Perhaps it would have been enough if Elon Musk had created six companies that are well on their way to reshaping the way we live our lives each day and for years to come. Dayenu.
Perhaps it would have been enough that Elon Musk had spent $44 billion to acquire Twitter and now has over 140 million followers, more than any else one else on the social media program. Dayenu.
Perhaps it would have been enough if, with Elon Musk’s $255 billion fortune, you would have more money than any single individual on the planet. Dayenu.
But it isn’t enough because now you have a 688-page volume by Walter Isaacson immortalizing all of Musk’s accomplishments in a fascinating, first-person trip through the world that the universe’s most successful entrepreneur has created.
Isaacson, who has had best sellers based on subjects long dead, like Leonardo DaVinci and Benjamin Franklin, as well as those who have passed more recently, like Steve Jobs, has dived right in to Musk’s frenetic world in which the subject is very much alive.
For two years, Isaacson trailed after Musk, sitting in on corporate meetings, having long late-night conversations with the man himself, and interviewing a couple hundred of Musk’s closest friends, family members, and confidants, as well as a few detractors.
The impression one gets from a reading of the new biography is that he is hardly the reflective, choir boy who gazes out at us from the cover of this book across a pair of hands in prayerful repose. If anything, the 52-year-old Musk is described as a creature of his emotions, with little control over what he says to business associates, subordinates, and assorted romantic partners. He is seemingly powerless to subdue what one of his lovers has called his “demon mode,” which causes him to mercilessly abuse and belittle anyone and everything in his immediate view.
He can also assume a more modest form of self-deprecation, as when he appeared as the guest host on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” and opened with this bit from his monologue:
“I reinvented electric cars, and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship, did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”
Isaacson, who has an appointment as a history professor at Tulane University, also knows a thing or two about the corporate environment he writes about. He was, for a while, the chair and CEO of CNN, editor of Time Magazine, and the President and CEO of the Aspen Institute in Colorado. He seemingly has no trouble chatting up the assorted Captain of Industry that support the numerous conclusions he’s reached about Musk’s many accomplishments.
His subject has, after all, created companies that have a valuation in excess of a trillion dollars, is in the process of perfecting an electronic aid for the human brain, produced a string of reusable rocket ships, and seemingly had a major influence on reversing our love affair with the internal combustion engine. It is not surprising that the prime minister of Israel has described him as the real president of the United States.
Still, for all his accomplishments, Isaacson cannot help but to characterize Musk as someone not quite ready for adulthood. After a lengthy analysis of the roots of Musk’s erratic and abusive behavior he lets off his subject more gently than you would have expected.
“Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training,” Isaacson concludes. “They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.”
Walter Isaacson appears at 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 4 at the MJCCA. The Musk book is included in the $38 ticket.