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Walter Isaacson, biographer: ‘Elon Musk has multiple personalities. At times, he’ll be funny. Others, he gets into “demon mode’

For two years, he shadowed the founder of Tesla and owner of Twitter. In over 700 pages, the biographer of geniuses traces the profile of the business magnate — a divisive figure who is either loved or hated. The book, which is titled after its protagonist, will be available tomorrow

Elon Musk
Writer Walter Isaacson, pictured in his Manhattan apartment in New York.Víctor Llorente
Miguel Jiménez

Elon Musk tweeted in August 2021 that Walter Isaacson was writing his biography. The deal, as the writer tells it, was that Isaacson would spend two years by Musk’s side. He would attend all kinds of meetings, have access to his inner circle and many of his texts messages and communications... Essentially, he would become Musk’s shadow. And the business magnate would not have any control over the book he wrote nor would he be able to read it in advance.

That’s how Elon Musk was written — a biography of almost 700 pages with no title other than the name of its protagonist, who is the founder of, among other things, the electric car company Tesla and the satellite and rocket company SpaceX, and, since last October, owner of Twitter (now called X).

Isaacson spends most of his time at his home in New Orleans, the city where he was born in 1952, but he receives EL PAÍS in his spacious and elegant New York apartment, in the most esteemed part of Central Park West. Outside, thousands of people are spending a torrid Labor Day holiday in the park. On the living room table, there is a book that reproduces the manuscript of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and another with the complete paintings and drawings of Leonardo DaVinci — the protagonists of two of his monumental biographies. His specialty, or obsession, is The Innovators — the title of another one of his books —, the people who have changed the world, be they historical figures or contemporary leaders.

Isaacson was a journalist (in a way, he still is), editor of Time magazine, president of CNN and head of the Aspen Institute. His most successful biography thus far has been that of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, published just after his death. Elon Musk’s is set to be another megahit. The book’s protagonist is either hated or loved — there is no inbetween, especially since he bought Twitter. And Isaacson has been privileged to witness his extravagances and geniuses like no one else has. Except for a few excerpts, the publisher has kept the biography secret until the day of its publication: September 12 in the United States. The interview, therefore, takes place without the journalist having been able to read the book in its entirety.

Question. You are known as the biographer of geniuses, having published widely-read biographies of Leonardo DaVinci, Albert Einstein, Jennifer Doudna, Steve Jobs... Is Elon Musk in the same league?

Answer. I think Elon Musk is, along with Steve Jobs and Jennifer Doudna, the most influential innovator of our time. Steve Jobs got us to the digital age, while Jennifer Doudna got us to the age of gene editing. Elon Musk is bringing us into the age of electric vehicles, space travel and artificial intelligence.

Q. How does Musk’s personal life, especially his childhood and relationships, factor into his biography?

A. He had a very tough childhood. He learned how to deal with pain, and he learned to love drama that his father instilled in him. He was bullied as a child, and his father sided with the bullies. So, throughout his life Musk has had these dark demons. Sometimes great people have dark demons in their head, and they’re able to channel those demons to become driven.

Q. What drives Elon Musk’s insatiable desire to push the boundaries of technology and explore new frontiers?

A. I think there are three big missions that drive him. The first is to turn humans into a multiplanetary species. Secondly, he wants to bring us into the era of electric vehicles and sustainable energy. And third, he wants to make artificial intelligence safe. These are big, epic missions. Sometimes I think he’s just fooling himself, as a savior complex or superhero complex, but I do believe he’s driven by those missions.

Isaacson in his New York apartment.
Isaacson in his New York apartment.Víctor Llorente

Q. Some people have said he wants to be a kind of Ironman.

A. He told me that he read comics when he was a kid. He said they looked ridiculous because they wore their underwear on the outside and dressed funny, but at least they were trying to save the world. I think that has motivated him.

Q. What about his personality? What is the characteristic that stands out the most?

A. I think he has multiple personalities, and he’ll shift between personality to personality. At times, he’ll be funny. Other times he’ll be focused. Others, he gets into an engineering mode and has a real feel for how engineering is done. And then there are times he gets into what his girlfriend and others call the “demon mode,” in which he’s just dark and angry and he’ll be horrible to the people around him. Afterwards, he steps out of that demon mode, and he hardly remembers what he did. His girlfriend Claire Boucher, the artist known as Grimes, says: “I don’t like being around demon mode. I like being with Elon when he is his other personalities.” But she says demon mode is what gets things done.

