I meet with Walter Isaacson in a small conference room in the offices of book publisher Simon & Schuster. The walls are festooned with framed covers, including of course Isaacson’s mega-bestseller Steve Jobs. I’m sure somewhere else in the office are covers representing his other subjects—Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Jennifer Doudna—which together have earned him the sobriquet “biographer of genius.” It’s a unique and enviable shift in career focus for Isaacson, whose main gig for years has been as a top editor and administrator for Time Magazine, the Aspen Institute, and CNN. Now I am putting myself among his countless interlocutors ahead of an epic book tour for what might be his biggest book yet. It’s a forest-clearing doorstop of prose based on two years spent observing the man who is perhaps the world’s most ambitious pursuer of the future—one whose periodically wretched personality has made him an object of fear and scorn. Climate change notwithstanding, no one has sucked up more oxygen in the tech and business world than Elon Musk, and with this eponymous biography, Isaacson has made a case that all that attention is justified.
The biographer-subject bond between Isaacson and Musk seems predetermined. Musk, whose ego is interplanetary, was so eager to add himself to Isaacson’s bookshelf of geniuses that he tweeted the book project as a done deal minutes after an informal exploratory meeting. The leader of Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, The Boring Company, xAI, and X (“Twitter” had an insufficiently Bond-villain ring), gave his chosen Boswell unbelievable access. This allowed Issacson to share Musk’s secrets for getting things done when the US government and Detroit carmakers could not, including his inquisitorial cost-cutting regimen, dubbed “The Algorithm.” The 71-year-old legacy-media veteran spent hundreds of hours literally within arm’s reach of his subject, observing Musk as he destroyed launch pads, humiliated Tesla workers, and swung a wrecking ball at Twitter’s culture. Family members, ex-wives, and parenting partners shared their views, including frustrated complaints about Musk’s cruelty and impulsivity. One scene is straight out of a French farce: Unbeknownst to either of Musk’s parenting partners, both are in the same hospital, one giving birth to his twins and the other helping a surrogate deliver another fruit of his loins. (Among the many surprises in the book is that Musk and his sometimes-partner Grimes have a hitherto unannounced third child. Grimes, you held this back from me!)
I ask Isaacson if he was prepared for Musk experiencing what seemed like a meltdown during the real-time research on the book. Certainly, when the project began there was no way to know Musk would engage in a trainwreck takeover of Twitter, alienating users and advertisers and, more recently, seeming to blame it all on the Jews, even suing the Anti-Defamation League for noticing an explosion of anti-Semitism on the platform now called X. “For a lot of people, his tweets just put them over the edge,” says Isaacson. “Doing a tweet attacking the ADL is just wrong.” While Isaacson will call Musk out on specific horrors, his approach in the book is to present his research in 95 vignette-like chapters, each one a nibble of the larger narrative of Muskitude. He leaves it to readers to ultimately decide for themselves whether they should applaud or cancel Musk.
Having some exposure to so-called geniuses myself (a few of whom have actually earned the appellation), I have long pondered the question of what makes extraordinary people so extraordinary. Isaacson has derived his own answer. Yes, true genius involves blazing intellect, persistence, hard work, and good timing. But Isaacson always seems to uncover a darkness most often rooted in childhood—a rosebud. In case you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to the mysterious word uttered on the deathbed of the central figure in Orson Welles’ classic movie Citizen Kane. Spoiler alert: We learn in the last scene that it is the brand name of the sled that symbolized the protagonists’ last idyllic wisp of childhood before he was taken from his mother and cruelly thrust into a dog-eat-dog world where he became the meanest canine of all.
“You try to figure out what drives a person,” says Isaacson. “And for me or any biographer, it generally goes back to childhood. A lot of the people I write about are misfits.” In the biographical Isaacson-verse, Steve Jobs’ rosebud was that he was adopted and has spent a lifetime dealing with a perceived rejection from his birth parents. Einstein had to overcome growing up Jewish in 19th-century Germany, watching his father go bankrupt. Reaching back centuries, the biographer even dug up Leonardo da Vinci’s battered sled. “Leonardo is growing up in this village of Vinci as an illegitimate, left-handed gay, whose father refuses to legitimize him,” Isaacson says.
Musk’s rosebud is a feral childhood in South Africa, with a shockingly abusive father who still haunts the adult Elon. Friends, relatives, and Isaacson himself constantly remind us of Musk’s struggle not to become like the vicious anti-Semite, grifter, and step-daughter-impregnator Errol Musk. (It’s not going well on some fronts.) The Elon Musk that Isaacson presents to us is a Jekyll and Hyde character who veers between engaging visionary and bullying authoritarian with a penchant for fart jokes. In the scheme of Isaacson’s narrative, however, the worse Musk’s behavior gets, the more the book seems to argue that the misbehavior of the richest person in the world is simply a product of the wrongs done to him when he was in short pants. Inevitably, this winds up making Isaacson look like a defense lawyer asking for mercy for his client because of a troubled past. When I ask Isaacson whether, after all the time spent with Musk, he actually likes the guy, his answer is that it depends which Musk he’s with. Using a term from Grimes, he says that he saw many harrowing instances in which Musk went into “demon mode.” Others might object that past “demons” don’t determine someone’s current behavior—it’s the actual person who commits the devilry.
