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Review: Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson

Reviewer: Stephen Williams (African Business)

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson
ISBN: 9781398527492
Format: Hardback

South African born and bred, but now based and working in the US, Elon Musk is a complex man with a remarkable ambition. He is intent on seeing humanity become a multi-planet species. As prolific biographer Walter Isaacson’s new book Elon Musk describes it, Musk made the first million of his fortune – always the most difficult million, according to legend – by writing Zip2, a computer program that merged a database of maps with directory listings of businesses.

It seems that Musk’s parents had a hand in this. His father Errol gave him $28,000 and his mother $10,000. With that he created a company that later attracted venture capitalists to buy it out for $3m.

Musk then set about creating a digital payment system – PayPal. It is ubiquitous now, but at the turn of the millennium this was revolutionary. Musk, although the loser in a boardroom coup, made around $250m when PayPal was sold to eBay for $1.5bn.

As Isaacson writes: “Musk now had a new mission, one that was loftier than launching an internet bank or digital Yellow Pages.” That mission was to step into the void that NASA had left and work towards a mission to colonise Mars – making humanity interplanetary. To take this vision forward, Musk needed to learn all he could about rockets.

He read voraciously and was also able to contact an experienced rocket engineer, Jim Cantrell, who had worked on a US-Russian programme to decommission missiles.

Musk made two visits to Russia. The Russians played hardball in negotiations to buy two rockets, so Musk walked away and, flying back to the US, decided to build his own. And, as was his wont, he declared an optimistic timeline to launch SpaceX’s first rocket by September 2003.  The first successful launch was in September 2008. Thus Musk joined Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin’s Richard Branson in the boys’ club of business magnates aiming for space.

Musk has since ploughed billions into SpaceX. Musk’s interplanetary quest is, as he sees it, an ethical impulse to save humankind. To others it may seem an egotistical overreach, bordering on insanity.

But Musk had an important advantage. Because SpaceX was a private company, and he was quite prepared to flout the rules, Musk could take all the risks that he wanted. As Isaacson writes, it was a philosophy of trying new ideas and being willing to blow things up. SpaceX found a base at an abandoned test site outside of McGregor, Texas, about 26-miles east of Waco, where it proceeded to try new ideas and blow things up.

Hard to know

While this book tells the rags-to-riches story of Musk’s business journey, what strikes the reader is his attitudes and behaviour towards friends, family and employees.

Isaacson’s account suggests that Musk’s early years in South Africa had a huge influence. Musk had a less than stable home life, and he was bullied at school. He blames his father for being abusive. Also, Musk says he has Aspergers Syndrome – which would seem to me to explain his difficulty in empathising with or understanding the perspectives of others.

Whatever the reasons behind Musk’s peculiar character, he is a complex man with a drive to be proven correct in his convictions. Many might consider him controversial, but there is something admirable about his obsessions, such as colonising Mars in order to save humanity; or his concern about a falling birth rate in the West. He has had 11 children from three marriages.

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