Elon Musk: the space oddity seeking world domination

Elon Musk, the electric-car and space-travel pioneer who wants to move to Mars is now the world’s richest man. If he seems delusional, that’s all part of the plan.

Elon Musk
(Image credit: © BRITTA PEDERSEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Tesla’s founder Elon Musk has overtaken Amazon’s chief Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest individual. Musk now has a fortune worth $188.5bn at the last count. “How strange,” Musk tweeted wryly when the news broke. “Well, back to work…” There are still plenty of people on Wall Street who maintain that his electric-car company, whose stock has risen sevenfold since the start of 2020, is blowing bubbles more than creating value. But this has been an extraordinary 12 months for Musk – even by his own out-of-the-box standards. In line with Tesla’s surging shares, the South African-born entrepreneur, 49, has seen his personal worth soar by more than $150bn “in what is believed to be the quickest accumulation of wealth in history”, says The Times.

But Musk, who attributes his success to pursuing goals that seem “completely delusional”, has also achieved huge breakthroughs. In May his rocket venture, SpaceX, made history by becoming the first private company to launch astronauts into space. In August he demonstrated a new interest in bionics by wheeling out a pig with a coin-sized chip in her head. And while all this was going on, Musk and his girlfriend, the Canadian musician Grimes, staged a memorable assault on nomenclature norms by naming their newborn son “X Æ A-12”.

It’s all a far cry from the “darkest days” of 2017 when Tesla was under siege from bears and short-sellers, and Musk was mired in scandal, says Bloomberg. Castigated for misleading markets about Tesla’s financial prospects, he caused outrage with his provocative tweets and public dope smoking, and became the target of global opprobrium when he called a British caver who had helped rescue 12 Thai boys trapped in a cave a “pedo”. At around that time, Musk “reached out” to Apple’s boss, Tim Cook, to explore a sale of Tesla. Cook refused to take his call.

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Born in Bloemfontein, the son of an electromechanical engineer and a dietician and model, Musk’s parents divorced when he was nine, says Business Insider. His school days weren’t easy either: “he was once hospitalised after being beaten by bullies”. Musk took refuge in books (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a particular favourite) and computer “hacking”. At 12, the nascent entrepreneur made his first killing, selling a simple game to a computer magazine for $500. Moving to Canada with his mother and siblings, Musk took degrees in physics and economics and won a place at Stanford to study for a PhD. He quit to “test his luck in the dotcom boom”.

Elon Musk's first ventures

His first venture, Zip2 – a city travel guide – made Musk $22m when he sold it Compaq for $341m. He used around half of that to start an online banking company, X.com, in 1999, merging it a year later with a financial start-up cofounded by Peter Thiel to form PayPal – his first blockbuster company. Musk netted $165m when eBay later bought the outfit for $1.5bn. Musk has always divided critics – whether transforming the financial payments industry or plotting a future life on Mars, where he says he’d like to die, he makes “his investors nervous and his fan boys thrilled”, says The New York Times. His friends think that’s all part of the ride. They describe Musk’s internal narrative as going something like this: “I’m going to take over the world. That’s going to be a super-crazy process. And therefore, if the roller-coaster ride isn’t incredibly scary, I’m doing something wrong”.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.