What’s eating Musk? There’s a lonely Elon behind the élan
He’s the billionaire whose biggest fear is being alone, so why does he act like an opera diva?
All too often it can seem like Elon Musk, 47, the billionaire entrepreneur behind Tesla electric cars and SpaceX rocket exploration, is in a love-hate relationship with his co-residents on planet Earth.
The weedy boy who was belittled by his father, Errol, and pushed down a flight of concrete stairs by bullies at his school in South Africa, never made friends easily. And the one thing he fears more than anything else is being alone. “When I was a child, there’s one thing I said,” Musk revealed in a recent Rolling Stone interview. “I never want to be alone.”
But all too often, he is. In 2017, after the repeated break-up of his marriage to his second wife, British actress Talulah Riley, and the end of his affair with actress Amber Heard, he began living his nightmare.“Going to sleep alone kills me. Being in a big empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there, and no one on the pillow next to you,” he sighed. “How do you make yourself happy in a situation like that?”
Yet for all his misery, Musk hardly goes out of his way to win affection.
His Twitter feed is a catalogue of fights picked and insults hurled. And though he is in a relationship with a quirky electronic musician known as Grimes, it has done nothing to diminish the impression that Musk is Silicon Valley’s equivalent of an opera-stage diva – simultaneously looking down upon his audience (“Most people don’t know much”) yet craving its love. It’s a dangerous cocktail; add the merest hint of rejection and an explosion of rage can follow.That’s where Vernon Unsworth made his mistake. Unsworth was one of the team of British divers who risked their lives to rescue 12 young footballers and their coach trapped in Thailand’s flooded Tham Luang caves. The team helped devise a method of extracting the boys in full-face scuba masks. But Musk, as so often, thought he had a better way, a technology-driven breakthrough, a mini submarine.
Like many of Musk’s products – from his sleek Tesla sports cars to his reusable rockets – the sub looked sensational, something from Q’s lab for a modern-day James Bond. But, as also with many of his products, Musk seemed to promise more than he could deliver.
When the sub was dismissed as impractical by the rescue team, Musk went into full rejection huff as only he knows how. Posting on Twitter, he called Unsworth “pedo guy”. When challenged, he insisted: “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”
Unsworth’s 88-year-old mother, Vera, said Musk “should be shot” for his comments.
Mammon all to human for him
More than anything, it seems, Musk wants our appreciation. He wants us to be grateful. But why? Surely, he’s the one who should give thanks.
Here’s a man who, aged 17, left his unhappy childhood for a new life in Canada, where he lived off charity and odd jobs just to eat. Yet just seven years later, he was starting his first Internet company, Zip2, which he sold four years later, in 1999, pocketing $22-million. Here is a man who then immediately founded a payments company which became part of PayPal, and netted $160-million three years later when eBay bought it.The dotcom boom made him rich beyond most people’s dreams. Shouldn’t he be the grateful one?
Not really. Those who know him know that Musk is just not that interested in money. The man with the baby face and the straw hair is ill at ease in suits, ill at ease with convention itself. His illuminating blue-green eyes only add his otherworldly aura. When he blasted a Tesla into orbit last year, the car was playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity on loop. But it’s Musk who is the man who fell to Earth. Mammon is all too human for him.
Even so, his financial chutzpah can be astonishing, as when he appeared to blow his fortune the moment he had acquired it. For most of us, being worth $200-million or so, at 31, would offer a tempting opportunity to retire, take a lifelong holiday and perhaps dabble with some worthy causes. Not Elon. Having spun the dotcom roulette wheel twice and won, he immediately pushed all his chips back on the table, founding and funding a trio of companies.
SpaceX was the first, in 2002. It was followed by Tesla in 2004 and SolarCity, installing solar power systems, in 2006.
To the outsider, the three companies seem unrelated. To Musk the iconoclast, however, they are interlinked, part of a grand plan drawn from childhood days when he buried his nose in sci-fi novels.The major part of this was SpaceX – designed to restart the space race, to rethink one-use rockets, which had grown hugely expensive to build and so stalled what, to Musk’s mind, was humanity’s most pressing challenge: leaving Earth.
Confining mankind to this single globe, he reckoned, would ultimately doom our species through warfare or environmental catastrophe. To survive, he insisted, we must become a multiplanetary species, and the first step is to get from this Blue Planet to the Red one. Mars will have million-man cities within 50 years, he promises.
How do Tesla and SolarCity fit in? They are the companies that will prompt man to abandon oil, to electrify with renewables, and which will thus stave off climate change long enough for our ark to be ready. Elon is a Biblical name, from the Book of Judges. But the Old Testament figure Musk is really modelling himself on is Noah.
No wonder, then, that he has little time for the nitpickers, the naysayers, the financial analysts who suck their teeth over quarterly reports. “Excuse me, excuse me. Next, next. Boring bonehead questions are not cool. Next,” an impatient Musk responded to one earlier this year.No wonder he acts first and works out the legal niceties later, as with an astonishing recent spat in which Musk apparently lifted a logo of a farting unicorn for his Tesla cars, then dismissed the original artist’s complaints as “lame”.
No wonder he is wont to exaggerate – or shall we say over-optimistically estimate? – his companies’ capabilities. Space tourism would be whipping tourists around the moon by 2014, he said. Tesla should be making a million cars a year by 2019, he said; it is struggling to hit a quarter of that. These are the quibbles of Earth-bound mortals. Musk is focused on something much more important.
Today, Musk is worth $20-billion. Tesla is among the most valuable car manufacturers in the US. Yet his grand dream is constantly under assault. There are plenty who think Tesla is overhyped and overvalued and will collapse. Musk himself has taken to sleeping in his office to iron out all its problems. It has had to buy SolarCity, too, effectively bailing out the renewables company.Following his Thailand outburst, one major Tesla investor has just told Musk to “cool it” and concentrate on the business. Other financiers are betting big on Tesla’s share price collapsing. One, Jim Chanos, says Musk’s “theatrics” mask “rapidly deteriorating finances”.
Musk, then, must be feeling the stress. Because, as he sees it, on the success or failure of his companies rides not just prestige and profit, but the future of mankind. Yet are we thanking him? No. All we do is bet against his share price.
Saving humanity, the Musk way, is not going to be easy. But if he manages it, maybe then we’ll be grateful. And maybe then he’ll feel loved. And maybe then, finally, he will know that he’ll never be alone again.
– © The Daily Telegraph