Q. To what extent does money motivate him?

A. I don’t think he is motivated by money. I think that if you’re driven mainly by making money, you’re not going to start a rocket company or an electric vehicle company, and you’re not going to buy Twitter. I believe he’s motivated by these big missions and then along the way, he figures out what’s a good money-making strategy to fund those missions. For example, he wants to get humans to Mars, so he needs big rockets. After deciding on that goal, he figured out he could put up hundreds of satellites and recreate the internet in outer space. That’s how he’s making his money, but he started SpaceX not to make money but to get to Mars.

Q. You have written biographies about historical figures or people who are at the end of their careers. With Elon Musk, his story is very much still unfolding. How did that condition your work?

A. I felt like I was on a roller coaster, but after a while I realized that I understood how Musk’s mind work and what drove him. Therefore, even with all the things he’s going to do in the next few years, I think this book helps explain exactly who he is.

Q. SpaceX has achieved great success with reusable rockets that launch satellites and then return and recover, but do you think he is serious about the belief that humanity will only survive as a multiplanetary civilization? Is there the slightest chance that there will be one million people living on Mars in 2050, as he claims?

A. I don’t think that we will get a community on Mars in the next 20 years. But he’s the person most likely to get us there at some point.

Q. Starlink has raised some concerns about satellite internet access, especially in Ukraine, being in private hands. What do you think?

A. I was surprised when the Russians invaded Ukraine that all other satellite companies were blocked by the Russians and not even the U.S. intelligence satellites were working. Only Elon Musk’s were working. Likewise, just this past week, he brought four astronauts down from the space station, while the U.S. has not been able to send astronauts to and from orbit for the past 12 years.

Musk has made these things work, which has made him powerful. In the book, you’ll read that once he used Starlink and shut it off over Crimea to try to stop a secret attack on Crimea. In that moment, he realized he should not have that much power. So, he created something called Starshield, which he sold to the U.S. military, and they’re the ones who get to decide how to use it. All the stories about him having all this control and not giving it up are incorrect. He did decide to allow the technology to be put in the hands of the U.S. military.

Q. When it comes to Elon Musk, you either love him or you hate him. Have you fallen into either of those two groups?

A. No. There are so many different versions of Elon Musk — some of them are likable, I guess. And some of them make me flinch. But my job is just to tell the stories. I’m going to let the reader decide what they think of him, and I assume the reader will figure out that there are certain aspects and personalities of Musk that are totally amazing. And a few aspects that are totally appalling. But when you read the whole story you get to make the judgment about how you feel.

Q. Have you formed your own moral judgment about Elon Musk?

A. I leave that to the reader; I’m just telling the story. When I was growing up, I had an uncle who told me there were two types of people who came out of Louisiana: preachers and storytellers. The world has too many preaches, so I’m not here to impose any moral judgment. I’m here to give you the story and allow you to figure it out.

Q. You say that buying Twitter has been a way for him to become king of the playground.

A. As a kid he was bullied and beaten up on the playground all the time. Twitter is the ultimate playground for the world. It’s where people come to trade ideas and play and show off. But on Twitter, the clever people get followers, they don’t get their head smashed against the steps like Elon did when he was a child. I think whenever he gets into a dark place, it takes him back not only to the playground of his youth where he was beaten up all the time, but also to his father who took the side of the bullies. He gets very dark, but owning Twitter gave him the chance to own the playground.

Q. What about his style of management? Can you explain how it clashed with the Twitter culture?

A. He’s a very rough manager at times. Twitter was a company that was very pleasant. Everybody nurtured each other. If an employee was feeling bad, they got to take a mental health day. Psychological safety was something people cared about. But Musk doesn’t care about that; he believes in being hardcore. He believes in being all in, and he says that a maniacal intensity is what’s going to get us ahead. Whether it’s at SpaceX, Tesla or Twitter, whenever he sees that people aren’t hardcore in intent, he orders a surge, which means everybody has to work for 24 hours. And he’s not empathetic. He doesn’t care about making the workers or people around him feel good — he cares about the mission. He believes that if you’re the type of person who has a lot of empathy and you care a lot about the people right in front of you, it means you’re not going to push hard enough to get the mission done. This is not a way I would be. I wasn’t that way when I was head of Time magazine, but, in the biography, I tried to describe why it’s his way.

