In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow writes that Hamilton “always had to fight the residual sadness of the driven man.” That sentence has stayed with me because I’ve also noticed that there can be something sad about extremely ambitious people — like they’re striving furiously to fill a hole that was carved into them by traumatic experiences during childhood, and they have never quite succeeded.
Some historians and psychologists have marveled at how many of the most significant figures in history lost a parent at an early age, either to death or abandonment — from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. These are what one psychologist termed “eminent orphans.”
It’s easy to put Elon Musk into that category. He had a miserable childhood in South Africa marked by verbal and physical abuse from a father who repeatedly told him he was worthless, according to Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Musk. He had no friends and lived in a world in which you either bullied or were bullied. A background like that might create a sense of existential insecurity, which could induce in some a lifetime of self-doubt or in others a manic ambition to prove the bastards wrong — to earn love, significance and safety.
But Isaacson’s account suggests that this is not the only or even the main impetus behind Musk’s extreme ambition. In the midst of that bleak childhood, Musk dived into science fiction, computer games and comics, and in some sense never left. In that world, Musk seems to have been gripped by a story just as fervently as a religious person is gripped by a holy book.
I believe most of us tell a story about our lives and then come to live within that story. You can’t know who you are unless you know how to tell a coherent story about yourself. You can know what to do next only if you know what story you are a part of. “A man is always a teller of tales,” philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre observed. “He lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them, and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.”
The story Musk came to inhabit is one of the oldest in our civilization: A male hero of uncertain reputation emerges from an obscure place to save a doomed people through acts of daring. It is the story of Moses, Jesus, Superman, John Wayne westerns, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings.
“While other entrepreneurs struggled to develop a worldview, he developed a cosmic view,” Isaacson writes. Musk’s self-conception is that he is building companies to save humanity, according to Isaacson. SpaceX is to make humans a multiplanetary species, so we can escape to Mars if something apocalyptic happens to Earth. Tesla’s mission is to move humanity past a hydrocarbon economy, toward a sustainable future. His new firm xAI is there to help prevent artificial intelligence from taking over the world. Neuralink, which embeds technology into people’s brains, is there to help the blind see and the paralyzed walk. You can’t get more savior-like than that.
“People don’t usually talk with such a superheroic, almost Homeric kind of vibe in Silicon Valley,” Peter Thiel told Isaacson.
A person within this mythic consciousness can easily distort reality, confabulate and lie. Such a person can have the grandiose sense that he is indispensable to our species. Musk’s perennial crisis/urgency mentality, which drives him to behave as a craptaculous jerk to the people around him and serves as a rationalization for when he does, also fits.
People who have met Musk sometimes say it’s as if he is not a fully rounded human being, but seems like a character playing a role. One of Isaacson’s sources says, “He’s retained a childlike, almost stunted side.” Perhaps it’s because he is still inhabiting an adventure story.
Sometimes in life imagination is as important as intelligence. Musk’s apparent attachment to the hero myth seems to both make him fearless and also frequently a kind of monster. The mythic mind is a self-involved mind, which can never quite regard other people as being as important as the hero/self. Indeed the Musk of Isaacson’s book is on a series of epic quests — and is complex enough to be simultaneously hero and villain.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.
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