There’s a scene in the 2012 mega-hit The Avengers, where Steve Rogers confronts Tony Stark – asking him just who he is without the Iron Man suit. Tony replies in a phrase that’s been replicated at comic cons, on drink coasters, and even parodied several times over – “Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist.”

TIME Magazine confers a similar, even longer set of titles for Tesla/SpaceX CEO and ‘Person of the Year’, Elon Musk.

“Clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad.”

At half a century old, Elon Reeves Musk doesn’t look too out of place with a buzzed undercut, wearing the definitive haircut of a male generation that seems to idolize him. The numbers do the talking – 66 million Twitter followers, a record-shattering net worth that’s approaching $265 billion… 7 children.

For a man with a significant personal legacy, perhaps it’s not too surprising to hear his gospel of uplifting humanity. “He tosses satellites into orbit and harnesses the sun; he drives a car he created that uses no gas and barely needs a driver,” pen TIME editors Molly Ball and Jeffrey Kluger. “With a flick of his finger, the stock market soars or swoons. An army of devotees hangs on his every utterance. He dreams of Mars as he bestrides Earth, square-jawed and indomitable.”

And yet, in the same breath – TIME addresses Musk’s alleged ignorance of workplace safety during COVID, his ongoing tax evasion scandal, racial and sexual harassment cases at his companies, deaths behind the wheels of Tesla’s autopiloted cars… there’s as many abhorrent problems as there are inspiring innovations behind his name.

With Musk now perched at the top of Wall Street’s ‘greatest hits’ list, I concur that TIME couldn’t have made a better pick for 2021 – let’s revisit the man’s origins, successes, failures, and potential legacy.

 

Musk In The Making

Elon Musk Childhood

Perhaps a single quote from Elon’s younger brother and business associate, Kimbal Musk, explains it best:

“He is a savant when it comes to business, but his gift is not empathy with people.”

Many of Musk’s critics point to his family’s questionable sources of wealth – his father, most of all. Almost like a myth that surfaces around the fringes of his fandom, Musk’s still-alive father, Errol, acts like a sinister specter that hangs over the family. His mother, Maye, described her relationship with Errol as ‘physically, financially and emotionally manipulative and abusive’.

Elon’s relationship with the man is similarly shrouded in tense, cold overtones – telling reporters that his father was, straight-up, ‘evil’. Elon and his brother were regularly psychologically tormented and left abandoned at home while their father built millions on the backs of an engineering business – and allegedly, an emerald mine in Tanzania. School wasn’t much better either. The young Elon was regularly brutalized by school bullies, ending up hospitalized in one instance.

Apparently, Elon’s true escape came in the form of science and engineering. He would regularly tinker with explosives and pieces of 1970s-1980s tech, soon learning to code and understand the inner workings of his prized video game consoles.

 

Escaping Apartheid

Elon Musk at 17

Most of Elon’s early years were spent as part of a wealthy white family, during a time when racial prejudice was at its peak in his native South Africa.

One of the worst demands of racial apartheid was mandatory military service for Whites – in many ways designed to make young White men develop first-hand training in violently oppressing the Black population.

Musk wanted none of this, and considered university as a means of escaping the mandatory draft. Using his mother’s Canadian roots to obtain a visa in her home country, he soon made his way into Queen’s University, Ontario.

From there, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania – where he obtained a double major in economics and physics, before joining a PhD program at Stanford.

This is where Musk made that all-too-common decision – dropping out of Stanford to pursue his dreams. Following in the footsteps of everyone from John F. Kennedy to Larry Page and Steve Ballmer, Elon quit Stanford in 2 days – I wonder if that’s a university record.

 

Musk’s First Millions

Elon and Kimbal Musk

The plan was simple – both Kimbal and Elon would rent a tiny office in Palo Alto, California. The brothers slept on the floor, showered at the local YMCA chapter, tapped into an illegal internet line from a neighbor, and lived on fast food.

The idea, however, was fairly complex. The brothers worked in tandem to launch Zip2 – the world’s first Internet-based mapping service. Kimbal handled meetings and business interests, while Elon coded nonstop.

Their efforts finally paid off in 1999. After four years of painstaking work, digital pioneers Compaq purchased Zip2, with Elon’s share netting him around $22 million. A long time coming, no doubt.

Elon’s next aim was significantly more ambitious. A project that started off as ‘X.com’, he would go on to co-found PayPal, which in Elon’s eyes was destined to end the monopoly of global banking systems. Despite making $180 million for selling the company to eBay in 2002, Elon remained peeved – upset that while he achieved a great personal milestone, his early companies ‘never fulfilled their potential as he saw it.’

Several years later in 2017, Musk would return to PayPal, purchasing the ‘X.com’ web domain for an undisclosed sum. He said that he did so for ‘sentimental’ reasons.

It’s an interesting reminder that, after all those years of turning from an unknown coder to space pioneer and media darling, he still had a soft spot for the first project that he believed would change the world.

 

The Origins of SpaceX and Tesla

Elon Musk at Tesla Event

2001 was a pretty important year for Musk.

At 30, newlywed to first wife Justine Wilson, Musk took a vacation to South Africa. Hoping for some time off, the young millionaire instead contracted severe malaria. The young entrepreneur nearly died in the process.

The next year was even more crushing – despite his massive financial win with PayPal, the young couple were devastated when they lost their first child, Nevada Alexander Musk, to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), at only 10 weeks.

Something changed within the tech entrepreneur during this phase. His close circle says that he developed an urgency to make more of his time on Earth. It was also around then that Musk developed a major issue with NASA – appalled that the world’s greatest space agency had no plans to go to Mars.

Leaving behind the dot-com bubble, Musk began to make friends with others who shared a vision of interplanetary travel – famously visiting Russia to find out if he could purchase an old Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile, and turn it into a spacefaring rocket. Simultaneously he met a Stanford-trained engineer named JB Straubel, who convinced him that mid-2000s battery tech was on the brink of a revolution that could enable electric cars – all he needed was an investor who believed in him.

In Straubel’s words:

”I saw plenty of examples of people that had enormous wealth, and were entirely cautious. In Elon, there was this complete opposite mindset.”

Both companies (somehow) survived rough starts and the 2008 financial crisis, and are now some of the most publicly-celebrated and successful companies in their fields today.

However, there were signs of trouble looming over the horizon.

 

Musk’s Controversies

Elon Musk

You don’t overtake the world’s biggest companies without making a few enemies along the way. As the world’s richest man, Musk’s ethos, choices, and ultimately, capitalist success make his stance on taxation his most important controversy – we’ll get into another one in a moment.

What’s his stance, you ask? In a nutshell – Musk believes that the idea of governments using taxation for public good is a deeply flawed system, and rarely results in positive effects for the average person. This results in a fairly confused political stance, especially in the bipartisan US – where neither Democrat nor Republican has the right tools to unravel Musk’s agenda of technological progress across the human race.

Basically, Musk thinks that governments are horrible at spending tax effectively, and as a result he has resorted to minimize his tax payments.

The ultra-wealthy try their absolute best to not pay income tax, almost as a rule. The result is that, despite the average American paying around 13.3% in income tax, Musk’s ‘true tax rate’ was calculated at a paltry 3.27%.

To many of us, the idea that the richest man in the world pays a tax percentage closer to the bottom tax brackets is rightfully infuriating. Everyone from leftist Twitter to leftist Twitter darling, Bernie Sanders, has publicly thrown shade at Musk for this.

The most common rebuttal to this is that almost all of Musk’s personal fortune is in the form of stock in his ventures. As a result, proposing a ‘billionaire tax’ would directly stunt the company and all its shareholders as well. Indian engineer Pranay Pathole explained this in a short series of Musk-endorsed tweets this year:

This is where we come full circle – if we are to defend Musk’s private wealth and the existence of his companies, how exactly are those companies run? Like his brother suggests, not too empathically.

Musk’s employees have complained of several key problems. This October, a federal jury ordered Tesla to cough up $137 million, as a result of a Black employee who claimed that the company was allowing racial abuse to proliferate within its ranks.

There are also stories of sexual harassment that came to light this year as well. A woman named Jessica Barraza stated that the company’s Fremont, California plant was a hotbed of sexual harassment, where women employees were constantly catcalled and groped – with no real action being taken by human resources. An older lawsuit from 2017 echoes the same problems, where an ex-Tesla engineer accused the company of allowing sexual harassment to continue while gatekeeping female engineers from promotions and equal pay.

While some Musk diehards will suggest that the CEO cannot be held directly accountable for the actions of on-ground employees, Tesla’s worsening reputation as a harassment-friendly ‘frat house’ was further bolstered by a ‘boob joke tweet’ from Musk, earlier this year:

With multiple women speaking up against Tesla’s sexist workplace culture, a tweet like this clearly comes off as insensitive and callous.

In the end, Musk’s story is as frustrating as it is fascinating – a man with grand dreams for the human race, but little concern for the average human being. Whether you idolize or insult him depends on which side of that scale you fall on – and by highlighting his story, TIME has done a pretty good job of covering his highest highs and lowest lows.

You can read TIME’s ‘Person of the Year 2021’ article here.

(Image Sources: @elonmusk, Twitter)