Q. Do you see any sense in the whole cage fight thing with Mark Zuckerberg? Is it a joke?

A. It’s a total joke. It’s a metaphor. He’s not going to go into a cage match to fight with Mark Zuckerberg. He has a schoolboy sense of humor in which he trolls people. And other people don’t understand that one of his personalities is just a juvenile joker that plays pranks.

Q. You write in your book about Musk’s meetings and his relationship with Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.

A. The Bill Gates relationship is interesting. Musk admired Bill Gates and the early days of Microsoft. He always used Microsoft rather than open source software, and he admired the fact that Bill Gates was like him — very tough, not very empathetic, driven, and fostered an intense work environment. But at a certain point, Gates tried to talk Musk into donating a lot of money to fight climate change. Musk felt that he could do more to fight climate change by keeping his money invested in Tesla, but he agreed to meet with Gates. Then, he asked Gates, “are you shorting Tesla stock?” Meaning, was he betting against the stock and making money as the stock went down? Gates admitted that he was, and that made Musk think that Gates was an asshole because he was saying he was in favor of fighting climate change but at the same time was undermining investment in Tesla.

Months later, Gates tried to get back in touch with Musk and said: “Here’s a plan for you. Can we talk about it?” And all Musk said was: “Are you still shorting Tesla?” Gates showed the text to his son Rory because they were together at the time, and Rory said: “Just say yes, and then change the subject.” So, Gates said: “Yes, I am. But let’s talk about climate change.” Musk just won’t deal with him for that reason.

Q. And what about his relationship with Bezos?

A. He competes with Bezos, but he thinks it’s great that Bezos is building space rockets. I think he’s trying to push Bezos to be more competitive. He feels that Bezos spends too much time vacationing and that’s why he hasn’t been able to get a rocket into orbit, but I actually think that Musk admires him for trying and wishes that Bezos’ rocket company [Blue Origin] was more successful.

Q. How does your book explore Musk’s views on artificial intelligence and its implications for humanity?

A. Early on, that was one of his big three missions: to make artificial intelligence safe for humanity. He read science fiction as a child, so he read Isaac Asimov robot stories and was interested in making sure robots don’t harm humanity. Early on, when DeepMind is created, he met with the founders and the investors, and he got very upset that they sold DeepMind to Google because he had always discussed artificial intelligence with [Google co-founder] Larry Page and thought that Larry Page didn’t care enough about AI safety. That’s when Musk decided to start OpenAI with Sam Altman. They worked together for a while, but Musk doesn’t like sharing power and they ended up splitting.

Earlier this year, I got a text message from Musk, saying that we had to talk. I had just spent a week with him in Texas, but I flew back to meet with him. We were at the house of one of his friends, Shivon Zilis, mother of two of his children. She had been working on artificial intelligence because she works at Neuralink, one of Musk’s companies, which implants chips in the brain so that we can communicate better with computers. Musk feels that by having us tied more closely to our computers, the computers won’t go off on their own and try to harm us. We spoke about that for a long time, and that’s when he told me he was doing to found xAI, an artificial intelligence company.

Q. What does he want to do with it?

A. It’s got a few components. One is going to do a chatbot, just like OpenAI has. Secondly, xAI is going to be able to write code. Third, he wants to answer big questions — the super questions. When he was young, he read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In that book, there was a computer that was supposed to address the question of life, the universe, and what it all meant. I think he was overly influenced by having read that.

And finally, unlike the chatbot that everyone is excited about, Musk believes that what really counts is real-world AI, i.e. machines that can operate in the physical world, such as robots and autonomous cars. Not AI that just gives you an answer to a question. The AI he envisions would be able to process visual things, like streets and factory floors. With self-driving cars, he has all this data, like a billion frames a day that come from Tesla cars. So, he wants to create not just large language model artificial intelligence, but real-world artificial intelligence that can operate in the physical space.

