Oh No, I Kinda Want to Work for Elon
An examination of the man-child who would be king
When the third SpaceX rocket exploded, Elon Musk was edging toward a meltdown. The company was on the brink of failure, his entire net worth had been poured into money-losing ventures like Tesla and SpaceX, and this explosion could have been the thing that made it all come crumbling down. Everyone knew it. The mood at the launch sight was sober, perhaps even depressed. The company could be done.
After a minute-long pause, Elon looked up, a glint in his eye. “Pain is not bad, it’s good,” he said. “It teaches you things. I understand that.”
Engineers around him nodded their heads. A manic, industrial energy started to build in the room. As usual, he went back to the purpose of why they were there. The mission. “What the hell do I wanna go off and go to work for? Work for what? Money?” They were going to Mars—who cared about the business?
Elon Musk, the new biography by Walter Issacson, reported on what followed:
“‘I think most of us would have followed him into the gates of hell carrying suntan oil after that,” said Dolly Singh, the human resources director. ‘Within moments, the energy of the building went from despair and defeat to a massive buzz of determination.’”
The next time, they pulled it off, making SpaceX the first privately built rocket to launch from the ground and reach orbit. They had done it with 500 employees, compared to the 50,000 that Boeing had at a similar division. It was the launch that set the company up for the roughly $150B valuation it enjoys today.
So, a confession. This story is a bit of a lie.
The rockets did explode. Elon did make a rousing speech. The engineers did come together and build an incredible company. The only difference is that these quotes are not from Elon Musk—they’re from murderous cult leader Charles Manson. Musk actually said, “There should be absolutely zero question that SpaceX will prevail in reaching orbit. I will never give up, and I mean never.”
And honestly? There isn’t that much of a difference between the two. They both have an ability to make you do crazy things in service to the divine mission.
The cult of Elon
Musk’s terrible, wonderful magic is that he makes you want to go all in. Even me, a person who very much enjoys not working for Elon Musk, finished the book and thought, “Hmm, I kinda want to work for that guy.”
Do you realize how sick of a thought that is? How utterly deranged of a reaction?
Musk is demonstrably, unequivocally an asshole. When I started the book I stuck a Post-It note on the page every time I thought he acted reprehensibly. I soon realized that for the 615-page book, I would need 615 Post-It notes. He fires dozens, if not hundreds, of people based on his mood. He is more than somewhat unstable: constantly self-medicating with Ambien or ketamine, smoking joints on Joe Rogan’s podcast, pounding Red Bull after Red Bull, and barely sleeping. At various points, he diagnoses himself as having Asperger’s or bipolar disorder. He plays video games until 5 in the morning. Between the three mothers of his 11 children, his personal life is conflagration in a waste container (i.e., a dumpster fire).
It is not my place to judge how people conduct their personal lives, but it is his employees who pay the price. The book frequently describes him going “demon mode,” where he fires anyone who disagrees with him, even if they’re innocent. Two to three times a year, he does a “surge”: he sets an arbitrary, totally unrealistic deadline, and forces his employees to work 24/7 until that deadline is met. Anyone who annoys him or underperforms to his standards is immediately fired.
I cannot overstate how bad of a boss my analytical brain would tell me this guy is. Yet I still found myself vaguely wanting to quit the content business and go work with him to be a part of something bigger.
And I’m not alone in this feeling. There are legions of Muskinites. He has a supernatural ability to get the best engineers in the world to pour their souls into his companies. Part of the reason he can fire so many people is because so many other talented technical staff want to come work with him. It is, frankly, a bit spooky how powerful his magic is.
This is not his only skill. He has a superhuman risk tolerance—when he exited PayPal, he put his entire net worth into Tesla, SpaceX, and a solar company. He is demonstrably a genius who has a deep, intuitive understanding of physics, frequently coming up with novel solutions for problems his company is facing. He can, with seemingly little effort, get the media to breathlessly do his marketing for him (exhibit A: this very article). He can juggle a scope of responsibilities and workload that would crush a mere mortal. He is currently leading six multi-billion-dollar companies.
All of this talent—and chaos—has resulted in one of the most compelling technological leaders we have ever seen. It is worth considering what he has built and, importantly, how we can apply his methods to our own work. It is also worth considering whether we should emulate him at all.
The MCU (Musk Company Universe)
Musk is the leader of:
- Tesla: an electric car manufacture valued at $839B
- SpaceX: a rocket company valued at $150B
- Boring Company: a tunneling company valued at $5.675B
- Neuralink: a company that wants to put computer chips in people’s brains to enhance cognitive capabilities. The first products are focused on assisting disabled people to use computers.
- Twitter: a rotting hellscape filled with slime and villainy and handsome newsletter writers. Its last public valuation was $44B.
- X.AI: discount-brand OpenAI attempting to build artificial general intelligence. Its valuation—at whatever Musk feels like— was last reported at $20B.
I’m being snarky, but this portfolio of work is incredibly impressive. Most of our current billionaire class, like Gates or Zuckerberg, has come from software. Musk did the opposite, with vertical hardware integration, by tackling some of the most challenging physical challenges in the world. I mean, just look at this. I can’t help but be a little inspired by a 394-foot rocket, preparing to launch man out into the stars.