I mention to Isaacson the contrast between his biographical approach and that of, say, Robert Caro, the obsessive completist who wrote the classic bio of New York’s imperious masterbuilder Robert Moses and is currently struggling with volume five of his Lyndon Johnson project. If Caro were writing a Musk biography, it would be a toss-up whether he finished it before his subject flew off to Mars. Caro would probably spend a year in South Africa, get a graduate degree in rocket science, and take up deejaying to better understand Grimes. Whereas the Musk bio is a thick book of stories. Isaacson responds to the comparison by quoting his mentor, novelist and fellow New Orleanian Walker Percy, who told him that two types of people emerge from Louisiana—preachers and storytellers. “For heaven’s sake, be a storyteller,” Percy told him. “The world has too many preachers.”
Maybe some future Robert Caro will preach their own truth in a more critical biography of Musk—or Steve Jobs. Meanwhile, Isaacson’s observations, delivered in the breezy mode of an epic Time Person of the Year profile, will provide years of fodder for Musk watchers and wannabes. One nugget that I predict will take on importance: Musk’s explicit plan to make use of Twitter content and video captured by Tesla vehicles for training data that might help his new AI company.
Before I leave Isaacson I ask him, what’s your rosebud? He thinks for a brief moment. “I’ll tell you my rosebud,” he says. “I had a really pleasant childhood. My parents are the nicest people I knew. The kids I went to school with are still my friends 60 years later. So I ended up being the type of person who’s more comfortable being an observer than people who are in the arena. I did a few things … edited Time. But I was not a disrupter. I should have been tougher and more of a disrupter.”
Some people might be gobsmacked by that self-assessment, since Isaacson is often cited as one of his generation’s great careerists. But he’s making the same point that ends his last chapter, on page 615 of Elon Musk. It addresses not only Musk but also the other faces etched on his Mount Rushmore of geniuses. “Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training,” Isaacson writes. “They can be reckless, cringeworthy, even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they could change the world.” By his own admission, Isaacson’s own considerable success has come from being the consummate insider. He isn’t launching rockets, messing with the genetic code, or painting the Mona Lisa. But he doesn’t seem to have a demon mode. And his book will undoubtedly debut at the top of the bestseller list.
In March 2015, I addressed critiques of Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography after publication of a new book, Becoming Steve Jobs, that presented an implicit counterpoint to the earlier book’s depiction of Jobs as a product genius and tech visionary, but someone you don’t want to share an elevator with.
Isaacson’s eponymous biography of Jobs became a publishing phenomenon, selling over a million copies and making Isaacson himself somewhat of a celebrity. But privately, those closest to Jobs complained that Isaacson’s portrait focused too heavily on the Apple CEO’s worst behavior, and failed to present a 360-degree view of the person they knew. Though the book Steve Jobs gave copious evidence of its subject’s talent and achievements, millions of readers finished the book believing that he could be described with a word that rhymes with “gas hole.” A public debate erupted around the question of whether having a toxic personality (as was the general interpretation of Isaacson’s depiction) was an asset or a handicap if one chose to thoroughly disrupt existing businesses with vision and imagination. A Wired cover story (not mine!) asked, “Do you really want to be Steve Jobs?”
Only now, over three years later, has their dissatisfaction become public. In a February New Yorker profile, Apple’s design wizard Jony Ive conspicuously insisted that, while sometimes withering, Jobs’s harsh criticisms of his employees’ work were not personal attacks, but simply the result of impatient candor. As for Isaacson’s book, Ive was quoted as saying, “My regard couldn’t be any lower …”
The picture of him isn’t understood,” [Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said,] “I thought the Isaacson book did him a tremendous disservice. It was just a rehash of a bunch of stuff that had already been written, and focused on small parts of his personality. You get the feeling that [Steve’s] a greedy, selfish egomaniac. It didn’t capture the person. The person I read about there is somebody I never would have wanted to work with over all this time. Life is too short … He wasn’t a saint. I’m not saying that. None of us are. But it’s emphatically untrue that he wasn’t a great human being, and that is totally not understood.”
Colin writes, “The other day as I cut my lawn, I was wondering about all these new electric tools. What happens to all the batteries? Is this net good for the environment or are we better off clinging to our old gas guzzlers that we can keep running for 50+ years?”
Hi, Colin. Maybe if you love Mother Nature so much, you should let that lawn grow out a little? But to your question. Of course there’s a climate-related price to pay for using the lithium batteries that power so many of our “clean” tools and vehicles. Some people even claim that they are worse for the environment than fossil fuels. But according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, it’s “a myth” that batteries are worse than gasoline-powered “guzzlers,” as you put it. Addressing this very question on its website, the EPA counters with statements baldly labeled as “facts.” First, “Electric vehicles typically have a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline cars, even when accounting for the electricity used for charging.” And second, “The greenhouse gas emissions associated with an electric vehicle over its lifetime are typically lower than those from an average gasoline-powered vehicle, even when accounting for manufacturing.”
Look, the sooner we wean ourselves from fossil fuels the better. And while we’re doing that, can we also work on making cleaner, longer-lasting batteries? Also, do you really want to subject your neighbors to the noise and smog of a wheezing, gas-powered lawn mower? And have you considered tearing up your lawn for something more sustainable? Of course, in 50 years those questions might be moot, as climate-related heat and flooding will probably have ruined your yard by then.
You can submit questions to [email protected]. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
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