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Enter EVs, AI and space travel

But it’s perhaps these demons that pushed Musk to drive innovation and disrupt industries — in the process turning him into the richest man on the planet.

Musk helped usher in the era of electric vehicles, space travel and artificial intelligence, and “he’s the only person who can get astronauts from the U.S. into orbit — NASA can no longer do it, Boeing can’t do it,” says Isaacson.

After co-founding a financial services company called X.com, which later became PayPal, Musk founded SpaceX in 2002. There, in addition to his duties as CEO, he was also chief designer for the Falcon, Dragon and Starship. In 2004, Musk became a major investor in Tesla; after some clashes with the SEC, he continues in the role as CEO. And, of course, in a highly controversial move, he bought Twitter in 2022 and renamed it X.

Musk says if you’re not failing 20% of the time, you’re not risking enough, according to Isaacson — which is why, from Musk’s point of view, a rocket exploding is still a success (he can see what went wrong so he can fix it). Whereas, “if you have a risk-averse culture like NASA or Boeing … you’re not experimenting enough.”

He also tends to get his way. Maybe 20% of his employees are “totally loyal and survive, but he’s not afraid of burning people out and having them leave.”

Musk spends about 80% of his “hardcore mental energy designing the machines that make the machines,” says Isaacson. In other words, he’s designing the Raptor rocket engines that power SpaceX spacecraft or the battery cells that power Tesla EVs.

While he understands physical engineering, Musk doesn’t understand human emotions very well, says Isaacson, “which is why he was better off with Tesla and SpaceX and not buying Twitter.”

Read more: Here's how much the average 60-year-old American holds in retirement savings — how does your nest egg compare?

Is childhood trauma a prerequisite for genius?

While Musk told Isaacson that adversity shaped him, Isaacson says there’s a part of Musk that “loves drama and rushing into the fire.”

Musk is “almost always trying to recreate the drama, the turmoil of his childhood in apartheid South Africa, seeing people killed, and having a psychologically abusive father.”

Musk’s father, Errol, also had two children with a woman whom he had raised as his step-daughter, so that “really messed up Elon’s mind.” Isaacson, who interviewed Musk’s estranged father for the book, described him as Jekyll-and-Hyde — a brilliant electrical and mechanical engineer, but with “demon-like” modes.

That’s not to say that people with wonderful childhoods will amount to nothing in life, or that childhood trauma is a prerequisite for genius. But having “demons to harness tends to drive you a bit more.”

While the average person can push themselves to do well in life, Isaacson says Musk has a “maniacal intensity and sense of urgency” that’s not instilled in most of us.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, for most of us. Musk “doesn’t value happiness,” he says. “Musk is always pushing for the next thing as opposed to happiness.”

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Vawn Himmelsbach Freelance Contributor

Vawn Himmelsbach is a journalist who has been covering tech, business and travel for more than two decades. Her work has been published in a variety of publications, including The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, CBC News, ITbusiness, CAA Magazine, Zoomer, BOLD Magazine and Travelweek, among others.

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