After spending two years with Elon Musk and his inner circle of family members, romantic partners, and trusted lieutenants, the biographer Walter Isaacson is unequivocal in his assessment of the world’s richest man: “He’s a jerk...[and] he is not very admirable because of it.”
How much longer can Musk behave that way and still expect his companies—SpaceX, Tesla, and Twitter (now X) among them—to achieve the productivity he seeks, in his overarching quest to protect and sustain humanity?
Isaacson, author of the new book Elon Musk, answers this and other questions in the video below. Watch the full interview, use our time codes as a guide to the highlights, or scroll down further for the complete transcript.
1:47: Would you call Musk a caring person?
3:01: How does Musk compare with other tech moguls in terms of his understanding of the details underpinning his grand vision or big ideas?
5:28: Should we all be as worried as Musk about Google’s involvement in artificial intelligence, or is this, too, one of his manufactured dramas?
Heather Landy, Quartz executive editor: How long can Elon Musk stay hardcore and still be productive at the companies? He started with the goal of saving humanity. We’re talking to Walter Isaacson, the bestselling author of books about Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo da Vinci, and now the new biography simply titled Elon Musk.
I didn’t count the number of mentions, but the word “hardcore” appears a lot in this book. Having spent the better part of two years at Elon Musk’s side or around the different people and companies in his life, how much longer do you think he can stay this hardcore and still actually be productive?
Walter Isaacson, Elon Musk author: I think he’s going to be able to do it. He is somebody who loves being all in, and even as a kid, he associated drama and storms almost with love—I mean, because he had a really dysfunctional, psychologically problematic childhood. But whenever things are calm, he’s not happy. When there’s a storm, he’s all in. And when he first went into Twitter headquarters and everybody’s psychologically safe and trying to be nurturing, he said, “No, we’re going to be hardcore. We’re going to be all in.”
Landy: He brought that to their culture for sure. There are a lot of scenes like that—
Isaacson: It was one of the biggest culture changes I think we’ll ever see in a company, it’s going from the most nurturing, sweet, yoga-studio-and-artisanal-coffee mindset to hackathon-24-hours-a-day, all in.”
Landy: And in over the course of hours, almost, it seemed.
Landy: There are a lot of scenes like that and others in the book that kind of make us question his humaneness. But one of his former SpaceX lieutenants who you talked to explains that Elon is actually really concerned about humanity in the macro sense.
Landy: Would you call Elon a caring person?
Isaacson: No. No. He’s not empathetic. He’s not caring. And he’s a jerk because of it; he is not very admirable because of it. But as he would argue, and as the lieutenant you quoted would argue, sometimes people who are caring and emotional, they aren’t going to fire people, they aren’t going to be tough, they aren’t going to be rough, and it may hurt the whole enterprise because they’re so eager to make the people in front of them like them. I know I couldn’t be the way he is. I used to work at CNN. Maybe we should have been tougher. Maybe I should have been rougher on people. But you look at a lot of people who have been hardcore—Bill Gates in the early days of Microsoft, Jeff Bezos in the early days of Amazon, Elon Musk—I don’t necessarily admire it, but it is part and parcel of what they were able to do, and it was because they kept the success of the enterprise in view, as opposed to the friendliness and sweetness to the people in front of them.
Landy: Right. And sort of along those lines, there’s a scene in the book where Elon sees a robot on the Tesla assembly line that’s moving too slow for his liking. He opens the thing up, or gets someone eventually to open the thing up, and realizes that the factory settings have it running at 20% of maximum speed. So he goes and he rewrites the code himself—
Isaacson: Himself, on his laptop, yeah—
Landy: —to get the thing to move faster. How does Elon compare with other subjects you’ve written about in terms of his understanding of the details underlying, or underpinning, the grand visions or big ideas that he has?
Isaacson: That was one of the things that most surprised me, is, I didn’t realize what a hands-on manufacturing engineer he was, that he walks the assembly lines, be it at Tesla or SpaceX every day and says, “Ok, why is this screw being turned this way? Or why is this moving so slowly?” And [he] even can rewrite the code to get it done. When the engineers, they say, “We don’t know how to change it, we don’t have the” ... and I think that example, if I remember correctly, is typical because then he cranks it up to 80% and it doesn’t work and it, like, screws up, and so then he has to dial it back a little bit. But he says unless you push too hard, too fast, and sometimes blow things up, you’re not going to get it to the right speed.
Landy: Right. But one area in his life or in his work that he’s been a little bit more risk averse at the outset is with AI and his concerns about security and protection of humanity. And so as far back as 2014 with DeepMind, he’s really concerned that Google, especially, takes two lax a view about security.
Isaacson: He quit speaking to Larry Page. He used to sleep on Larry Page’s couch. Musk was, like, the world’s richest couch surfer. He didn’t like staying in hotels in Palo Alto. And he and Larry were like that [puts two fingers together]. But then they had arguments at one of Elon’s birthday parties about AI safety, and Larry Page would say, Hey, get over it. I mean, it’s not that— and Musk hears that Larry Page is about to buy DeepMind, and there’s a scene where they’re upstairs at a party, Elon’s at a party, he goes into a closet with another friend so that they can Skype with [DeepMind CEO] Dennis Hassabis and try to prevent him from selling it to Google, which they fail at, which is why Musk starts OpenAI. So he has this apocalyptic vision of what could happen with AI if we don’t make it safe.
Landy: Should we all be worried about Google’s involvement in AI now? Or, coming out of your research for the book, is this just one of his manufactured dramas?
Isaacson: I think it’s certainly, in my opinion, an apocalyptic drama that he believes and that I think, ok, maybe that’s a little bit overdramatizing things. It happened when he was worried about World War III with nuclear weapons because of Starlink and Ukraine. It happens on AI. He gets very apocalyptic. I think AI could be a problem. Musk today, or at least today as we’re speaking, was on Capitol Hill with [US senators] Chuck Schumer and [Chris] Coons, and for that matter [Mark] Zuckerberg and Sam Altman to talk about AI, and I think he’s right in saying we need a regulatory agency. We don’t need Congress to try to write rules on the fly, but just like you have an FAA that has experts that figures out what do you do with aviation, or an FCC or a [National] Highway Transportation Safety Board, he said we need a regulatory agency of experts who can handle AI.
Landy: Elon now has something like a half dozen companies that he’s running or managing?
Isaacson: He’s got seven, yeah, depending on exactly how you count, because the new xAI is a company, and then even some have companies within companies, like Optimus is within Tesla and Starlink is within SpaceX.
Landy: Find the new biography Elon Musk at bookstores everywhere. And for more on Musk and his innovative companies, follow our coverage on qz.com.