Economics/Class Relations

A Musk genius

September 16, 2023


Fortune executive editor Nick Lichtenberg here, filling in for Alyson.


This week, the big one dropped. Walter Isaacson, the former Time editor turned documenter of genius brains from Leonardo da Vinci to Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs, dropped his much anticipated all-access biography of Elon Musk on Tuesday. Clearly, it sets up the Tesla CEO and X/Twitter chairman and owner as the next great mind in Isaacson’s series of them.


So does he make the case? If you know where to look. The book is so dense with stories of Musk’s outlandish and eccentric behavior that the focus often strays from his undoubted engineering genius to unpacking just why he acts the way he does.


The pivotal point of the book combines the best of both when it covers 2017–18—what Musk called “the time of the most concentrated pain I’ve ever had…18 months of unrelenting insanity. It was mind-bogglingly painful.” During it, Musk began musing aloud about whether he might be bipolar, he had a stormy romance with Amber Heard, and at one point was found by his Tesla C-suite nearly comatose, lying on the floor in a conference room with all the lights turned off. They had to spend nearly 30 minutes getting him on his feet and ready for a call with analysts. Tesla was missing its targets, losing money, and getting swarmed by short sellers, too.


We all know what happened next, as Musk triumphed at Tesla en route to being crowned the richest man in the world. Isaacson reveals how he did it: by personally visiting the factory floor himself and redesigning the manufacturing process. Along the way, he created what he calls “the algorithm” for manufacturing: Question every requirement, delete any part of the process you can, simplify and optimize, accelerate the cycle time, automate. It’s good advice far beyond manufacturing electric vehicles.


It isn’t Musk’s only formula for living, either. Isaacson reveals that Musk developed a set of “life lessons” from playing his favorite video game, The Battle of Polytopia. (The first lesson was “empathy is not an asset.”) Beyond Musk’s philosophy of living, there are countless stories of his explosive temper, his tendency to bully, his troubled upbringing, his favorite science fiction authors, and what Peter Thiel calls an “addiction” to taking risk. Read the full write-up below.

During ‘the most concentrated pain’ in his life, Elon Musk saved Tesla and created ‘the algorithm’ that would become his manufacturing and management philosophy
Sept. 13, 2023
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