Q. To prepare for this interview, I read your books and the excerpts from Musk’s biography, listened to your lectures and interviews and worked through a couple of weekends. Then, I asked ChatGPT to suggest 20 questions for this interview, and it took less than a minute. And they were pretty good. Is my job at risk?

A. I think Musk wants to make sure that we are connected to the machine very closely, so that we bring the creativity, the imagination, and they bring the processing power of the data. Certainly, some jobs will be at risk. Jobs were at risk when they invented automated teller machines (ATMs) and self-pumping gas stations. Jobs will be disrupted, but Musk believes that the combination of human creativity and machine processing power will always be more powerful than machines alone or, for that matter, humans alone.

Q. What about your job? In your biographies of Doudna, Jobs and Musk, you’ve had privileged first-hand access to protagonists that a machine can’t have. But will artificial intelligence be able to write a good biography of, say, Nikola Tesla or Isaac Newton that is well written not only in terms of information, but in narrative style and structure?

A. I think that artificial intelligence will be able to gather data that has already been created by people, such as facts and information about Isaac Newton. But I’d say that certainly for the foreseeable future humans are better at writing narratives that are empathic toward the protagonist’s personality. I suspect that 10 to 15 years from now, they’ll be narrative books written by AI. But one thing I do is gather new information. In other words, no machine has been sitting there next to Starship at 3:00 in the morning while Musk is running around trying to figure out the Raptor engine and I’m there taking notes. There’ll be a long time before you’ll have machines that can go out and report and gather new information. That takes the type of the real-world AI that Musk is dreaming about, but we don’t have robots that can just go around, observe things and take notes yet.

Q. Are you already working on any new projects? What biography would you like to write?

A. I tend to go back and forth between living people and people in history. Writing Musk’s biography was such a roller coaster ride that I said I’ll do somebody who’s been dead for 200 years. After Steve Jobs, I decided to do somebody who had been dead for 500 years, which is what I did with DaVinci. It’s been quite a wild ride with Elon, so I think it’s time for me to go into the Wayback Machine and do a historical thing. I have 10 ideas in mind, but I haven’t decided yet.

Isaacson, former editor of 'Time' magazine and president of CNN.
Isaacson, former editor of 'Time' magazine and president of CNN.Víctor Llorente

Q. Bill Gates appears and reappears in your books, would you like to write a book about him?

A. I think there is a grand biography to be done on Bill Gates. He’s been enormously influential. He has two great chapters: one, as a technologist, and two, as a philanthropist. As I said, I think for my next phase, I probably will go back in history. But I do think that Bill Gates is a deeply important and deeply moral player in history.

Q. In your last interview with EL PAÍS, you said that social media has dynamited democracy. After writing the biography of the Twitter/X owner, do you still think the same?

A. Yes, I think that the algorithms of social networks tend to divide us. They tend to play to our angers and resentments rather than bring us together and unite us, and that’s a problem for democracy. It’s not just simply the people on there saying weird things. As Musk said, we want to have freedom of speech, but not necessarily freedom of reach — meaning we don’t want to amplify things that will divide us. Now, that’s hard to do in the digital age. I worked at CNN and realized that conflict and enraging people got to more viewers. That’s true on the internet and also talk radio. Our technology these days tends to have a tendency to be divisive rather than unifing. I think we can fix that, but I think the business model at the moment is to try to keep people’s attention and keep them engaged. That often means keeping them enraged, not just engaged.

Q. Elon Musk presents himself as a free speech absolutist, but he accepts censorship from totalitarian governments. How do you explain this contradiction?

A. He has said that he believes in free speech, up to the limit of what the law allows. In different countries, the law allows different things. In the United States, we have a First Amendment, and there’s a broader range of free speech that’s allowable. In Germany, there are certain things that are not as allowable, such as Holocaust denial. In China, they have very limited free speech. He believes that in any country, the people should be able to decide what the laws are. And if you’re in a country where the laws say that you can’t deny the Holocaust — which is a law that Germany wants to pass — he says he will follow the law. However, there are times when I think he’s hypocritical: when he talks about free speech but then gets angry and tries to hurt or cut off people who have, for example, threatened to boycott advertisers on Twitter, or when he tries to ban people who showed where his jet was flying.

