When Elon Musk unplugged the Twitter servers with a pocket knife: ‘There’s still shit that’s broken because of it’

The famous journalist Walter Isaacson has had access to the magnate and his entourage for hundreds of hours. His biography lauds Musk’s achievements and addresses his mental health and family issues, especially with one of his 10 children who is trans because of the ‘woke mind virus’

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, and owner of X (formerly Twitter), makes a winning gesture at a conference in Paris last June.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, and owner of X (formerly Twitter), makes a winning gesture at a conference in Paris last June.Chesnot (Getty Images)
Jordi Pérez Colomé

Elon Musk has a “definitive” biography at 52 years old. Walter Isaacson, the famous biographer of geniuses such as Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo da Vinci, published his new book titled Elon Musk this Tuesday. Today, the tycoon is the richest person in the world. He simultaneously runs six companies that often make the headlines and has 10 children by three different women. He also has enormous social influence: his battle for the freedom of expression is a prime example.

Musk says he hasn’t read the book yet. Isaacson’s style is not very combative: he lets Musk explain himself, although he describes the fights and drama he gets into because of his personality. When Musk asked Isaacson if he wanted to write the book, the journalist asked him for direct access to meetings and private moments in exchange, and they had “dozens of interviews and late-night talks.” In addition, there were conversations with more than 100 people around him, including family members, ex-wives, and executives from his companies. The book reveals countless new details and layers of a character who is already well known and whose legacy is yet to be defined. His first biography came out in 2015, but more than half of the 700 pages of Isaacson’s book are about the last eight years.

These are some of the most revealing extracts of the new biography of this “man-child,” as Isaacson defines him.

1. Lessons in fisticuffs

Elon Musk was born and raised in South Africa, to parents of British and Canadian origin. Isaacson tells of a childhood and adolescence where each anecdote is a variation on a theme of violence. When he was a boy, a German Shepherd bit him and Musk asked that the dog not be killed, but found out later that it had been shot. On another occasion, when going to a concert with his brother, Kimbal, they saw a dead man with a knife in his brain and they stepped in a pool of his blood, which stuck to their sneakers. He recalls summer camps where fighting was encouraged, a beating at school that he still resents decades later, and trips to the United Kingdom and Hong Kong where the young Musk brothers were left to wander the streets alone.

Musk had difficulty grasping social norms, Isaacson tells us. Musk was uninterested in (and incapable of) empathy, which he confesses “was not something natural.” As a result, Musk was mocked, bullied and got into fights. According to Musk, “If you have never been punched in the nose, you have no idea how it affects you the rest of your life,” his biographer writes.

All of those real scars are “minor,” Isaacson adds, compared to the ones his father, Errol, inflicted on him. When he left the hospital after being beaten up by a classmate, his father still scolded him for an hour. Kimbal, Elon’s brother, says it is the worst memory of his life.

Isaacson managed to speak several times with Errol, who tried to justify his actions with little success: he admits that he applied a very severe approach with his children. Musk’s parents divorced when he was eight, but Elon spent his teenage years with his father. One of the most persistent rumors from that stage is that Errol had interests in an illegal emerald mine. Errol admits to Isaacson that he was involved in the clandestine trade of precious stones for a while, but never owned part of a mine.

2. Aversion to contentment

Musk has been successful. Not only does he have more money than anyone else, but he has managed to revolutionize sectors such as electric vehicles and space exploration. However, unlike others in a similar situation, such as Bill Gates, Larry Page, or Jeff Bezos, who have stepped aside, Musk is taking on new challenges.

“The PTSD from his childhood also instilled in him an aversion to contentment,” Isaacson writes. “‘I just don’t think he knows how to savor success and smell the flowers,’ says Claire Boucher, the artist known as Grimes, who is the mother of three of his other children. ‘I think he got conditioned in childhood that life is pain.’ Musk agrees. ‘Adversity shaped me,’ he says. ‘My pain threshold became very high.’”

Musk didn’t have a financially difficult childhood, but it wasn’t peaceful either. “He developed a siege mentality that included an attraction, sometimes a craving, for storm and drama, both at work and in the romantic relationships he struggled and failed to maintain,” Isaacson writes. “When he faced tortuous challenges, the strain would often keep him awake at night and make him vomit. But it also energized him. ‘He is a drama magnet,’ says [his brother] Kimbal. ‘That’s his compulsion, the theme of his life.’”

