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'Elon Musk is a control freak,' says author Walter Isaacson

'Elon Musk is a control freak,' says author Walter Isaacson

The eagerly anticipated biography of Elon Musk is finally here. Author Walter Isaacson talks about what he learnt shadowing Musk and more

The eagerly anticipated biography of Elon Musk is finally here. Author Walter Isaacson talks about what he learnt shadowing Musk and more The eagerly anticipated biography of Elon Musk is finally here. Author Walter Isaacson talks about what he learnt shadowing Musk and more

Walter Isaacson is known to tackle very difficult subjects. So, perhaps it was no surprise that he chose to write a biography of Tesla CEO Elon Musk after best-selling books on the lives of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Jennifer Doudna, and others. Isaacson talks to Business Today about the mercurial Musk and the experiences that shaped him. Edited excerpts:

For the past two to three years, you’ve practically lived with Elon Musk, attended his meetings, walked in his factories and spent hours interviewing him, his family, friends, co-workers, and even enemies. Now that the book is finally out, how does it feel?

The book is the most interesting and fascinating journey you can imagine because there’s not only Elon Musk, but there are many different versions of Elon Musk. There are times when he’s a great engineer, there are times when he’s giddy and silly, and there are times when he’s dark and angry. And so it’s a roller-coaster ride with one of the most impulsive, mercurial people. But it’s those traits that have helped him bring us into the era of electric vehicles and to be able to get astronauts into orbit from the US, which even Nasa can’t do anymore. He’s also created the internet in outer space with Starlink and now he’s taking on artificial intelligence. So if you want to learn how to be an innovator, if you want to be an innovator who’s going to affect this world, there’s nobody better to understand than Elon Musk.

In the book, we go through Musk’s childhood in detail. He definitely had a strained relationship with his father. How much of an impact did that have on the Elon Musk we know today?

Elon Musk was forged by the fire of his childhood in South Africa. He knew pain, but he learnt how to deal with it. He knew drama and he learnt how to love drama. You know, he was a kid without very many social skills. [He was] not very good at relating to people, still has that problem. He was a scrawny kid back then. So he would get beaten up by the bullies and they would smash him down the concrete steps of his school. But the scars that were worse were those that came from his father. He yelled at Musk for an hour or two, and yelled at him when he got beaten up. His father would take the side of the bullies. And so you see in the grown-up Elon those mood swings that his father had and also the mood swings that Elon Musk had as a child. You see him driven by these demons. Now, I’m here in New Orleans [in the US]. I led a pretty happy childhood but that may be why I’m not driven to do things the way Elon Musk is. I think those childhood demons he’s turned into drives that are both astonishingly useful and also dark at times.

You are one of the very few people who have not only known but have lived with two of the biggest icons of the modern world—Apple Co-founder Steve Jobs and Musk. Both have had a lasting impact on how the world works. What is the one aspect in which they are polar opposites and the other in which they are similar?

I think that Steve Jobs had a very good sense of human emotion. He could make products that would, as he put it, make our hearts sing—like the iPod, a thousand songs in your pocket. And he knew with a feel for design what would excite people, and he cared about emotional connections. I think that Elon Musk cares more about engineering and manufacturing. Musk wants to make his own products and he’s a very good materials scientist and engineer, but both of them had a sense of mission. They weren’t just trying to improve the iPhone a little bit. They were trying to think dif[1]ferent, as Steve Jobs said, they were trying to invent things that nobody else had seen, and that’s the passion. They both had a passion that allowed them almost to distort reality. People would say that’s impossible and both Jobs and Musk would say no, it’s not impossible. And it would drive people crazy, but they would also drive people to do things they didn’t know they could do.

Elon Musk has lately shown a lot of interest in India. Since you’ve spent so much time with him, do you have any insights on his plans for Tesla’s entry into India?

He knows that a lot of people in India love Tesla [and] are very, very eager for him to do more in India. [It’s the] same with Starlink. And so he likes India a lot and he visits. I think that in terms of his future plans, that’s a question of foreign direct investment and many other things. When he decided to go into China, there were laws in China that said if you’re going to build a car factory, it has to be a joint venture with a Chinese enterprise and Elon Musk did not want to do that. So for three years, he kept refusing to do anything until it could be something that he would control. So I think we can—if you read the chapter or two on China and his understanding of the Indian market—see how much he would love to get into the market in India. But the question would be, can he do it and keep control of his factory in the way he needs to? He is a control freak. [It’s] not just quality checks, he feels that if you’re in charge of your own manufacturing, you become more innovative. He walks the assembly lines late at night. He finds places where things are going slowly and he says it is not the assembly line’s fault; it’s the fault of the design. So he will [rework] the design every day based on manufacturing.

If you had to choose one pivotal moment in Musk’s life, what would it be?

I think it would be when he decided to put all of his chips on the table and build a rocket ship company. And then right after, build an electric vehicle company. That showed a certain craziness. If you wanted to make money, you didn’t invest in rocket ships and electric vehicles back then. But it just showed his all-in hardcore mentality. And at the end of 2008, they were both going bankrupt. They both ran out of money and he had to choose which one to save and he couldn’t choose. He said both and he was able to take his own personal money out of his bank account and pay the workers because he was committed to keep both of them going.

Published on: Oct 12, 2023, 1:02 PM IST
Posted by: Arnav Das Sharma, Oct 12, 2023, 12:51 PM IST