“One night Elon Musk told me, ‘If there was a way that I could not eat, so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal.’
“It was in my first interview with Musk, which took place at the design studio that I began to get a sense of how he talked and operated. He’s a confident guy, but does not always do a good job of displaying this. On initial encounter, Musk can come off as shy and borderline awkward. His South African accent remains present but fading, and the charm of it is not enough to offset the halting nature of Musk’s speech pattern. Like many an engineer or physicist, Musk will pause while fishing around for exact phrasing, and he’ll often go rumbling down an esoteric, scientific rabbit hole without providing any helping hands or simplified explanations along the way. Musk expects you to keep up. None of this is off-putting. Musk, in fact, will toss out plenty of jokes and can be downright charming. It’s just that there’s a sense of purpose and pressure hanging over any conversation with the man.”
“He would call very insistently,” she said. “You always knew it was Elon Musk because the phone would never stop ringing. The man does not take no for an answer. You can’t blow him off. I do think of him as the Terminator. He locks his gaze on to something and says, ‘It shall be mine.’ Bit by bit, he won me over.”
Musk never seemed to leave the office. He slept, not unlike a dog, on a beanbag next to his desk. “Almost every day, I’d come in at seven thirty or eight A.M., and he’d be asleep right there on that bag,”
Musk also began consciously trying to manage his criticism of others. “Elon is not someone who would say, ‘I feel you. I see your point of view,’” said Justine. “Because he doesn’t have that ‘I feel you’ dimension there were things that seemed obvious to other people that weren’t that obvious to him. He had to learn that a twenty-something-year-old shouldn’t really shoot down the plans of older, senior people and point out everything wrong with them. He learned to modify his behavior in certain ways. I just think he comes at the world through strategy and intellect.” The personality tweaks worked with varying degrees of success. Musk still tended to drive the young engineers mad with his work demands and blunt criticism.
“Someone complained about a technical change that we wanted being impossible. Elon turned and said, ‘I don’t really give a damn what you think,’ and walked out of the meeting. For Elon, the word no does not exist, and he expects that attitude from everyone around him.” Periodically, Musk let loose on the more senior executives as well. “You would see people come out of the meetings with this disgusted look on their face,” Mohr, the salesman, said. “You don’t get to where Elon is now by always being a nice guy, and he was just so driven and sure of himself.”
Employees at Zip2 would go home at night, come back, and find that Musk had changed their work without talking to them, and Musk’s confrontational style did more harm than good. “Yeah, we had some very good software engineers at Zip2, but I mean, I could code way better than them. And I’d just go in and fix their fucking code,” Musk said. “I would be frustrated waiting for their stuff, so I’m going to go and fix your code and now it runs five times faster, you idiot. There was one guy who wrote a quantum mechanics equation, a quantum probability on the board, and he got it wrong. I’m like, ‘How can you write that?’ Then I corrected it for him. He hated me after that. Eventually, I realized, Okay, I might have fixed that thing but now I’ve made the person unproductive. It just wasn’t a good way to go about things.”
Musk wanted a measure of control over his life’s story. He’s also wired like a scientist and suffers mental anguish at the sight of a factual error. A mistake on a printed page would gnaw at his soul—forever. While I could understand his perspective, I could not let him read the book, for professional, personal, and practical reasons. Musk has his version of the truth, and it’s not always the version of the truth that the rest of the world shares. He’s prone to verbose answers to even the simplest of questions as well, and the thought of thirty-page footnotes seemed all too real.
Our conversation began with a discussion of public-relations people. Musk turns through PR staffers notoriously fast, and Tesla was in the process of hunting for a new communications chief. “Who is the best PR person in the world?” he asked in a very Muskian fashion.
One thing that Musk holds in the highest regard is resolve, and he respects people who continue on after being told no. Dozens of other journalists had asked him to help with a book before, but I’d been the only annoying asshole who continued on after Musk’s initial rejection, and he seemed to like that.
For the first time, Musk would let a reporter see the inner workings of his world. Two and a half hours after we started, Musk put his hands on the table, made a move to get up, and then paused, locked eyes with me, and busted out that incredible question: “Do you think I’m insane?” The oddity of the moment left me speechless for a beat, while my every synapse fired trying to figure out if this was some sort of riddle, and, if so, how it should be answered artfully. It was only after I’d spent lots of time with Musk that I realized the question was more for him than me. Nothing I said would have mattered. Musk was stopping one last time and wondering aloud if I could be trusted and then looking into my eyes to make his judgment. A split second later, we shook hands and Musk drove off in a red Tesla Model S
I found Musk back at work at the Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto. It was a Saturday, and the parking lot was full of cars. Inside of the Tesla offices, hundreds of young men were at work— some of them designing car parts on computers and others conducting experiments with electronics equipment on their desks. Musk’s uproarious laugh would erupt every few minutes and carry through the entire floor. When Musk came into the meeting room where I’d been waiting, I noted how impressive it was for so many people to turn up on a Saturday. Musk saw the situation in a different light, complaining that fewer and fewer people had been working weekends of late. “We’ve grown fucking soft,” Musk replied. “I was just going to send out an e-mail. We’re fucking soft.”
Elon exhibited all the traits of a curious, energetic tot. He picked things up easily, and Maye, like many mothers do, pegged her son as brilliant and precocious. “He seemed to understand things quicker than the other kids,” she said. The perplexing thing was that Elon seemed to drift off into a trance at times. People spoke to him, but nothing got through when he had a certain, distant look in his eyes. This happened so often that Elon’s parents and doctors thought he might be deaf. “Sometimes, he just didn’t hear you,” said Maye. Doctors ran a series of tests on Elon, and elected to remove his adenoid glands, which can improve hearing in children. “Well, it didn’t change,” said Maye. Elon’s condition had far more to do with the wiring of his mind than how his auditory system functioned. “He goes into his brain, and then you just see he is in another world,” Maye said. “He still does that. Now I just leave him be because I know he is designing a new rocket or something.”
