“Elon Musk” by Walter Isaacson, September 2023, 670 pages, 25 EUR (Hardcover)

A very good friend, himself an entrepreneur, highly recommended this book to me. He was so enthusiastic about it that he read the more than 600-page book in just under three days. Well, I didn’t manage to do that, but I can only agree with the positive verdict about the book: The book written by the world-famous biographer Walter Isaacson (including biography of Steve Jobs) reads very well, sometimes like a thriller, spiced with a variety of cleverly selected anecdotes.

The picture Isaacson paints of Elon Musk is by no means entirely flattering … on the one hand, visionary originality as an entrepreneur and quasi-genius engineer, on the other hand, a personality that often meant and still means a challenge for his personal environment and also for his employees. In order to paint the portrait of Musk, the author Isaacson incorporates a variety of voices and perspectives, creating a multidimensional personality: This ranges from father Errol Musk to Elon‘s first wife Justine Wilson to business partner Peter Thiel and many more.

You don’t have to be a fan of Elon Musk (actually, I’m not) to appreciate the book. Because the book also reveals interesting mechanisms in the world of the tech elite and Silicon Valley; first and foremost, however, the book deals with an important personality of our time: At the age of 27, Musk became a multi-millionaire (with the sale of his first co-founded company “Zip2”), at 28 Musk was already a start-up celebrity, the magazine Salon addressed him at the time as today’s Silicon Valley It guy. And at least for some time, he was the richest person in the world (replaced in January 2024 by Frenchman Bernard Arnault – but in the end, these are snapshots).

Below are a few excerpts from the book, which on the one hand highlight his visionary entrepreneurship, but also his “strenuous” personality.

Elon Musk jokes about himself that he has Asperger’s. Characteristic of him is a low (probably rather absent) empathic sensitivity, and the ability to mentally focus in such a way that all external perception is zoned out: “‘Ever since I was a kid, if I start to think about something hard, then all of my sensory systems turn off’, he says. ‘I can’t see or hear or anything. I’m using my brain to compute, not for incoming information.'” (p. 17)

His lack of empathy repeatedly led to conflicts: “With this weak empathy gene, he didn’t realize or care that correcting someone publicly – or, as he put it, ‘fixing their fucking stupid code’ – was not a path to endearment. He had never been a captain of a sports team or the leader of a gang of friends, and he lacked an instinct for camaraderie. Like Steve Jobs, he genuinely did not care if he offended or intimidated the people he worked with, as long as he drove them to accomplish feats they thought were impossible.” (p. 64). At his first company, Zip2, the conflict with employees culminated in a call for his resignation as CEO (but he did not give in); in an email to his employees at the time, he wrote in sober (and ironically spiced) self-awareness: “What matters to me is winning, and not in a small way. God knows why … it’s probably rooted in some very disturbing psychonanalytical black hole or neural short circuit.” (p. 74f) What also determined his relationship with his employees was a characteristic management style: “One of Musk’s management tactics, then as later, was to set an insane deadline and drive colleagues to meet it.” (p. 75)

His mental focus was on his entrepreneurial visions. His first wife, Justine Wilson, notes the following: “Unlike other ambitious people, he never talked about making money. He assumed that he would be either wealthy or broke, but nothing in between. What interested him were the problems he wanted to solve.” (p. 69) One can clearly see from Musk‘s entrepreneurial activity where he sees the greatest added value (for humanity); and Musk thought about this very early on: “‘I thought about the things that will truly affect humanity’, he says. ‘I came up with three: the internet, sustainable energy, and space travel.'” (p. 58)

Conclusion: A book well worth reading. By the way, the book is divided into very compact chapters (6 to 7 pages each), so that you can read this biography very well in bite-sized pieces. Have fun!


The author is a manager in the software industry with international expertise: Authorized officer at one of the large consulting firms - Responsible for setting up an IT development center at the Bangalore offshore location - Director M&A at a software company in Berlin.