Visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk is the co-founder of PayPal (PYPL), Tesla Motors (TSLA), and SolarCity (SCTY), and is the founder of SpaceX. His astounding success has given rise to comparisons of Musk and Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates. Amid an often difficult childhood, Musk developed a relentless work ethic (he is known to work as many as 80 to 100 hours per week) and a tenacious single-minded vision.
On September 7, 2018 Musk appeared to be smoking marijuana while interviewing for a podcast. Coupled with the exit of Tesla's head of human resources and chief accounting officer, that news saw the stock drop as much as 9% in trade. This was just another addition to the string of bad news for the company, including a shareholder lawsuit against Musk and the company for his infamous tweet on August 7. Musk had tweeted that he is considering taking Tesla private. The company later decided against the move.
We look at the early life and education of the man behind a string of companies that have disrupted multiple industries.
Family Background and Youth in South Africa
Elon Reeve Musk was born in 1971 in Pretoria, one of South Africa's three capital cities. His father was an engineer and his mother was a model and nutritionist. He is the oldest of three children in an ambitious family. His brother Kimbal Musk is currently a venture capitalist and environmentalist. His sister Tosca Musk is an award-winning producer and director.
After his parents divorced when he was nine, Musk lived mostly with his father. Musk started school a year early, attending the private Waterkloof House Preparatory School and later graduating from Pretoria Boys High School. He read voraciously and was also an avid fan of comics. Self-described as a bookworm and something of a smart aleck, he was bullied in school and withdrew to his books at the expense of his social life.
At the age of 10, Musk was introduced to computers with the Commodore VIC-20. He quickly learned how to program and at the age of 12 sold a game called Blastar to Spectravideo for $500.
In one telling incident at that time, Musk, along with his brother, planned to open a video game arcade near their school. Ultimately, their parents nixed the plan. But apparently the only thing stopping them was the need for a city permit which had to be applied for by an adult.
Bullied as a Child
Musk’s intellectual aptitude did him few favors as a child. He found few friends in the tough-minded Afrikaner culture he encountered in school.
"I had a terrible upbringing. I had a lot of adversity growing up. One thing I worry about with my kids is they don't face enough adversity," he would later say in an interview.
Musk attended the English-speaking Waterkloof House Preparatory School, and later graduated from Pretoria Boys High School. The years were lonely and brutal, from his descriptions.
“They got my best friend to lure me out of hiding so they could beat me up. And that hurt,” Musk said. “For some reason they decided that I was it, and they were going to go after me nonstop. That’s what made growing up difficult. For a number of years there was no respite. You get chased around by gangs at school who tried to beat the (expletive) out of me, and then I’d come home, and it would just be awful there as well.”
If there was a point of bright escape for Musk; it was technology. When he was only 10, he became acquainted with programming via the Commodore VIC-20, an inexpensive home computer. Before long, he had become proficient enough to create Blastar – a video game in the style of Space-Invaders. He sold the BASIC code for the game to a magazine called PC and Office Technology for $500.
Moving to Canada
At 17, Musk moved to Canada to avoid serving in the South African military, whose main duty in the late 1980s was enforcing apartheid. He would later obtain Canadian citizenship through his mother.
After emigrating to Canada, Musk enrolled in Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. It was there that he met Justine Wilson, an aspiring writer. They would marry and have five sons together, twins and triplets, before divorcing in 2008.
Musk's Education in the U.S.
After two years at Queen's University, Musk transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. He took on two majors, but his time there wasn’t all work and no play. With a fellow student, he bought a 10-bedroom fraternity house, which they used as an ad hoc nightclub.
Musk graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Physics, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from the Wharton School. The two majors speak to the direction Musk’s career would take later, but it was physics that made the deepest impression on his thinking.
“(Physics is) a good framework for thinking,” he’d later say. “Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there.”
Musk was 24 years old when he moved to California to pursue a PhD in applied physics at Stanford University. With the internet exploding and Silicon Valley booming, Musk had entrepreneurial visions dancing in his head. He left the PhD program after just two days. (Related: Dropping out of School to Start a Business)
In 1995, with $28,000 and his younger brother Kimbal at his side, Musk started Zip2, a web software company that would help newspapers develop online city guides. The company got bought out, and Musk used his Zip2 buyout money to create X.com, which he intended to shape into the future of banking. X was merged with a company called Confinity and the resulting company came to be known as PayPal. Musk was then ousted from the company before it was bought by eBay.
After PayPal slipped away, Musk helped generate funding for an electric car startup called Tesla. You probably know the rest.
The Bottom Line
His early interest in reading philosophy, science fiction, and fantasy novels is reflected in his sense of idealism and concern with human progress. He aims to work in the areas he has identified as crucial to our future, specifically the Internet, the transition to renewable energy sources, and space colonization. With his work with PayPal, Tesla Motors, SolarCity, and SpaceX, he has defied critics and made advances in all three of these frontiers. (See alsoː 4 Real-Life Tony Starks.)