Online banking, reusable rockets, electric sports cars, improved solar power, colonizing Mars—Elon Musk is full of unique, daring, and highly-publicized ideas that he believes will help save the world.
But behind his legendary drive and the mind-blowing headlines seen on CNN, Forbes, or The Wall Street Journal is the story of a bullied and beaten school boy who, through creativity and determination, decided to rewrite his narrative and find groundbreaking ways to make the world a better place. With the sense of fun and style that he has become so well-known for, of course.
From hosting raves to pay for college to rewriting the rules on space travel, Elon Musk has always gone his own way, to either the dismay or admiration of the general public. And now, award-winning investigative journalist Anna Crowley Redding takes readers on a well-researched trip through Elon's life and accomplishments.
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TAKE AWAY the ARMOR
Actor Robert Downey Jr. was looking at the opportunity of a lifetime. He'd just landed the role of comic book superhero Tony Stark, the billionaire genius also known as Iron Man.
Stark is not your cookie-cutter superhero. He wasn't born with supernatural powers. He is flawed, gritty, intense — driven. Just ask Captain America.
In an epic movie scene, Captain America confronts Tony Stark. Taking one stalking, provoking step at a time, Captain America circles Stark, spitting out a question meant to expose Stark's inferiority.
"Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?"
Stark doesn't miss a beat and doesn't even bother to turn his head to look at Captain America before answering.
"Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist."
Those four words not only summed up the man, but also summed up the herculean task Robert Downey Jr. had before him.
Downey had to accomplish nothing less than making Tony Stark real. And that meant embodying those four words: genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
Sitting across from Iron Man director Jon Favreau, Downey discussed the role. He needed to understand Stark's character deeply, answering questions like what made Tony Stark tick, what drove his ambitions, what kind of genius could transform fantasy into reality. Because if you understand the character, then you can become him, and that's how you bring Tony Stark to life.
Downey was struck by an idea. He wanted to hang out with a real-life Tony Stark.
And he had someone in mind. One man whose personality and life actually epitomized the heart and soul of Tony Stark's character, with all the trappings of Stark's supersized success. If Downy could spend time with this man, study him, try to get in his head, well then, Downey could nail the role.
That man was Elon Musk.
At thirty-five years old, Elon had already amassed a fortune and was well on his way to becoming one of the most powerful people in the world. With companies like PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX, he pushed technology to the limit until he forced innovation and breakthrough, making his mark on three of the biggest industries that exist: banking, automobiles, and space. His ambitious ideas were so far-out that people often laughed at him, until they didn't — usually because he'd accomplished the impossible.
In 2007, Robert Downey Jr. gave Elon a call and soon found himself walking around SpaceX headquarters with Elon himself — observing, talking, and picking Elon's brain. That time allowed Downey to perfect the role.
That said, there was a major divergence between Elon and the comic book character. Tony Stark's script came with a slick backstory: Child prodigy and heir apparent of famed entrepreneur accomplishes one incredible feat after another and then takes the helm of his father's company and pushes it to the next level and beyond.
Elon's backstory was far from slick. His childhood was dark, painful, and brutal. Elon had to endure both emotional torment at home and physical attacks at school. As a bullied schoolboy in Pretoria, South Africa, he was not an heir apparent. He was not a media darling in waiting. No, Elon was simply trying to survive.
NAME: Elon Reeve Musk
NICKNAMES: Genius Boy, Muskrat
DATE OF BIRTH: June 28, 1971
PLACE: Pretoria, South Africa
FIRST COMPUTER: Commodore VIC-20, at age 10
BOOKSHELF:The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, and Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.
GAME SHELF: Dungeons & Dragons
DAYDREAMS AND NIGHTMARES
As a little boy in South Africa, it was obvious from the time Elon could speak and toddle around that he was different. Elon's mom, Maye Musk, recognized her son's intelligence straightaway.
"He seemed to understand things quicker than other kids," she said.
But she noticed something else, too — something about Elon's behavior that concerned her. Elon would suddenly stare off in the distance, falling into a daydream so deep, so trancelike, that no one could get his attention. It could happen mid-conversation or in the middle of a busy room. His mother was worried. Did Elon have a massive hearing loss?
Shuffling him off to doctor after doctor, Maye tried to get to the bottom of it. The doctors saw it too. He sometimes seemed lost in another world that no one could penetrate.
