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Inside the Mind of Elon Musk: What We Learned From His Biography

Walter Isaacson’s 688-page book reveals the (strange) man behind the tech mogul

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Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images/Getty Images

Billionaire Elon Musk, 52, let Walter Isaacson, 71, bestselling biographer of Steve Jobs, follow him for two years and interview his family and colleagues. The resulting book, Elon Musk (September 12), provides fascinating insights into the mogul’s weird mind, titanic achievements and astounding failures.

Yes, he grew Tesla into a company worth more than its five biggest rivals put together; built a spacecraft company, SpaceX, that sent astronauts into orbit; and bought Twitter — which he famously renamed X and is a huge force in American politics and culture.

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But there’s so much more to those stories, and Musk’s life, which Isaacson details in this weighty, 688-page portrait.

Here are some of the more interesting points from the buzzy biography.

Musk was bullied as a child

While Musk was growing up in his native South Africa, a schoolyard bully stomped on his head, leading to injuries that required decades of corrective surgery. The worst part? His father, Errol Musk, sided with his assailant, berating Elon for an hour. “He yelled at me and called me an idiot and told me that I was just worthless,” Musk reports.

But at age 12, Musk learned an important lesson at a wilderness survival camp: "If someone bullied me, I could punch them very hard in the nose, and then they wouldn’t bully me again.”

Musk’s dad was probably the scariest person in his life

Musk compares his father — whom he refuses to speak with — to Jekyll and Hyde: bright and jolly one moment, darkly frightening the next. He says that Errol spins fantasies he seems to believe, embraces bizarre conspiracy theories, has made and lost fortunes, is addicted to high drama and has a peculiar love life. Musk’s mother, the model Maye Musk, 75, fears that her son will become like his father.

He may be on the autism spectrum

“He was never actually diagnosed as a kid,” Maye Musk told Isaacson, “but he says he has Asperger’s, and I’m sure he’s right.” (The term Asperger’s, which once was used to describe someone with autism spectrum disorder who has strong intellectual abilities, is no longer used by the autism community.) He does seem to display some characteristics associated with autism spectrum disorders; the book suggests that he is bad at picking up social cues, for instance. And he said, “It was only by reading books that I began to learn that people did not always say what they really meant.”

He's got a very dark side

“He’s attracted to chaotic evil,” said the singer Grimes, Musk’s former partner. She told Isaacson, “He associates love with being mean or abusive.” Musk demanded, for example, that she shame him for being fat. Grimes says that when he goes into “demon mode,” he “goes dark and retreats inside the storm in his brain. Demon mode causes a lot of chaos. But it also gets shit done.”

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He chose unique names for many of his 10 children

​​With his first wife, Justine Wilson Musk, he has five children: Vivian Jenna, Griffin, Kai, Saxon and Damian.

​With Grimes’ friend Shivon Zilis, an executive at his company Neurolink, he has two more kids, Strider and Azure.

He had no children with the actress Talulah Riley, who married and divorced him twice.

Estrangement from his child Jenna helped downsize his lifestyle

Jenna, who has criticized her father’s wealth, has stopped talking to him. Stung by her rejection and criticism, Musk sold his six extravagant homes and moved to a small tract house rented from SpaceX in Boca Chica, Texas. "Possessions kind of weigh you down and they’re an attack vector,” he explains.

He wasn’t exactly happy in 2021 when he became the richest person on earth

When Tesla stock went from $25 a share in late 2019 to $260 on Jan. 7, 2021, Musk's wealth hit $190 billion, surpassing the fortune of the previous richest human, Jeff Bezos, 59. “He just couldn’t let himself enjoy the moment,” Musk's sister-in-law Christiana Musk told Isaacson. “He was throwing up and stricken with excruciating stomach pain.”

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He falls to the floor when he's depressed — or extremely amused

When Musk is too depressed to stand up, his executives have to conduct meetings lying down next to him. And when he discovered that Twitter banned the word “turdburger,” he laughed so hard he fell to the floor, wheezing.

Musk likes to play with fire

When forbidden to play with fire as a child, Musk lit a boxful of matches. He once floored his $1 million McLaren sports car, flipping it and flying into the air, risking death for himself and passenger Peter Thiel, 55, another billionaire entrepreneur, who refused to wear a seatbelt. Both survived unscathed. Amber Heard, the actress whose marriage with Johnny Depp sparked lawsuits and whose affair with Musk was also fiery, told Isaacson, “Elon loves fire, and sometimes it burns him.” 

His impulsive actions are sometimes bad for business

After Musk loaned Ukraine communications satellites to help resist Russia’s invasion, the Pentagon offered $145 million to support his effort, but there was backlash on Twitter. So he angrily tweeted, "The hell with it ... we'll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free." When he abruptly unplugged Twitter’s computer servers and sent them from California to Oregon, it destabilized Twitter for two months and caused a meltdown while he was hosting a Twitter Spaces event with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

He has regrets. Or does he?

“My main regret,” Musk told sister-in-law Christiana Musk, “is how often I stab myself in the thigh with a fork, how often I shoot my own feet and stab myself in the eye.” But when Isaacson asked him about regrets, Musk quoted a line from his favorite movie, Gladiator: “Are you not entertained?”

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