In 2022, Musk was experiencing one of the best times of his life. Tesla and SpaceX were growing non-stop. As were his profits and fortune. But he couldn’t settle: “I need to shift my mindset away from being in crisis mode,” he confessed Isaacson, “which it has been in for about fourteen years now, or arguably most of my life.”

In a conversation with Isaacson in September 2022, Musk admitted that he is mentally unstable. He said his mental health suffers under extreme pressure but also during periods when things go well. Just a month after that conversation, Musk made an offer to buy Twitter. It was a huge new mess.

By Isaacson’s calculations, Musk now runs six companies: Tesla, SpaceX with its Starlink satellite unit, Twitter (now X), the Boring Company, Neuralink and xAI — OpenAI and DeepMind’s new competition.

3. Twitter, the ‘woke mind virus’ and his trans daughter

In April 2022, Musk took a break for a few days on an island owned by Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle. The businessman was with a girlfriend whom he often sees, the Australian actress Natasha Bassett. But, instead of relaxing, he spent four days debating whether he should buy Twitter.

From Hawaii he flew to Vancouver (Canada), where his then-wife Grimes wanted to take him to meet her grandparents. But Musk was stressed, according to Isaacson, and left her at the hotel. From there, he sent the offer that led to the purchase of Twitter in October.

The clash of family and private life with making big decisions is repeated again and again. Musk has ten living children from three women. He and his first wife lost their first child to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) at 10 weeks old. Then came twins Griffin and Jenna, and triplets Kai, Saxon, Damian, with his first wife, Justine. Then X, Y and Techno Mechanicus (revealed in the book for the first time) with Grimes. Finally there are twins Strider Sekhar Sirius and Azure Astra Alice, whom he conceived in vitro in 2021 with an executive from one of his companies, Shivon Zilis, also a friend of Grimes. Although all this confusion of names and couples might seem difficult to follow at times, the book dismisses them simply as part and parcel of an incredibly busy life — Musk hasn’t had consecutive vacations since 2001, when he also contracted malaria that almost killed him.

Not all of his family relationships have been easy. Musk’s most estranged child is his transgender daughter Jenna. Isaacson describes her as strong-willed and critical of her father’s wealth specifically and capitalism broadly. According to the biographer, Musk and his daughter had long and bitter fights, in which she told him: “‘I hate you and I hate everything you stand for.’” Isaacson said this was one of the reasons why Musk decided to sell his houses and live a less excessive life.

Jenna also shocked her father, when, at age 16, she announced she was transgender and petitioned the courts to change her first and last name. Musk found out from a member of his security. The result was that Musk decided to sell his houses and live a less luxurious lifestyle, but it had little effect on his relationship with his adult daughter. This estrangement, Isaacson writes, “pained him more than anything in his life since the infant death of his firstborn child Nevada.” Musk holds the “woke mind virus” responsible for the breakdown in his relationship with Jenna. Isaacson said that Musk blamed the rift between him and his daughter on her schooling at Crossroads, a progressive private school she attended in Los Angeles. In Musk’s view, Twitter had become infected with the same “work mind virus” — which Musk defined as “fundamentally antiscience, antimerit and antihuman in general” —, so buying Twitter was a way to stop it from spreading.

4. The ‘demon mode’

“Sometimes Musk is crazy,” Isaacson says. He can be charming and funny but also hateful and terrible. His episodes of shouting and insulting employees are well known. The book is full of examples of Musk’s “hardcore” leadership still, which entails treating the people around him like objects.

Grimes is the one who gives more details about the different sides of Musk: “He has numerous minds and many fairly distinct personalities,” she told Isaacson, according to the book. “He moves between them at a very rapid pace. You just feel the air in the room change, and suddenly the whole situation is just transferred over to his other state.” Grimes said her “favorite version of E [Elon] is the one who’s down for Burning Man and will sleep on a couch, eat canned soup, and be chill.” Her least favorite is one she calls “demon mode” — “when he goes dark and retreats inside the storm in his brain.” His self-diagnosed Asperger’s and his father’s terrible influence are two of the reasons she gives for these changes.

5. The ‘new’ worst time of his life

In 2008, SpaceX gambled its future on a fourth rocket launch after three failures. At Tesla there was no money to pay salaries due to the global economic crisis and internal cost problems. That year has been described as the worst year of Musk’s life.