Q. As a former jounalist, Time magazine editor and CNN president, what is your opinion of the media today?

A. The media has become too dependent on advertising, which causes news outlets to chase eyeballs in clicks to try to keep people engaged. In the future, when AI needs good data, there’ll be more value for high-quality information, meaning, the type of things people now pay for. We’re seeing people now subscribing to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times. I think that is good because if you want people to pay for something, it’s going to have to be high value. I believe that paying for quality content will reduce the amount of divisiveness if you’re trying to get a broad audience rather than a passionate narrow audience. At the moment, if you want content from a place that charges, you usually have to subscribe. You can’t buy just one article from The New York Times, and that’s fine: people subscribe to five or 10 newspapers. But then if you try reading something like a Minneapolis newspaper or the New Orleans paper, you’re not going to want to subscribe just to read one article. So, it’s important to have a way for content creators to be able to sell single articles.

What Musk is trying to do with X is turn it into a payment’s platform as well as social media. That will allow local journalists as well as anybody else to get paid by people just choosing to pay $1 or $2 for something rather than subscribing. It’s what Steve Jobs did with music. We have music subscriptions, but initially it was like 99 cents a song. I think that is what will transform journalism: the ability to pay small amounts for single articles or single opinion pieces, or for that matter, short stories or videos. I think that is going to move us a little bit closer to high-value content.

Q. Do you think Donald Trump is a risk to democracy?

A. Yes. I think that he tried to overturn the last election and that he went way beyond just challenging the results in court and then encouraging people from vice president Pence to the Georgia state officials to do things that undermine the essence of democracy.

Q. How can someone who has been indicted four times with dozens of charges be leading in the Republican polls?

A. I think it’s problematic that a large segment of the Republican Party has embraced this person. Elon Musk calls Trump a con artist. I think it’s part of a pattern we’re seeing around the world — whether it be with Orbán in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France and in many other places where there’s an authoritarian, populist sort of right-wing. I think it’s important to understand what is causing this resentment, whether it’s in Europe or the United States. Free trade and globalization made a lot of people a lot of money, but it left people behind and feeling resented. We can think immigration is good, but it also threatens people’s livelihoods. There’s also wealth inequality, the unfairness of the system, to what extent is the elite looking down upon or trying to force things on the rest of us... I try to keep an open mind about why these resentments have led to a division in our politics and, for that matter, a division on social media and in talk radio and on cable news.

Q. Joe Biden won the election saying he wanted to unify the country, but polarization has grown. Is there any remedy?

A. I keep thinking the fever might break, but Joe Biden won’t be a unifying figure. I think people have to feel that the system is fair, and it’s going to take a while to restore that because people feel that the system was rigged against them after the 2008 financial crisis and other things. There’s some truth to that — the system was rigged against the ordinary person, so people who believe in democracy have to find ways to restore that trust. I’m hopeful that these things come in waves. We’ve seen surges of populism before, and I think the fever could break at some point, but it would be useful for a new generation of leaders to come along. Younger leaders who are not as polarized as Donald Trump is. Around America, you can find in many places — including my hometown of New Orleans — people rise above politics, and they just care about creating a new economy, about helping entrepreneurs. There are creative cities around this country where you don’t have that much polarization.

Q. Do you think that it is an exaggeration to believe that there will be another civil war?

A. Yes. I am a historian, so I can remember the late 1960s, when there wasn’t a civil war but a lot of civil unrest in our streets, whether it was in the race riots or the Vietnam War riots. And I can remember the 1950s — we just saw the movie Oppenheimer and how there was a fervor that got out of control then. And certainly the real Civil War, which was the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history. So, I don’t see us being in a civil war yet. I’m optimistic that 70% of this country can basically agree on 70% of the issues and totally agree on the fact that we want to keep a constitutional democracy.

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Sobre la firma

Miguel Jiménez
Corresponsal jefe de EL PAÍS en Estados Unidos. Ha desarrollado su carrera en EL PAÍS, donde ha sido redactor jefe de Economía y Negocios, subdirector y director adjunto y en el diario económico Cinco Días, del que fue director.

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