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BERLIN, GERMANY DECEMBER 01: SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer Award 2020 on December 01, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images)
Elon Musk is no genius

Elon Musk is no genius

BERLIN, GERMANY DECEMBER 01: SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer Award 2020 on December 01, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images)

Long stories short

  • Surrey police charged the father, stepmother and uncle of Sara Shariff with her murder.
  • A US court charged Hunter Biden, son of US president Joe Biden, with lying about his drug use when buying a gun.
  • Princess Diana’s black sheep jumper sold for £1.1 million at Sotheby’s, more than 14 times the asking price.

Empty hero

The most anticipated book of the year – Elon Musk, by Walter Isaacson – is by a man whose stock-in-trade is genius.

So what? There’s no sign of genius here. Isaacson spent two years shadowing Musk and depicts him as a small child who has blagged his way to success with hissy fits. But Musk is also the most powerful man in the world without a nuclear strike force, which leaves admirers and detractors alike with two rather urgent questions:

  • Have immense wealth, power and sycophancy messed with Musk’s head or was he always like this? 
  • What does the Isaacson book mean not just for what remains of Musk’s reputation but for the industries he’s created?

Musk’s head. The Musk reviews have been almost puzzled by Isaacson’s tales of a petty, angry, erratic man who 

  • claims to be suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome and bipolar disorder without any official diagnosis;
  • whose education largely produces B grades; and 
  • who is helped out financially by family, friends and the US government at key points to prop up his businesses. 

Isaacson constantly compares Elon to his father Errol, a bullying fantasist who lost money on an emerald mine and who, Elon claims, sided with Musk’s school bullies. Rage and humiliation have driven him since a lonely childhood. 

He builds SpaceX after a humiliating business meeting with the Russian space programme. He is fired from Paypal and Tesla and sued by his shareholders for jokes on Twitter. Later, when his son Xavier transitions to Vivian, Musk sells all his property to convince Vivian he’s a good guy, then buys Twitter (now called X) to eradicate her politics when that doesn’t work. 

Isaacson has published books on Steve Jobs, Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. This one is not a celebration of genius – more a description of “a risk-seeking man-child who resists potty training.” Even then, reviewers at Bloomberg say Isaacson is generous.

Musk’s reputation. In the second quarter of 2023 Musk’s Tesla –  the world’s most valuable auto maker – delivered half a million electric vehicles. His spaceflight company SpaceX has customers that include Nasa, European satellite giant SES, Inmarsat, a British satellite company, and the European Space Agency. 

Starlink, SpaceX’s satellite-internet division, had over one million customers at the end of last year (against forecasts of 20 million, but still no small change) and plays a life-or-death role on Ukraine’s frontlines. He can stir up geopolitical trouble – Musk earned a rebuke from Taiwan this week after he said the island was an integral part of China. It is conceivable that Musk will make it to Mars. 

Isaacson says Musk is callous, reckless and, at times, an asshole. But he concludes, “could you get the rockets to orbit or the transition to electric vehicles without accepting him hinged and unhinged?” In other words, these companies might not survive without him.

Reviewers say: What does it say about our world today that so much depends on a man like Musk? 

Musk would say: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a much better book.

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