Elon endured test after test. Finally, his doctors scheduled him for surgery. The plan was to remove his adenoids and hope Elon would hear better.
But the surgery had no impact at all. That's when they discovered his hearing was actually fine. It was his mind. Elon was simply so deep in thought, so focused on his ideas, immersed in every detail, that he detached from the rest of the world.
It was as if a movie was playing out before his eyes, allowing Elon to visually puzzle out a problem. Like daydreaming on steroids, he could not only see ideas but run virtual tests on them too.
"It seems as though the part of the brain that's usually reserved for visual processing — the part that is used to process images coming in from my eyes — gets taken over by internal thought processes," Elon explained to biographer Ashlee Vance. "I can't do this as much now because there are so many things demanding my attention but, as a kid, it happened a lot. That large part of your brain that's used to handle incoming images gets used for internal thinking."
That was not the only personality trait of Elon's that stood out from an early age. A penchant for breaking rules and breaking them boldly — with commitment, drive, and flair — landed six-year-old Elon in some pretty hot water with his mother.
It all started when Elon's mom grounded him. She made his punishment perfectly clear: Elon would not be allowed to go to his cousin's birthday party.
And Elon's reaction was also perfectly clear. Stay at home? When his younger brother and sister were going to the party? No way. Absolutely not.
Mind churning, Elon realized he needed a plan to get around the punishment.
Wait — his bike! He could ride his bike there. Elon let his mother know in no uncertain terms that he would most certainly be at the party. He didn't need her to drive him there. He would ride his bike — all by himself.
Elon recounted this story in an auditorium full of people at the Computer History Museum. The crowd hung on his every word as he explained that telling his mother was a critical mistake. Because as soon as he divulged his plan, his mother looked at her son and fibbed.
"She told me some story about how you needed a license for a bike and that the police would stop me," he explained.
To a six-year-old, dealing with the police seemed really bad. So a bike would not work. As Elon saw it, that left him with one option: He would have to walk.
Only, his cousin's house wasn't around the corner or in the neighborhood or even close by. In fact, the birthday party was across town — about twelve miles away.
One foot in front of the other, Elon walked. And walked. And walked.
Some four hours later, victory was in sight. Elon was just a couple of blocks away when he spotted his mother leaving the party with his brother and sister.
"She saw me walking down the road and freaked out," he said.
Heart racing, Elon took off and ran into his cousin's yard. He climbed a tree, perched himself high in the branches, and refused to come down.
That sense of independence and injustice was unshakeable.
Two years later, after Elon turned eight years old, his parents divorced. Elon, along with his brother, Kimbal, and sister, Tosca, lived with their mom. A model and dietician, Maye Musk woke up each morning and got to work with modeling gigs, wellness talks, meeting nutrition clients, and managing the paperwork and scheduling that comes with running your own business to make ends meet. She was not a hovering mother; she couldn't afford to be. And there was this — she wanted her children to be independent, to understand what hard work was by watching her example, and to have the freedom to find their own way.
That left Elon with a lot of time on his hands, mostly unsupervised. He did not let it go to waste. Kimbal was only a year younger, which made them natural co-conspirators.
The two boys focused on rockets. Not just reading about them, but making them and figuring out explosives.
"I am shocked," he told Rolling Stone, "that I have all my fingers."
When he wasn't with Kimbal blowing things up or out riding their motorbikes, Elon was reading, sometimes for ten hours a day. Often, when Elon headed into town for a shopping trip with his family, he would just suddenly disappear. One minute he was there, the next minute he was nowhere to be found — until his mom or siblings checked the closest bookstore. All the way in the back, sitting on the floor, completely lost inside a book, that's where you could find Elon.
Elon's mom would even drag him along to dinner parties if she didn't have a date. "I'd bring him to meet some interesting adults, and he'd hide a book under the table to read if they weren't interesting enough," she said.
For Elon, reading wasn't simply a pastime. He was consuming vast amounts of information, devouring books whole, and remembering every detail plucked from their pages.
"I was raised by books," he explained to Rolling Stone. "Books, and then my parents."
And comic books. Typically when you walk into a comic book store, you look around, make your selection, pay for it, and bring it home to read. But when Elon walked into the comic book store, he read them right then and there. Not just one comic book. Not two. He read them all. Every single comic book on the rack. Every single comic book in the store. Every. One. He loved them all, but some favorites were Doctor Strange, Batman, Green Lantern, Superman, and even Iron Man.
"In the comics, it always seems like they are trying to save the world," Elon said.
Devouring as many sci-fi books as he could get his hands on, Elon discovered a similar theme. His favorites were Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings."
At one point, I ran out of books to read at the school library and the neighborhood library," he said.
Ran. Out. Of. Books. So what do you do as fourth grader when you have gone through the entire collection of two libraries? Well, the first thing Elon did was try to convince the librarians to order more. And while he waited for those new books to come in, he needed to do something to keep his insatiable curiosity well fed he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from beginning to end.
He relished the information, loved knowing about the greater world and everything in it. And Elon became something of a walking, talking encyclopedia himself. If his family had a question, they turned to Elon for the answer. His sister, Tosca, gave him a nickname: Genius Boy.
That said, sometimes when people around him were talking, they might get a fact or two wrong. But Elon always knew the right answer and instantly corrected them. As you can imagine, this did not win him friends. While his younger siblings were popular and had plenty of playdates, Elon did not.
But the lack of friends did not hold Elon back from reading and obtaining as much knowledge as he could on any topic that interested him. The lack of friends did not stop him from his deep distant daydreams. And the lack of friends did not prevent him from opening the covers of a great science fiction novel and losing himself completely in the story.
The truth was, the books and daydreams helped Elon feel less alone.
It had now been two years since Elon's parents divorced. Elon began thinking of his dad, who lived alone. Something about that seemed sad to Elon, even unfair.
"I felt sorry for my father," Elon explained to Rolling Stone's Neil Strauss. "He seemed very sad and lonely by himself. So I thought, 'I can be company.'"
As he saw it, his mom had all three kids. Elon felt it was only fair that he go and live with his father. In the end, both he and his younger brother, Kimbal, moved in with Errol Musk.
Errol was a talented and gifted engineer, an entrepreneur, and part owner of an emerald mine. His home had plenty of books to feed Elon's reading habit. And with site visits to Errol's construction projects, Elon and Kimbal took advantage of the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and learn. Studying pipes and lines, they learned plumbing. Mixing and spreading mortar, the boys learned how to lay bricks. They added wiring, window fitting, and other jobs to their growing list of skills. That hands-on experience, combined with what Elon was reading, his ability to visualize processes, and his own intelligence, meant he quickly understood complicated tasks and engineering concepts in a way that felt innate, obvious.
"What's very difficult for others is easy for me. For a while, I thought things were so obvious that everyone must know this," he said. "Like how the wiring in a house works. And a circuit breaker, and alternating current and direct current, what amps and volts were, how to mix fuel and oxidizers to create an explosive. I thought everyone knew this."
There was another perk to living with his father: the travel. Errol took the kids on amazing vacations to different countries around the world. But there was one place Elon wanted to visit more than any other: America. After all, as Elon leafed through page after page of his comic books, they all seemed to take place in the United States. If the storyline was good versus evil, then the backdrop for that battle, the stage for those save-the-world confrontations, was America. Plain and simple.
And Elon wanted to see it for himself. America was a place where anything seemed possible. It stood in complete contrast to the environment of apartheid in South Africa.
Finally, at ten years old, Elon was sitting on a plane with his dad, headed for a visit to the land of the free.
America did not disappoint. While caped superheroes were not roaming the streets, Elon did discover something amazing in his hotel — an arcade.
Elon already had a video game player, but it was quite primitive. "It didn't have cartridges," he said. "It had four games you could play."
But in America at that time, many hotels and motels had their own video game arcades, and traveling from one city to another, Elon made finding the game room a priority.
Slipping quarters into the slots, pushing buttons at rapid fire, finessing his moves, Elon wasn't just playing the games, he was puzzling out bigger questions. How do these games work, anyway? How do you program them? How do you program computers? How do you create games?
Not long after Elon returned to South Africa, Elon would get his first chance to explore his questions about video games, computers, and how they worked.
On his next trip to the local mall, Elon headed straight to the electronics store. And it just so happened, they'd received shipment of a new type of electronic — a home computer.
