I have known Elon Musk for more than a decade.
We have exchanged ideas, drunk whisky together, met one another’s children, and debated everything from the war in Ukraine to the future of American education.
I have long said he is the Napoleon Bonaparte of our times. Walter Isaacson’s new biography, based on two years of shadowing Musk, reaches a similar conclusion.
And at a time when the richest man in the world is being transformed in some quarters from hero to villain, this historical analogy should not be ignored.
In 2017, Musk and I went for a drink in California’s Menlo Park with one of my sons, then 18 and about to embark on a gap year in Africa.
Musk was preoccupied. Halfway through our conversation he took a video call from one of his Tesla factories, which appeared to be on fire. ‘Is it important?’ he asked. The guy in the burning factory seemed unsure. ‘Then don’t bother me,’ he snapped and hung up.
‘Don’t go to South Africa,’ he said to my son, with sudden intensity. ‘You’ll die.’ My son disregarded this advice. A few months later he narrowly avoided being shot during a carjacking in Johannesburg.
I tell this story to illustrate an important character trait that distinguishes Musk from ordinary people: He has superhuman intuition. I have never met anyone like him – I doubt I ever will – and I have met nearly all his peers and rivals in Silicon Valley.
Musk more than once makes Isaacson aware that he identifies with France’s most famous ruler.
‘If they see their general out on the battlefield, they will be more motivated,’ Musk tells his biographer, explaining why he likes to appear without warning on the Tesla and SpaceX factory floors.
‘Wherever Napoleon was, that’s where his armies would do best,’ Isaacson explains.
The resemblance doesn’t end there.
Hegel – the 19th Century German philosopher – famously said Napoleon was the world spirit on horseback. Elon is the world spirit in a cyber-truck.
With his obsessive-compulsive disorder, his self-diagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, his superhuman capacity to multitask, his seemingly willful lack of empathy, Musk personifies many of the traits of our distracted, on-the-spectrum age. It is hard to imagine his life without the personal computer, the internet, the smartphone, the private jet.
Had such a man been born in 1771 rather than 1971, however, he would surely not have lived in obscurity. (Napoleon was born in 1769).
The Musk family was not wealthy. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a Canadian chiropractor and amateur aviator whose ultra-conservative views led him to emigrate to South Africa, apparently because of, rather than despite, the apartheid system.
Musk’s paternal grandfather was a burnt-out World War II cryptographer.
His parents, Errol and Maye, split up when he was eight.
Isaacson presents his father as a sadistic, mendacious, philandering and occasionally violent monster, from whom Musk either inherited or learned a dark ‘demon mode’ – the destructive side of his nature that manifests itself at irregular intervals. (Errol disputes this description and says he loves his children).
When an 18-year-old Musk set off for Canada to study, his parents each gave him $2,000. ‘You’ll be back in a few months,’ his father is said to have told him. ‘You’ll never be successful.’
That must rank as one of the worst predictions in human history.
Musk’s success has been staggering. That he is worth some $268 billion is not really the point. What’s more compelling is the scale of his ultimate ambition: to make humanity a ‘spacefaring civilization’, capable of colonizing other planets.
Musk, now 52, tells Isaacson that he ‘could have made a lot of money’ had he not built SpaceX’s biggest rocket, the Starship. ‘But I could not [then] have made life multiplanetary.’
Like the French Emperor, Musk throughout his life has evinced a warlike spirit.
He grew up in a violent society (late-apartheid South Africa) and has long enjoyed playing battle-simulating computer games. At 13 he was already good enough at coding to create his own, named Blastar. ‘I am wired for war,’ he told a student friend.
Unlike many billionaires, Musk can be self-aware – sometimes.
‘What matters to me is winning, and not in a small way,’ he wrote in an email in 1999. ‘God knows why … it’s probably rooted in some very disturbing psychoanalytical black hole or neural short circuit.’
This appetite for victory is inseparable from a voracious appetite for risk.