Other children did not respond well to these dreamlike states. You could do jumping jacks right beside Musk or yell at him, and he would not even notice. He kept right on thinking, and those around him judged that he was either rude or really weird. “I do think Elon was always a little different but in a nerdy way,” Maye said. “It didn’t endear him to his peers.” For Musk, these pensive moments were wonderful. At five and six, he had found a way to block out the world and dedicate all of his concentration to a single task. Part of this ability stemmed from the very visual way in which Musk’s mind worked.
He could see images in his mind’s eye with a clarity and detail that we might associate today with an engineering drawing produced by computer software. “It seems as though the part of the brain that’s usually reserved for visual processing—the part that is used to process images coming in from my eyes—gets taken over by internal thought processes,” Musk said. “I can’t do this as much now because there are so many things demanding my attention but, as a kid, it happened a lot. That large part of your brain that’s used to handle incoming images gets used for internal thinking.”
Maye tells the story of Elon playing outside one night with his siblings and cousins. When one of them complained of being frightened by the dark, Elon pointed out that “dark is merely the absence of light,” which did little to reassure the scared child. As a youngster, Elon’s constant yearning to correct people and his abrasive manner put off other kids and added to his feelings of isolation. Elon genuinely thought that people would be happy to hear about the flaws in their thinking. “Kids don’t like answers like that,” said Maye. “They would say, ‘Elon, we are not playing with you anymore.’ I felt very sad as a mother because I think he wanted friends. Kimbal and Tosca would bring home friends, and Elon wouldn’t, and he would want to play with them. But he was awkward, you know.” Maye urged Kimbal and Tosca to include Elon. They responded as kids will. “But Mom, he’s not fun.” As he got older, however, Elon would have strong, affectionate attachments to is siblings and cousins—his mother’s sister’s sons. Though he kept to himself at school, Elon had an outgoing nature with members of his family and eventually took on the role of elder and chief instigator among them.
The Elon that his peers encountered at school was far less inspirational. Throughout middle and high school, Elon bounced around a couple of institutions. He spent the equivalent of eighth and ninth grades at Bryanston High School. One afternoon Elon and Kimbal were sitting at the top of a flight of concrete stairs eating when a boy decided to go after Elon. “I was basically hiding from this gang that was fucking hunting me down for God knows fucking why. I think I accidentally bumped this guy at assembly that morning and he’d taken some huge offense at that.” The boy crept up behind Musk, kicked him in the head, and then shoved him down the stairs. Musk tumbled down the entire flight, and a handful of boys pounced on him, some of them kicking Musk in the side and the ringleader bashing his head against the ground. “They were a bunch of fucking psychos,” Musk said. “I blacked out.”
Kimbal watched in horror and feared for Elon’s life. He rushed down the stairs to find Elon’s face bloodied and swollen. “He looked like someone who had just been in the boxing ring,” Kimbal said. Elon then went to the hospital. “It was about a week before I could get back to school,” Musk said. (During a news conference in 2013, Elon disclosed that he’d had a nose job to deal with the lingering effects of this beating.)
For three or four years, Musk endured relentless hounding at the hands of these bullies. They went so far as to beat up a boy that Musk considered his best friend until the child agreed to stop hanging out with Musk. “Moreover, they got him—they got my best fucking friend to lure me out of hiding so they could beat me up,” Musk said. “And that fucking hurt.” While telling this part of the story, Musk’s eyes welled up and his voice quivered. “For some reason, they decided that I was it, and they were going to go after me nonstop. That’s what made growing up difficult. For a number of years there was no respite. You get chased around by gangs at school who tried to beat the shit out of me, and then I’d come home, and it would just be awful there as well. It was just like nonstop horrible.”
Musk spent the latter stages of his high school career at Pretoria Boys High School, where a growth spurt and the generally better behavior of the students made life more bearable. While a public school by definition, Pretoria Boys has functioned more like a private school for the last hundred years. It’s the place you send a young man to get him ready to attend Oxford or Cambridge. The boys from Musk’s class remember him as a likable, quiet, unspectacular student. “There were four or five boys that were considered the very brightest,” said Deon Prinsloo, who sat behind Elon in some classes. “Elon was not one of them.” Such comments were echoed by a half dozen boys who also noted that Musk’s lack of interest in sports left him isolated in the midst of an athletics-obsessed culture. “Honestly, there were just no signs that he was going to be a billionaire,” aid Gideon Fourie, another classmate. “He was never in a leadership position at school. I was rather surprised to see what
has happened to him.”
“You can make billions of dollars for free,” he said. His boss told Musk to write up a report, which soon got passed up to the bank’s CEO, who promptly rejected the proposal, saying the bank had been burned on Brazilian and Argentinian debt before and didn’t want to mess with it again. “I tried to tell them that’s not the point,” Musk said. “The point is that it’s fucking backed by Uncle Sam. It doesn’t matter what the South Americans do. You cannot lose unless you think the U.S. Treasury is going to default. But they still didn’t do it, and I was stunned. Later in life, as I competed against the banks, I would think back to this moment, and it gave me confidence. All the bankers did was copy what everyone else did. If everyone else ran off a bloody cliff, they’d run right off a cliff with them. If there was a giant pile of gold sitting in the middle of the room and nobody was picking it up, they wouldn’t pick it up, either.”