Walter Isaacson is the author of biographies of Elon Musk, Jennifer Doudna, Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Kissinger. He teaches history at Tulane and was the editor of Time and the CEO of CNN.
When he turned age 17, Elon Musk began pushing both his mother and father, trying to convince them to move from South Africa to the United States and take him and his siblings. Neither was interested. “So then I was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to go by myself,’” he says.
He first tried to get U.S. citizenship on the grounds that his mother’s father had been born in Minnesota, but that failed because his mother had been born in Canada and had never claimed U.S. citizenship. So he concluded that getting to Canada might be an easier first step. He went to the Canadian consulate on his own, got application forms for a passport, and filled them out not only for himself but for his mother brother, and sister (but not father). The approvals came through in late May, 1989.
Now known primarily as the chief executive of the electric-car company Tesla, Mr. Musk was shaped in a variety of ways by the three years he spent in Canada. The South Africa of his childhood was a violent place that made him a callous risk-taker; Canada, by contrast, was a friendly place where he didn’t always have to be on guard. He was able, especially at Queen’s University, to develop true friendships for the first time. And he also found his first mentor, from whom he learned lessons about how banks worked, and didn’t, that would influence his career from his cofounding of PayPal to his attempts to transform X, formerly known as Twitter, into a payments platform.
When Elon left South Africa, his father gave him US$2,000 in traveller’s cheques and his mother provided him with another US$2,000 by cashing out a stock account she had opened with the money she won in a beauty contest as a teenager. Otherwise, what he mainly had with him when he arrived in Montreal was a list of his mother’s relatives he had never met.
He planned to call his mother’s uncle, but discovered that he had left Montreal. So he went to a youth hostel, where he shared a room with five other people. “I was used to South Africa, where people will just rob and kill you,” he says. “So I slept on my backpack until I realized that not everyone was a murderer.” He wandered the town marveling that people did not have bars on their windows.
After a week, he bought a US$100 Greyhound Discovery Pass that allowed him to travel by bus anywhere in Canada for six months. He had a second cousin his age, Mark Teulon, who lived on a farm in Saskatchewan province not far from Moose Jaw, where his grandparents had lived, so he headed there.
The bus, which stopped at every hamlet, took days to wander across Canada. At one stop, he got off to find lunch and, just as the bus was leaving, ran to jump back on. Unfortunately, the driver had taken off his suitcase with his traveller’s cheques and clothes. All he had now was the knapsack of books he carried everywhere. The difficulty of getting traveller’s cheques replaced (it took weeks) was an early taste of how the financial-payments system needed disruption.
When he got to the town near his cousin’s farm, he used some of the change he had in his pocket to call. “Hey, it’s Elon, your cousin from South Africa,” he said. “I’m at the bus station.” The cousin showed up with his father, took him to a Sizzler steak house, and invited him to stay at their wheat farm, where he was put to work cleaning grain bins and helping to raise a barn. There he celebrated his eighteenth birthday with a cake they baked with “Happy Birthday Elon” written in chocolate icing.
After six weeks, he got back on the bus and headed for Vancouver to stay with his mother’s half-brother. When he went to an employment office, he saw that most jobs paid US$5 an hour. But there was one that paid US$18 an hour, cleaning out the boilers in the lumber mill. This involved donning a hazmat suit and shimmying through a small tunnel that led to the chamber where the wood pulp was being boiled while shoveling out the lime that had caked on the walls. “If the person at the end of the tunnel didn’t remove the goo fast enough, you would be trapped while sweating your guts out,” he recalls. “It was like a Dickensian steampunk nightmare filled with dark pipes and the sound of jackhammers.”
While Elon was in Vancouver, his mother, Maye Musk, flew from South Africa, having decided that she wanted to move as well. She sent back scouting reports to Elon’s sister, Tosca. Vancouver was too cold and rainy, she wrote. Montreal was exciting, but people there spoke French. