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Elon Musk: How a bullied boy became a man who can change the world.


Genius, billionaire, philanthropist … Elon Musk is not Tony Stark, but he’s getting close.

Musk, who has a 10-second cameo in Iron Man 2, was the inspiration for director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey jnr’s big-screen Tony Stark because he’s at the cutting edge of technology and is shaping its impact on humanity.

The adventures of the South African-born Musk are documented in a new biography by Ashlee Vance, a Bloomberg journalist who hounded him into co-operating with him.

The CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and chairman of SolarCity is one of the most recognisable figures in the world. In his book, Vance details the boardroom battles and workplace fistfights between brothers Elon and Kimbal when they launched their first company, Zip2, later sold to Compaq for $300-million – as well as the inspiration and sheer force of will that were part of Musk’s often turbulent trip to the top.

Much has been made about his adventures in Silicon Valley. He co-founded PayPal and made a mint when eBay bought it for $1.5-billion.

Through his companies, Musk is pushing the boundaries of technology to achieve lofty goals: he wants to build a future that will see humankind weaned off fossil fuel (SolarCity and Tesla) and have us become an interplanetary species – SpaceX aims to get us to Mars to build colonies. Like, seriously? Where does he get the chutzpah?

Aware of his own myth, Musk recently tweeted: “The rumour that I’m building a spaceship to get back to my home planet Mars is totally untrue.”

He’s not from Mars. He’s from Pretoria. And therein lies some of the answer to the chutzpah question.

His prodigious natural – some might say unnatural – talents aside, Musk suffered the kind of adversity growing up that frequently leads bright sparks to achieve beyond the dreams of most.

He has successfully battled goliaths in two sectors notoriously hard to crack: the motor and aeronautical industries. And he’s done it before; along with Kimbal, Musk founded X.com (later PayPal), initially conceived as the world’s first internet bank, beyond the secure internet payment system it was relegated to when bought by eBay.

The brothers have profited from their talents. But those talents could not have borne such glorious fruit were they not combined with an appetite for risk way beyond the norm, coupled with the motivation of wanting to escape an unhappy childhood.

Musk turned four a few days after the Soweto uprisings. He travelled abroad regularly with his father, Errol, and Vance notes the young Musk “would have gotten a flavour of how the rest of the world viewed South Africa”.

But despite being raised in a well-off, whites-only suburb, the Musk boys and their young sister Tosca did not have a happy childhood. Errol, an engineer, was not a happy man and could “suck the joy out of any situation”.

Musk and his first wife, Justine, have agreed that their children will never meet Errol. Musk ‘s mother, Maye, a former Miss South Africa finalist who was won over by Errol’s determined wooing, will not speak of what the family endured. The couple divorced when Musk was about eight . Maye moved to Durban with Tosca; Musk and Kimbal opted to live with Errol.

It would certainly be accurate to say that I did not have a good childhood. It was not absent of good, but it was not a happy childhood. It was like misery

“I don’t want to tell you stories. You know, you just don’t talk about it. There are kids and grandkids involved,” Maye told Vance. The book details how Errol would sit the boys down and lecture them for three or four hours without them being able to respond.

Kimbal told Vance: “He definitely has serious chemical stuff [imbalances]. Which I am sure Elon and I have inherited. It was a very emotionally challenging upbringing, but it made us who we are today.”

Musk called his father “an odd duck” and said: “It would certainly be accurate to say that I did not have a good childhood. It may sound good. It was not absent of good, but it was not a happy childhood. It was like misery.

But it was not just at home where things were rough. At school, Musk, already the nerdish know-it-all, was tormented by bullies. Vance writes that the “Afrikaner culture so prevalent in Pretoria and the surrounding areas had an impact on Musk”.

“Hypermasculine behaviour was celebrated and tough jocks were revered.” And the jocks decided that Musk, a compulsive reader since childhood and prone to “dreamlike states”, did not belong. The books of JRR Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, and his childhood favourite, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, provided an escape, but the small world he lived in was stifling.

Vance writes that Musk bounced around a few schools and encountered serious bullying at Bryanston High. One afternoon, he and Kimbal were sitting on the top of a flight of concrete stairs eating when a boy crept up behind Musk, kicked him in the head and pushed him down the stairs. Musk said: “I think I accidentally bumped this guy at assembly that morning and he’d taken some huge offence at that.”

After he’d tumbled down the stairs, a bunch of boys jumped on him, kicking him in the side while the ringleader smashed his head on the ground. “They were a bunch of f***ing psychos,” Musk said. After a week in hospital, he had to return to school. But the bullies did not relent. Vance writes that they beat up a boy whom Musk considered his best friend, until the boy agreed to stop being Musk’s friend.

The author notes that “while Musk enjoyed a level of privilege, his notion that something about the world had gone awry received constant reinforcement, and Musk, almost from his earliest days, plotted his escape”.

Musk had an American dream and spent much of his time plotting to get to the US. His dad tried to teach him a lesson by sending away the housekeepers so the young boy would have to do all the chores – to let him know what it was like “to play American”.

It did not work. Musk got to the US via Canada in his 20s, helped by his mother’s Canadian citizenship.

Would Elon Musk be Elon Musk without the adversity of his formative years? Would he have chased a dream in Canada and the US if all his needs had been met in South Africa? Probably not. Probably he would be living a life far less

Article taken from: http://www.timeslive.co.za/sundaytimes/opinion/2015/05/31/Elon-Musk-How-a-bullied-boy-became-a-man-who-can-change-the-world on 02/06/2015. Sunday Times.