There’s a name that’s hard to escape these days, particularly if you’re in the technology world—Elon Musk. He’s involved with Tesla electric cars, home solar and battery installations, SpaceX rockets, Starlink satellites, and the company that once was known as Twitter. Woven through his array of enterprises is a mix of technical savvy, confident ego, and sometimes impulsive decision-making.
Biographer Walter Isaacson has tried to sort through the competing influences behind the entrepreneur and his mercurial behavior in a recent book titled simply Elon Musk. He joins Ira to talk about the business magnate’s origins, his management style, and the incessant appetite for risk and drama that drives his successes—and, sometimes, his dramatic failures.
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Walter Isaacson is the author of Elon Musk, and a professor of History at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
FLORA LICHTMAN: For the rest of the hour, we’re talking about someone very in the public eye. Ira is here with that. Hey, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Thanks, Flora. About 17 years ago, way back in 2006, I had a guest on the show, an entrepreneur and engineer struggling to get recognition for a new idea, a spaceship not made by NASA, but a private company, a radical idea in its day, with a radical man behind it. The company was called SpaceX, and the engineer, not quite a household name, Elon Musk.
– Elon, is there a barrier for the privatization of space?
– I don’t think there is a barrier, in the sense of there being, say, some law against it or something like that. There’s a barrier of execution, which I think has not been exceeded. It is extremely difficult to do. There’s a reason why there’s an adiabatic expression about something very difficult being– or something being easy not being rocket science.
It is really difficult, and it’s a problem, which is both a problem of technical execution and business execution, and nobody’s really been able to solve that yet. And we’re aspiring to do so with SpaceX, but it’s really up to us. I think if we fail, it’s our fault, not anyone else’s.
IRA FLATOW: Elon Musk. A lot has changed in those 17 years. And since then, Musk his trials and tribulations are constantly in the news. And while Elon no longer answers the phone when we call, he’s been very busy starting businesses. There’s the Tesla electric cars, the home solar and battery installations, the SpaceX rockets– which have become hugely successful since he got the SciFri bump, of course, sure– the Boring Company seeking to build underground passageways, Neuralink, an implantable device in the brain, X, the company once known as Twitter, and Optimus, a robot.
And woven throughout it all is a mix of technical savvy, confident ego, and sometimes impulsive decision-making and harsh treatment of his staff. And while I had a brief visit with Elon in his Rocket Lab more than a decade ago, biographer Walter Isaacson spent two years with the mercurial inventor and has tried to sort through the competing influences behind Elon Musk in a biography of the same name. Walter is the former CEO of the Aspen Institute, also former chair of CNN, editor of Time, and now a prolific author, professor of history at Tulane University, and author of Elon Musk. Welcome back to Science Friday, Walter.
WALTER ISAACSON: It’s great to be back with you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Walter, I’ve got to say that the Elon we talked to 17 years ago in that clip seems to have morphed from a quiet, almost deferential, please-pay-attention-to-my-ideas guy, to the hard-hitting, ego-driven futurist of today. And I’m wondering, did you have preconceived notions about Musk, and did they change as you spent two years with him?
WALTER ISAACSON: Absolutely. And one of the things about that clip is there are certain things that haven’t changed. His understanding that if you’re going to get rockets into orbit and, more amazingly, get things into orbit and then re-land the rockets and reuse them, it’s a question of both execution and a business model. And nowadays, Boeing can’t do that. China, and Russia, and the US can’t re-land rockets and reuse them. So execution was the key to, I think, his success in the space business.
My preconception, when I went in almost three years ago, I said, OK, a guy building rockets and bringing us into the era of electric vehicles, and solar roofs, and power walls, this will be interesting in terms of technology and pushing the boundaries of science. And it was really part of a trilogy. I had done Steve Jobs to show how we got into the age of the personal digital revolution, and then Jennifer Doudna, in the era of gene editing and life sciences. And this seemed like it was going to be about rockets and electric cars. But of course, it certainly changed over the past three years, as he got more involved in more and more things. And his, let us politely say, mercurial personality distracted from some of the science and technology he was doing.
IRA FLATOW: Why was he so distracting?
WALTER ISAACSON: That personality is so changeable in him. And he says, I’m built for a storm. I’m built for surges. And when I started writing the book, he had been Person of the Year at Time that year and the Financial Times and was enormously successful. But he said, this unnerves me. I’m the type of person who, when I’m playing a video game, can’t stop. I’ve got to move to the next level of the game. And there was an odd, disquieting sense to him.
And he said, it came back to his childhood. His childhood was tumultuous in South Africa, a father who was psychologically brutal to him, in ways. He was a kid who had no friends and was beaten up all the time. And then his father would take the side of the people who beat him up. Talulah Riley, his second wife, I think, told me, he associates turmoil and drama with childhood and with love. And so I just think he’s always got to surge into the next level, even when it’s self-destructive.
IRA FLATOW: So he’s always looking to create drama if it doesn’t exist.
WALTER ISAACSON: You know, his brother, Kimbal, said those exact words, that he’s a drama magnet. And I think that propensity to drama is connected to a desire to take risks. One of his birthday parties– I have the picture in the book– they have a blind knife thrower throwing at a target, and Musk stands there with a pink balloon between his legs, in his crotch. Now, there’s no upside to taking that risk and sort of a downside. But he said, I’m addicted to risk.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. And that’s why he takes a risk, with a disruptive kind of technology that no one else will take a risk on.
WALTER ISAACSON: You’re right. You can’t be that disruptive without taking risks. And I remember we were standing at the High Bay, down in the South tip of Texas, where he’s trying to launch Starship. And he said, we used to be a nation of risk-takers. He was looking to the Rio Grande. He said, people come to this country, whether they came on the Mayflower or across the Rio Grande. They love taking risks, and that’s why we were so innovative. But he said, nowadays, we’ve become a country, a society, with more referees than risk-takers, more regulators than doers.
And so I think pushing the risk is why he is able to get rockets into space, but also– when I was down there for that Starship launch in April, he got it into space the biggest rocket ever made. But after three minutes, it blew up, and there was hot rubble in its wake. And that was a metaphor for Elon Musk. He does amazing things, but leaves a lot of hot rubble in the wake.
IRA FLATOW: And the drama of that too, right?
WALTER ISAACSON: Absolutely. And it was so odd. It was on a Monday that they were doing the countdown for the attempt. And at t-minus 14, he looks, and there’s a couple of problems with some leaky valves. He just shakes his head and Shaina Diaz, the launch director, she stops the countdown.
Elon flies off to an ad conference in Miami right after that, meets Linda Yaccarino, who was the Ad Sales Director at NBC Universal, almost impulsively hires her on the spot, knowing she is what he needs at Twitter, now X, and then gets back just in time for 5:00 AM for a Thursday launch of Starship. And once again, got down to t-minus 20, and there’s a couple– there are 33 engines, as you know, on the booster for Starship. And two of them weren’t seeming that well-off. But this time, he nods and says, let’s take the risk. And what happens is both a rocket that gets to space and one that also blows up, like the first three rockets he had launched 20 years earlier.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm, you speak of the drama, but you also speak about how driven he was, not only driving himself, but driving his employees, to the point they were rebelling against him sometimes.
WALTER ISAACSON: Yeah, it’s very hard to work for him, but those who do are all-in. They’re hardcore. And it’s interesting because I, over and over again, in the book, show him reaming somebody out or having some problem. And then I’ll go back to that person a month later, two months later, and say, OK, what’d you do? Did you survive? Did you leave? Why?
Many of them left. And one of them, in particular, which I’ll give you an example– late on a Friday night, at Starbase, a year ago, well before they’re going to launch Starship, Musk is wandering the factory line. And then we go to the launch pad, and there were only a few people working on the launch pad. And there’s a poor guy, Andy Krebs, who was in charge of that launch pad. And Musk reams him out.
And Andy Krebs is like, wait, it’s Friday night at 10:00 PM, and we don’t have a launch scheduled. And he says, no, we have to be hardcore, all-in, or we’ll never get to Mars. And so after a while, Andy knows how to deal with it, and he actually gets promoted. And then about a year later, he’s like, all right, I’m burned out, and he finally leaves.
But I saw him a few weeks ago. I happened to be on book tour in Los Angeles. And Andy Krebs walks up to me. I said, what’s happening? He said, well, I have a choice of being burned out or being bored. And now I’m bored, and I think I want to go back to SpaceX. So it’s an interesting dynamic of when you push people, like Steve Jobs did, to do things they thought drove them crazy, but then they end up also doing things they thought were impossible.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and I’m glad you brought Steve Jobs up, someone else you have written about, and also Jennifer Doudna, who, I would guess, these two are contemporaries. How would you compare them? I mean, let’s say Steve Jobs, who was also a disruptor?
WALTER ISAACSON: Steve Jobs was a disruptor, and he had a reality distortion field, which meant when people said something was impossible, he would sometimes stare at them without blinking and say, don’t be afraid, you can do it. And he said about me, he said, you care a lot about empathy. You want to be really sweet to all the people around you, and sometimes that’s selfish because it’s merely because you want people to like you. And sometimes you lose sight of the enterprise because you’re so eager to have people like you. And I thought back and said, yeah, maybe that’s why I wasn’t very good when I was running CNN. I was too eager to be liked, and I was not disruptive enough.
Well, Elon Musk is the same way. He runs roughshod over people a lot of the time, but he also inspires them and makes them understand why the higher mission might be worth it. But Jennifer Doudna, who I just adore, she was different because she’s very collegial. Anytime somebody was thinking of joining her lab, everybody else in the lab had to meet them to say, do we like this person? Will this person fit in?
And so there are different ways of being a great leader. You can be like Jennifer Doudna and very collegial. You can be all-in and hardcore like Musk and Jobs. When you write biographies, you don’t say, here’s the right answer. You kind of say, let me tell you a story, and then you let people figure out for themselves, how does that relate to what I want to be?
IRA FLATOW: We’ve heard a lot about, as you say, the rough side of Elon Musk. And I’ve been following his speeches and statements over the years. And when you look at those statements, when he’s sort of not really preaching, when he’s sort of more thoughtful, he seems to have his heart in the right place. And I mean by that he wants to make our energy green and sustainable. He wants to make sure we have a place to go on Mars, when we use up the Earth. There seems to be a conflict between what’s in his heart and what comes out of his mouth sometimes.
WALTER ISAACSON: Well, when I say he’s mercurial, another way to say it is he really does have multiple personalities. And you can be with him in the day or in an evening, and he’ll be really inspirational. And he’s got three great missions in life that he picked up reading comic books and sci-fi in the corner of the library, when he was a kid without friends and very lonely.
And as you say, one of them is to make us multi-planetary. We have to be space adventurers again. Second is to have sustainable energy, to keep this planet OK, not just with electric vehicles, but solar roofs and power walls. And the third is to make sure our robots don’t turn on us. He probably read Isaac Asimov’s robot stories once too often. But it was, we have to make sure AI is beneficial, not harmful to humanity.
And so these become his great missions. And when he’s in a mission-driven, inspirational mode, he can be great. But there are times when he gets resentful, or dark, or sometimes conspiratorial. And people around him, you almost just have to wait out those moods. Grimes, his girlfriend, calls them demon mode. And you just wait until the storm passes.
IRA FLATOW: Mhm, you mentioned those two out of three ideals. And you mentioned the third one is AI, artificial intelligence. Is he working heavily on that? I know he’s got he’s got the robot, and he’s got the superchips he’s building for the car. Are those part of the idea?
WALTER ISAACSON: Yes, at the end of the book, right after the Starship, and Twitter, and everything else, he says, come on back to Austin. I’ve got to spend some time with you and not on the telephone. It’s got to be done in person. And he’s over at the House of Shivon Zilis, who’s a mother of two of his children, but runs Neuralink, which is the company that now, this month, gotten permission to implant chips in human trials so that our brainwaves can connect to our computers.
He believes that’s part of making artificial intelligence safe, which is having an alignment between our will and consciousness and that of the processing power of computers, also, as you said, the Dojo chip, which will process visual information and try to create artificial intelligence for real world use, like self-driving cars and robots, not just large language models that do predictive text so you can chat bot things. So that’s his new company, called xAI, and it’s to compete with ChatGPT, and Microsoft, and Google to try to make sure we have artificial intelligence that’s aligned with our values and our will as humans.
IRA FLATOW: Interesting. How is he able to juggle all these different projects, because he really is a hands-on person, isn’t he?
WALTER ISAACSON: Yes, he’s very much of a serial mono-tasker, with a fanatic focus.
IRA FLATOW: Not a multitasker.
WALTER ISAACSON: No, I once called him a multitasker. And I I’d correct it because he doesn’t do 10 things at once. He does one thing at a time, undistracted, and with an intense focus. For example, when the Twitter board decided to accept his offer, that night, he flew down to the South tip of Texas to be in a conference room to deal with Starship. And everybody and the engineers in that room, they’re all like, this guy just bought Twitter. The whole world is talking about it.
He doesn’t mention it. He’s focused on a methane leak in the Raptor engine for Starship. And for more than an hour, they deal with the materials of the valve and how it could be fixed. And he doesn’t get distracted, then, by something like Twitter. And in a given day– I’d be flying around with him or going to different meetings– he will focus for an hour or two on how should self-driving cars make a left-hand turn when there’s a bike lane. Then he would focus on the anode and cathode for the new battery that Tesla would have to do.
And 99% of what Tesla, and SpaceX, and Neuralink, and xAI, and Twitter would be doing would be run by some other people. But he said, it’s like Napoleon. If you get on the battlefield and you’re focusing on one thing, the troops see you focus, they see you down in the details, and the rest will take care of itself.
IRA FLATOW: And he believes, himself, as you point out in the book, that he should be down there with the troops, watching how everything happens, so he can keep an eye on it. He mentioned how, as an engineer, he believes you have to be on the site. You can’t do this remotely.
WALTER ISAACSON: You know, once, at around midnight, I was down in his only home, down in Texas. And he’s making people install a solar roof and seeing if they can do it in one day. And he’s up there. He climbs up the ladder to the peak of this roof. I got to follow him up there. I was, like, bouncing on this roof. And the supervisor, who’s down on the ground, is saying, here’s why we do it. He said to the supervisor, have you ever actually nailed a tile in? Have you ever installed a roof? And the supervisor says, no, I’m a designer. You know, I supervise. He said, no, if you’ve never actually gotten on the roof and done it yourself, you don’t know what the blank you’re talking about. And he fires the dude.
But that’s Musk. He’s there on the roof, doing that. And then later in the day, he’ll be insisting that the designers of, say, the new Tesla have their desk on the assembly line so they see what happens each step of the way for something they’ve designed. So he believes innovation comes from that iterative process of really being hands-on.
IRA FLATOW: You describe engineering at SpaceX and his dislikes of specifications or requirements from outside, that they should be recommendations and not rules. Is that a common theme, that outside rules don’t necessarily apply?
WALTER ISAACSON: He has an algorithm that has five steps, and step 1 is question every rule and regulation. And somebody will say, there’s a– and he’ll say, who made that regulation? I want to know the name of the person and what that person knows. He says, the only rules and regulations you have to follow are the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.
IRA FLATOW: That’s very interesting. Were you surprised at the amount of access he gave you, and the transparency of letting you watch his decision-making in real-time, and inviting you along, as you say, when he’s going to make a big decision?
WALTER ISAACSON: I was totally blown away by it. And even when he’s, like, reaming people out, or with his girlfriend, or whatever it may be, he was just open and transparent. And you and your listeners would know of the Heisenberg problem, which is if I’m observing this particle, am I affecting its position, momentum, whatever it may be? And it never seemed to. I receded into the background, and he hardly would notice me.
But even on the night when he’s plotting with his bankers to do a surprise close of the Twitter deal so he can deny the old Twitter leadership their severance package, I’m sitting there in the room. And the lawyers are looking at me, the bankers are looking at me like, uh, why is this guy in this room? But Musk just gives a little nod and says, it’s OK. And so you read about it in the book. You read about him deciding to make the $25,000 cheap car for Tesla, which hadn’t been public or starting xAI. He said nothing’s off limits.
IRA FLATOW: One of the things that people probably know him most for is Tesla and the car. And one of the most controversial parts of that car is full self-driving or the ability of the car to actually drive itself, which it can’t do yet. Why is he so focused on this mission of full self-driving?
WALTER ISAACSON: It’s one of those things where he focuses intensely on the future, and he keeps trying to force it to get there, sometimes faster than it can. Every year, from 2016 on, he says, we’re going to have full self-driving within a year. And it always recedes. He’s doing something phenomenally interesting now– and once again, I got to be in the secret meeting where that’s decided, which is even now, if you have full self-driving on a Tesla, it’s done by algorithm. In other words, there’s hundreds of thousands of lines of C++ coding that the engineers do that say things like, if you see a red light, stop, and if there’s a double yellow line, don’t cross it. If you’re making a left turn this way and there’s a crosswalk, do this.
And now he’s doing it the way ChatGPT does large language model predictive intelligence. And instead of making it rules-based, he’s feeding billions of frames from Tesla car cameras into this supercomputers, NVIDIA and now Dojo. And they’re processing the visual data to do human imitation so that instead of doing it based on rules, it’s done based on what millions of human drivers have done in such a situation. And that will be full self-driving 12, FSD 12. And it will be an AI version of it, basically an end-to-end neural network. And so that’s still not ready yet. It’s still going to take quite a while, but he’s still hoping he’ll have it done in a year.
IRA FLATOW: So you’re trying to find the people who drive best and imitate what they’re doing.
WALTER ISAACSON: Exactly, they’re feeding in all the drivers. But he says he also has, as I’ve seen, a bunch of people– I think, some in Buffalo, New York– who are watching all the drivers’ videos and rating them, just like you would an Uber driver, and say this one’s five-star, this one’s two-star. So it not only drives like an average human, it will learn to drive like the best human drivers.
