Elon Musk and the Value of Failure: Review of Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson
The Washington Free Beacon , November 12, 2023
Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, 688 pp., $35
For its first two-thirds, Walter Isaacson’s mammoth biography of Elon Musk is an epic romance, like The Lord of the Rings (a Musk favorite) or the Arthurian legends. It portrays the hero and his comrades overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles through daring, determination, cleverness, and skill, all in the pursuit of noble goals.
The critical moment in that tale comes in 2008, which Musk described to Isaacson as "the most painful year of my life." His marriage broke up. One after another, the first three SpaceX rockets exploded before reaching orbit. The first Tesla Roadsters came off the line, but only with hand fitting at an exorbitant and unsustainable cost. He ran out of money. His audacious ventures appeared doomed. Everyone told Musk that his best chance was to try to save one company and let the other go out of business. But he refused to choose between Tesla and SpaceX.
"For me emotionally, this was like, you got two kids and you’re running out of food," he told Isaacson. "You can give half to each kid, in which case they might both die, or give all the food to one kid and increase the chance that at least one kid survives. I couldn’t bring myself to decide that one was going to die, so I decided I had to give my all to save both." (Lest you think the analogy callous, consider that Musk had seen his first child die in infancy. "He cried like a wolf," his mother told Isaacson. "Like a wolf.")
SpaceX was saved by a $20 million venture capital infusion from an unlikely source: the PayPal founders who’d kicked Musk out as CEO eight years earlier. "It was an interesting exercise in karma," he told Isaacson, a reward for not holding a grudge. The infusion would allow SpaceX to try one last launch before running out of cash.
First, however, the last remaining rocket had to get from the Los Angeles factory to the launch site in the South Pacific, leading to one of the wilder—though not the wildest—stories in the book. To save weeks in shipping, Musk agreed to charter an Air Force C-17 transport plane. Twenty employees rode along in the hold. It’s a good thing they were there.
As the plane descended to refuel in Hawaii, the pressure outside the rocket exceeded that inside. The precious cargo began to collapse. One employee dashed to ask the pilot to halt the descent. Others attacked the rocket’s wrapping with pocket knives, rushing to open the valves before the plane had to resume its descent or run out of fuel. They saved the rocket, but it suffered a dented side and a broken interior part.
Musk told them to fix it at the launch site, deploying his personal jet to bring the replacement parts and launch director Tim Buzza. On site, Buzza estimated it would take five weeks to repair the rocket if they followed the procedures they’d adopted to reduce risk after the first three disasters. Abandoning those checks would take the time down to five days. "Go as fast as you can," Musk said. Working frantically, they hit the five-day estimate. "It was unlike anything that the bloated companies in the aerospace industry could possibly have imagined," Buzza told Isaacson. Musk’s ruthless, risk-taking approach to getting things done triumphed—for neither the first time nor the last.
The all-or-nothing launch went perfectly. "Falcon 1 had made history as the first privately built rocket to launch from the ground and reach orbit," Isaacson writes. "Musk and his small crew of just 500 employees (Boeing’s comparable division had 50,000) had designed the system from the ground up and done all the construction on its own." In late December, Musk got news that SpaceX would be awarded a $1.6 billion NASA contract to make 12 round trips to the space station. Unlike NASA’s traditional contractors, SpaceX "would get paid only if and when they succeeded. There were no subsidies or cost-plus contracts." The company was saved and a new era in American space exploration began.
Meanwhile, Tesla’s perils continued. The company was bleeding cash, paying bills with the deposits customers had put down on future Roadsters. Neither the company nor Musk had enough money to make the year-end payroll. On Christmas Eve, existing investors agreed to fund a new equity round of $20 million, enough to keep the company going for a few more months. "Musk broke down in tears," Isaacson writes. "‘Had it gone the other way, Tesla would have been dead,’ he says, ‘and maybe too the dream of electric cars for many years.’"
In January, Musk dazzled executives from Daimler by demonstrating an electric model of the German company’s Smart car—a Mexican model with its gasoline engine replaced with a Roadster motor and battery pack. A few months later Daimler agreed to buy about 9 percent of Tesla for $50 million. "If Daimler had not invested in Tesla at that time, we would have died," Musk told Isaacson. More substantial, if less critical, was a $465 million loan from the Department of Energy, whose first check arrived in early 2010. Tesla repaid the loan and interest in 2013.
Its finances secured, Tesla’s next survival test came in July 2017, with the introduction of its relatively affordable sedan, the Model 3. To become a sustainable enterprise, Musk calculated that Tesla needed to produce 5,000 Model 3s a week. That first meant that its battery plant had to reach the same goal. The man who designed the battery production line told Musk the target was insane. The best they could do would be 1,800. "If you’re right, Tesla’s dead," said Musk. "We either have 5,000 cars a week or we can’t cover our costs." In a characteristic Musk move, he replaced the skeptic with a more gung-ho executive, brought in his most trusted lieutenants, and put himself in charge of production, first at the battery plant, then at the car factory.
Thus began "production hell," a period of intense, round-the-clock work that Musk seems to crave. On just a few hours of sleep a night, often on the factory floor, he and his hardcore associates critiqued each and every production step, looking for ways to speed up the line. Out went plastic caps that were added to battery prongs in one factory only to be removed in the other. Out went patches in the small holes that let paint drain. Out went fiberglass strips between the battery pack and the floor panel. Out went sensors deemed less than critical. Out went robots that were slower than humans. Musk admitted he’d automated too much.