"It was like, 'Whoa,' Elon explained. "I had to have that and then hounded my father to get the computer." Gathering up all his saved allowance, Elon asked his father to make up the difference.
MEMORY: 5 kilobytes
RELEASE DATE: 1980
HISTORY: The first computer to sell one million units, it was a hit on the new home computer market. Previously, computers were sold to businesses, universities, and adult professionals. This computer was targeted to families and kids for games and education.
PRICE WITHOUT ACCESSORIES: $299.95
COMPETITIVE EDGE: Sound and color
PITCH MAN: William Shatner, as in Captain Kirk!
Soon, Elon had a Commodore VIC-20 sitting in his house. It came with a manual for BASIC programming language — with a workbook full of lessons to practice each new bit of programming.
"It was supposed to take like six months to get through all the lessons," Elon said.
But for ten-year-old Elon? It took him three days. He didn't sleep, but he mastered programming his new computer. "It seemed like the most super-compelling thing I had ever seen," he said. Elon set to work trying to program his own games.
He couldn't get over it. "You could type these commands, and then something happens on the screen. That's pretty amazing."
Two years later, Elon created a game called Blastar. "In this game," Elon wrote in the description, "you have to destroy an alien space freighter, which is carrying deadly Hydrogen Bombs and Status Beam Machines." Elon sold the code to a technology magazine for $500. It was his first taste of taking a new technology, obsessing over it, innovating, and then using those skills to make money.
From the outside looking in, Elon had everything: a beautiful sprawling house, money, a spot in a great school, his own computer (at a time when that was an exorbitant luxury), and a father who shared his knowledge and time with his boys. It seemed perfect. But inside was another story — and that story was (and is to this day) dark and painful.
"It may sound good," Elon said. "It was not absent of good, but it was not a happy childhood. It was like misery."
The problem, according to Elon, was his dad.
"He was such a terrible human being," Elon divulged to Rolling Stone. "You have no idea. My dad will have a carefully thought-out plan of evil. He will plan evil."
To biographer Ashlee Vance, Elon said, "He's good at making life miserable — that's for sure. He can take any situation no matter how good it is and make it bad. He's not a happy man," he explained. "I don't know how someone becomes like he is. It would just cause too much trouble to tell you any more."
Even Elon's mother would not elaborate when pressed for more detail in interviews. "Nobody gets along with him. He is not nice to anyone. I don't want to tell stories because they are horrendous," she said to Vance.
At school, Elon's situation was not any easier. He was growing up in a South Africa that celebrated macho behavior and conventional stereotypes of what it means to be a young man. But Elon was not particularly interested in sports or athletic pursuits. He was interested in technology, computers, games, and sci-fi.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Elon Musk"
Copyright © 2019 Anna Crowley Redding.
Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Take Away the Armor 1
Elon Reeve Musk 4
Daydreams and Nightmares 5
Maye Musk 19
Chapter 2 Launch 20
You, Too, Can Be Elon Musk for Just $1 a Day 25
Tosca Musk 39
Chapter 3 Typing VS. Walking 40
No Island Paradise 51
Kimbal Musk 59
Chapter 4 One Planet Is Never Enough 62
The Way 71
Paging Tony Stark 77
Cows in Space 78
Justine Musk 81
Chapter 5 Two Companies and a Funeral 82
Not Your Grandma's Car Company 90
Brick by Brick 94
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Elon? 97
Chapter 6 Don't Panic 100
Back in the Saddle 104
Gwynne Shotwell 110
Chapter 7 Tyranny 112
When It Rains It Pours 114
Talulah Riley 118
Third Time's the Charm, Right? 119
But Wait, There's More 124
Car, Drive Me Home 127
Chapter 8 The Wheel, Reinvented 128
It's Complicated 135
What Do You Do When You Are Out of Batteries? 142
Chapter 9 Of Course I Still Love You 144
Stick the Landing 149
All Part of the Master Plan 158
Chapter 10 In It for the Long Haul 166
Chapter 11 Mars or Bust 180
Round-Trip Rocket Tickets 184
Colonial Internet 186
Chapter 12 This is the Boring Bit 188
Your Backyard Pyramid 195
Dig In 199
Extra Loopy 201
Ad Astra 204
Chapter 13 Danger 206
Chapter 14 Production Hell 214
The Future 226
Chapter 15 Genius Boy 228
Elon Musk 234