IRA FLATOW: This is, like, come full circle for me. When I was in college, studying industrial engineering, back in the day, they would ask us to go on to a floor where they make widgets. And as an industrial engineer, you’re trying to find somebody who does it the best, can make 10 widgets an hour instead of only nine. And so you go see that person, and you want everybody else to imitate how that person makes a widget. This is exactly the same thing.
WALTER ISAACSON: Human imitation is the way our neural networks work and our brain. I mean, you may be taught by your parents the rules for eating spaghetti and put your fork this way, but 99% of it is watching people eat spaghetti or speak language. And that’s what his new, what he calls, real world artificial intelligence is aiming to do, whether it be robots or self-driving cars.
IRA FLATOW: Is it because he’s willing to take a chance on something new, where big companies hardly ever take chances on new things?
WALTER ISAACSON: He says, big companies, and governments, and even societies like ours used to be risk-takers, but now they got more regulators than risk-takers, more referees than doers, and more people in the legal department and the finance department saying, no, no, that wouldn’t be safe, stopping that. And he says– and sometimes I think he goes too far– he says we got to be like America used to be. We have to build our own factories. We have to see what works, and we have to take risks.
IRA FLATOW: Well, people who take risks have to be ready for failure too. How does he deal with that?
WALTER ISAACSON: He blew up– you talked to him way back then. The first three Falcon rockets blow up. By the way, Starship, last April, got three minutes into space, totally amazing, and then it blew up. I think that you’ve got to be able to learn from failures. And if you’re a Boeing or a NASA, you just do not launch unless every single person is signed off on every single risk, which means Boeing hasn’t been able to get a rocket with astronauts to the Space Station.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios. You mentioned looking to the future, and we talked about Mars. Do you think he will actually be able to get there?
WALTER ISAACSON: Yeah, we will get to Mars, as a species, of course. And Starship, his rocket, I think, someday, will get there. He would hope it would be in 10 years. I would suspect that’s Elon time, and you double it, at least.
IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS]
WALTER ISAACSON: I suspect– I mean, we’ve already gotten the Rover to Mars. But I suspect that Starship will be making missions to Mars and perhaps even missions with humans to Mars 20 or so years from now. And you got to keep your eye on that horizon. He does a meeting almost every week called Mars Colonizer, where he’s like, what are we going to wear when we get to Mars? How are we going to govern ourselves? And I have to pinch myself and say, these are real grown-ups talking about what we’re going to wear when we’re living on Mars. But looking into the future like that kind of inspires you to get over the hump each day.
IRA FLATOW: And, Walter, I bet you get asked this question all the time. But as an interviewer, I’ve got to ask it also. Given all the controversy he stirs, do you think Elon is a good person overall?
WALTER ISAACSON: There are moments when he’s inspiring and good. But as I always say about Musk, it’s not as if there’s only one person or personality you’re dealing with. You’re seeing a guy who can go through a lot of moods and personalities. Overall, he has single-handedly done more than any other individual to get us into the era of electric vehicles and to connect them to solar roofs and power walls. Likewise, he’s single-handedly got us back into the era of space exploration and even making rockets that can land and be reused, which is the Holy Grail. He’s also, I think, moving us into the era of self-driving cars.
All of these are huge advances for humanity. But I also look, metaphorically, at the rockets he’s launched and the rubble he’s left in his wake, the human cost, the way he can be callous and even been cruel to people. And I say, does that make it worth it? Does that justify it? And I say, well, I wouldn’t want to be that way. But then again, I say, but I’m never going to be the one who shoots a rocket that gets to Mars.
IRA FLATOW: You’ve told us, dramatically, what Musk is doing. What’s your next act? What are you working on? What should we expect to see?
WALTER ISAACSON: I love being back in my hometown of New Orleans, teaching the next generation of students here at Tulane. I teach The Digital Revolution and Innovation. I also always am looking for a science person who might be the next inspiration. I’ve been looking recently at, I think, one of the people who truly brought us into the 20th century science, who understood that chemistry was physics, and then she wins a Nobel Prize in both fields, the first woman to do so and first only to win in two sciences. And I think Marie Curie and the things that she had to push up against, to me, are totally fascinating.
IRA FLATOW: All right, so we’ll look forward to that. That’ll be–
WALTER ISAACSON: Have me back on, please.
IRA FLATOW: Absolutely, you can come back on anytime you’d like, Walter. Walter Isaacson, author of the book Elon Musk, it’s a terrific read. Sit down, it’s, like, 90 little chunks in there that you can read pretty quickly and enjoy it for all it’s worth. Walter is Professor of History at Tulane University. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today and for your work.
WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you, Ira.