By May 2018, the plant was up to 3,500 cars a week—a huge gain but well short of the goal. The only way to get to 5,000 was to add capacity. But Tesla had neither the time nor the planning permission to build more factory space. Borrowing a technique Musk remembered from World War II plane production and exploiting a zoning provision allowing a "temporary vehicle repair facility," workers cleared an old parking lot behind the plant and set up an enormous tent. A thousand feet long and 150 feet wide, it housed a new assembly line. From idea to execution took just three weeks. A little before 2 a.m. on July 1, the week’s 5,000th Model 3 left the factory. "If conventional thinking makes your mission impossible," Musk told a visiting reporter, "then unconventional thinking is necessary." Through relentless effort and creative problem solving, Musk and his team had again defied the odds.
Within days, however, Musk’s brother Kimbal found his honeymoon interrupted by an urgent email. "You have to come back right away," it said. "Elon is having a meltdown." A decade after his "most painful year," Musk experienced what he called his most agonizing one. In 2018, the agony was self-inflicted.
"If Musk had been the type of person who could pause and savor success, he would have noticed that he had just brought the world into the era of electric vehicles, commercial space flight, and reusable rockets," writes Isaacson. "Each was a big deal. But for Musk, good times are unsettling." That’s an understatement. Musk craves stress and drama. He can’t cope with success. If he doesn’t face enough genuine obstacles, he impulsively acts to create trouble for himself.
In 2018, Musk baselessly called a cave explorer in Thailand "pedo guy," driving down Tesla’s stock price and landing himself in court. He declared he was going to take Tesla private and claimed, inaccurately, that he had secured funding. The Securities and Exchange Commission charged him with fraud. He gave a New York Times business reporter a long, emotional interview, fueling concerns about his health. To reassure shareholders, he then went on Joe Rogan’s podcast, where he rambled for two-and-a-half hours and lit up a cigar-style joint of marijuana and tobacco. More bad press and falling stock prices followed. Top Tesla executives, including cofounder JB Straubel, began to flee.
Musk’s sanity, and with it his companies’ fortunes, was eventually saved by two new problems: designing what became the futuristic-looking Cybertruck and radically simplifying the satellites that would provide Starlink’s internet service. That the truck was years away from production only made the problem more therapeutic. Nothing calms Musk’s mind more than contemplating the future. At SpaceX every week included a meeting devoted to planning life on Mars. "When Musk gets stressed, he often retreats into the future," Isaacson writes. But the turmoil of 2018 foreshadowed what was to come.
In its final third, the story shifts from epic romance to tragedy. The once-triumphant hero faces a downfall precipitated by a fatal flaw—in this case, a form of hubris all too common among brilliant technologists, especially when they’ve gotten rich. Musk confuses intelligence with knowledge and engineering with, well, pretty much everything. He assumed that his gifts for understanding materials and reworking manufacturing processes qualified him to run an influential but stubbornly unprofitable media company.
With $10 billion burning a hole in his pocket and increasing concerns about the "woke mind virus," he started buying shares in Twitter. He amassed a 9 percent stake, joined the board, then just a day later declared his intention to buy the company. Friends and family warned that Twitter would be a dangerous distraction from his other work. But Musk persisted. How hard could it be? "I don’t think from a cognitive standpoint it’s nearly as hard as SpaceX or Tesla," he told Isaacson. "It’s not like getting to Mars. It’s not as hard as changing the entire industrial base of Earth to sustainable energy." Musk’s grandiose dreams and hard-won successes made him underestimate—and misunderstand—the challenge. Cognitive power wasn’t enough.
One of Musk’s maxims is, "The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation." As long as he is dealing with materials and manufacturing, it’s a useful heuristic. But it doesn’t apply to social relations, which means it didn’t apply to Twitter. If you pay way too much, don’t understand advertising, haven’t considered the difficult tradeoffs between freewheeling speech and a platform people want to use, don’t appreciate why people value features like short posts or blue checks, and generally have no clue about human interactions, you might as well be trying to go faster than the speed of light.
Musk was correct that Twitter was dramatically overstaffed. He was correct that it had lost the trust of many people on the right. But he had no idea how to make it work. "Twitter is a tech company, a programming company," Musk told his friend Ari Emanuel, rejecting an offer to have Emanuel’s agency run the place. He was wrong. Good software may be necessary to a successful media platform, but it is neither central nor sufficient. Musk squandered billions on Twitter, renamed X, without improving its credibility or its financial prospects.
Musk’s story isn’t over, of course. In the long run, the Twitter fiasco may prove a mere detour—an expensive learning experience rather than a tragic fall. Information from its feeds may, as he hopes, combine with data from Tesla’s cameras to fuel valuable new forms of artificial intelligence. Or its mercurial owner may decide that, like SolarCity’s rooftop panels, the platform doesn’t interest him after all.
Isaacson ends his book with the test launch of Starship, a huge reusable rocket designed to get 100 passengers to Mars. Musk envisions a fleet of a thousand. "It’s worth keeping in mind as you go through all the tribulations," he told the engineers before liftoff in April, "that the thing you are working on is the coolest fucking thing on Earth. By a lot. What’s the second coolest? This is far cooler than whatever is second coolest." (Certainly not Twitter.) As expected, the rocket exploded before reaching orbit. It was intended as the first of many trials to come—a dramatic but useful failure on the way to eventual success, a symbol of the Elon Musk way.
Isaacson is ambivalent about Musk’s personality, as any honest observer would be. He acknowledges the difficult truth that his protagonist’s achievements and drive are inextricable from his dark side. "Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training," he concludes. "They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world."
That’s as close as he gets to stating the book’s implicit argument: that by tolerating a man who disregards social norms of empathy and balance, allowing him to take enormous risks and reap concordant rewards, we make the world a better place. We might not want to work for Elon Musk, marry him, or be him. But if we’re wise, neither will we try to eliminate opportunities for people like him.