Elon Musk’s Esquire Interview

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Elon Musk consistently sounds larger than life:

As soon as he started SpaceX, he started talking about going to Mars. He talked with family members, magazine writers, movie stars, and other rich people of entrepreneurial inclination. He announced that he would be the first private citizen to pioneer outer space, and, in so doing, he turned himself into a public figure. When his mother asked why he wanted to pursue celebrity, he said, “Nobody will sell me any parts if they don’t know who I am.”

There has always been a practical purpose to the narrative he has advanced, but the narrative has ended in the myth of a man beyond practical considerations. The mythical Elon Musk has led a charmed life. He starts companies. He is a billionaire. He has seen the future and predicates everything he does in the present on the totality of his vision. His genius is ineffable, without precedent or explanation, and yet suffices to explain him. If he succeeds, humanity succeeds; in his striving for himself, he strives for us all.

All of this is partially true, but it does him the disservice of ignoring what makes him interesting: He is a devourer as well as a creator. He is opportunistic and improvisatory. He is something of a takeover artist; he built Tesla after investing in it and ridding himself of its founders. He shares his superpower not with Tony Stark but rather with Donald Trump — the ability to carry debt. He can be slippery. He is more than occasionally desperate. He has a genius for engineering but perhaps a more powerful one for salesmanship, which is why he always felt himself to be, in his heart of hearts, an American.

His life is not charmed. What he pursues he usually gets, but what he gets he sometimes loses. He met the woman who became his first wife shortly after he came to Canada. He met her — saw her — while attending Queen’s University in Ontario, and, as his brother, Kimbal, said at their wedding, went after her as relentlessly as he went after his parents back in South Africa to buy him a motorbike and a computer. And yet Justine Musk did not see him as a man who got what he wanted so much as a man who didn’t have some very basic things:

“I don’t think people understand how tough he had it growing up,” she says. “I was a really lonely kid and he was a really lonely kid and that’s one of the things that attracted me to him. I thought he had this understanding of loneliness — of how to create yourself in that. A lot of the things that come naturally to people he had to think about. It’s more deliberate with him. The lessons he had to learn were different from most of us.”

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