Musk tells Isaacson that 2018 was even worse. “That was the time of the most concentrated pain I’ve ever had,” Musk told his biographer in a new book released this week. “Eighteen months of unrelenting insanity. It was mind-bogglingly painful.”

During that time he had problems with producing enough cars at his plants, his tweets that falsely accused a diver of pedophilia in the rescue of a boys’ football team stuck in a cave in Thailand, his investors doubting his reliability as head of his companies, and footage of him smoking marijuana on Joe Rogan’s podcast. He made decisions on the fly, Isaacson says. “At least twenty percent are going to be wrong, and we’re going to alter them later, but if I don’t make decisions, we die,” he said.

6. He didn’t want to get into wars

When the Ukrainian war broke out, Russia cut off Ukraine’s telecommunications. Musk offered to help with Starlink, his satellite company. He sent thousands of receivers to Ukraine. His intention was to provide humanitarian aid. Isaacson’s book reveals for the first time how Musk refused to expand the coverage of his satellites so that Ukraine could carry out a drone attack against the Russian fleet in Crimea.

This fragment appeared before the publication of the book and accusations of collaborating with Putin rained down on Musk. His response in the book is: “How am I in this war?... Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars. It was so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do good peaceful things, not drone strikes,” Musk said, according to the book. And yet, Starlink would end up creating a military unit that could sign contracts with the Pentagon.

7. What if we cut this cable?

One of Musk’s repeated expressions is “chaos.” It consists of creating a sense of extraordinary urgency by setting impossible deadlines and objectives. There are several passages in the book where he is irritated to see that almost no one works at night at some of his companies. Isaacson describes times when Musk went into “demon mode” in which he felt the urge to shake things up.

In a variant of these episodes on Twitter, Musk wanted to move servers between two data centers to save millions of dollars. His engineers warned him that it was not easy or fast. Plus it was Christmas. Determined to get it done right then and there, Musk called his trusted people and started doing what a stubborn boss does best: claim that it is easier than it seems and attempt to do it himself. His habit of walking the metaphorical high wire without a safety net is another theme in his life.

“Musk turned to his security guard and asked if he could borrow his pocket knife. With it, he was able to lift one of the floor vents, allowing him to force the panels open. He crawled under the floor of the server itself, used the knife to pry open an electrical panel, unplugged the server and waited to see what would happen. Nothing exploded. The server was ready for transfer. By then, Musk was really excited. That was, he exclaimed with a loud laugh, like a remake of Mission: Impossible.

After this “operation,” Twitter still has stability problems months later, such as the disastrous presentation given by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to announce his candidacy in the U.S. presidential race. Musk admitted to Isaacson that he was wrong: “There’s still shit that’s broken because of it,” he told him. But, Isaacson adds, the episode “showed X employees that he was serious when he spoke about the need for a maniacal sense of urgency.”

8. The last big worry

Musk has built many more things, like Neuralink and the Optimus humanoid robots. But his legacy is still undecided. When Isaacson complains about Musk’s rude, crude or ridiculous tweets, he uses variants of this phrase: “You may not like certain aspects of what he tweets, but he has sent up this year [2023] so far more mass to orbit than all countries and all companies combined. He has created a car company that’s worth as much as all nine other car companies combined.” Also, Isaacson admits, he lies when he promises futuristic tunnels or autonomous driving systems that never seem to arrive.

It seems incredible, furthermore, that the same person would later be described this way: his jokes tend “to be filled with smirking references to 69, other sex acts, body fluids, pooping, farts, dope smoking, and topics that would crack up a dorm room of stoned freshmen.”

These achievements and ambiguity may be dwarfed by what he does with artificial intelligence (AI). At Musk’s pace, in the next 20 years the focus of his businesses and ideas may have changed. “I can’t just sit around and do nothing,” he told Isaacson in one of their last conversations in Austin, Texas. “With AI coming, I’m sort of wondering whether it’s worth spending that much time thinking about Twitter. Sure, I could probably make it the biggest financial institution in the world. But I have only so many brain cycles and hours in the day. I mean, it’s not like I need to be richer or something.”

Isaacson then asked him about his priorities: getting to Mars, he said, and “I need to focus on making AI safe.” Musk believes that humanity is in his genius hands. He loves superhero epics. At the moment he already has his book.

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