Perhaps the reason he has scaled so well is the operating paradigm by which he evaluates his companies, dubbed “the algorithm.” Developed over many years of trial and error, this was the closest the book got to revealing Musk’s secret sauce:
- Question every requirement. Because hardware products will have hundreds of design decisions and integrated raw materials, specific accountability is crucial. Every choice should have a real name attached to it. Then, you should question every single one of these assumptions, no matter who made it.
- Delete any part of the process. Complexity is the death of speed and is anti-innovation. Remove to the point of failure. As Issacson wrote, “If you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you didn’t delete enough.”
- Simplify and optimize. Only do this after deleting. Deletion is a precursor to improvement. “A common mistake is to simplify and optimize a part or a process that should not exist,” Isaacson wrote.
- Accelerate cycle time. Again, speed is what matters. Since Musk’s companies are so hardware-dependent, they have increased capital and supply costs. Increased speed greatly improves the flow of capital. But it should only follow step three, as there is no use accelerating processes that will end up being deleted.
- Automate. Only once everything has been questioned, deleted, simplified, and accelerated can you automate. Musk learned a painful lesson when he tried to automate Tesla production too soon, leading to the “most hellacious period of his life”: he had to rip out expensive robots in favor of human labor.
Like a Buddhist monk who loves factories, Musk chants these principles as a mantra to motivate subordinates. He has some other Muskisms: technical managers need to have hands-on experience. Engineers work next to design or on manufacturing floors. He believes that “comradery is dangerous” because it makes the confrontation of mistakes more challenging.
The idea I found most delightful was the “idiot index.” Issacson described it as:
“the ratio of the total cost of a component to the cost of its raw materials. Something with a high idiot index—say, a component that cost $1,000 when the aluminum that composed it cost only $100—was likely to have a design that was too complex or a manufacturing process that was too inefficient. As Musk put it, ‘If the ratio is high, you’re an idiot.’”
Because so many of his companies tackle physics problems, this operating system applies to pretty much all of them. Twitter is the outlier because it is an emotional problem instead of a physics conundrum.
Over and over again, Musk defies the odds and builds something incredible. It is not hyperbole to say that he single-handedly ignited a second space age and accelerated the electric car revolution by at least a decade. This history of success means there is at least a chance he can do the same with brain implants, social media, tunneling, and AI. The guy is relentless—sleeping on factory floors, working 100-hour weeks. He simply doesn’t quit.
If he succeeds in just 75% of his ambition, he could be one of the most important people in human history. However, that success results in huge costs to him personally, to his employees, and to society at large.
Isaacson uses anecdotes from Musk’s life to force the reader to confront a central tension of greatness: would a saner person who is less of an asshole be capable of similar feats?
If you had asked me this question 10 years ago, I would’ve wholeheartedly agreed. It is a better world if our most prominent people are moral exemplars with happy family lives. However, after a decade of meeting billionaires, reading biographies of highly successful people, and building products myself, I’ve come to accept that the opposite is probably true. The highest level of success requires wholly unreasonable people. Musk is a top .01% of entrepreneurs—of course he is a dick.
It isn’t all his fault that he is this way. He is almost certainly neurodivergent based on Isacsson’s reporting. His father is a racist, abusive psychopath who has two children with his step-daughter. As a child Musk was bullied and beaten. During his childhood, South Africa was in the grips of apartheid, and he witnessed multiple instances of violence.
With that context, his lack of empathy and violent mood swings are more understandable. The inner demons that drive him are likely necessary for him to live the way, and achieve the things, that he has. It does not excuse the callousness, but it does make it understandable.
This strange concoction of nerdhood, intellect, abuse, and belief in the divine mission of technology is Elon Musk. As someone who is also intelligent and nerdy, was bullied as a child, and believes in the divine mission of tech, perhaps it isn’t surprising that I feel a perverse attraction to joining him on his quest.
I think Issacson had similar feelings. He was embedded with Musk for two years and called it “about the most interesting thing I’ve done in my life.” The book suffers from the reality-distortion field of Musk’s bizarre charisma. Most notably, while Issacson spent time covering Musk’s cruelty toward him employees, he skipped over many of the controversies in the businesses he runs, like:
- Neuralink’s history of animal abuse and lawsuits from the federal government
- Tesla’s ongoing class-action lawsuit from 240 black workers alleging racism
- The Boring Company’s long history of broken promises to local governments
There is likely a reasonable defense for all of these stories. But when you have years of access to the world’s most mercurial billionaire and you don’t use that time to investigate some of his most troubling behavior, I question the analytical rigor of the work. When coupled with the fact that Isaacson has already had to rescind some of his biggest claims about the Ukraine/Musk connections, it inserts doubt about the veracity of the entire analysis. Further, while he does list his sources and interviews for each chapter, Issacson does not ascribe claims to particular individuals (ironically in violation of Musk’s algorithm which demands specifically accountable individuals). Coupled with Musk’s long history of exaggeration, there’s a cloud over the book about whether to accept anything it offers up as proof—of either his greatness or awfulness.
Musk represents a contradiction. He pushes boundaries few dare approach, tackling humanity's grandest challenges. But his ruthless drive exacts steep costs from employees, partners, and himself. Will his ends justify the extreme means? Can he temper raw ambition with compassion? For now, we must view Musk with clear eyes—lauding stunning successes while condemning callous missteps. Genius merits acclaim but not excuses.
He compels us to dream big yet retain moral autonomy. We need not fully embrace or reject him. Perhaps the best takeaway from studying his life isn’t in the acceptance or condemnation of it. Maybe it should be an inspiration to be—build something—better.