to a human, it can usefully refer to billionaires who tweet out plans to sell stock in their company at $420. This now legendary incident involved Musk saying that he would take the company private at a price-per-stock which appeared to be a reference to 4/20, the date of a ‘Weed Day’ in which cannabis smokers congregate to get high in public places.
This decision prompted claims it was a cannabis reference to amuse his then-partner Grimes – an allegation Musk denied when quizzed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SCA).
He’s a ‘man-child’ who changed the world
Walter Isaacson’s blockbuster biography closes with the following line: ‘Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training [and are] crazy enough to change the world.’
And man-children don’t come much bigger than Elon Musk.
Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson, published by Simon & Schuster, is available now
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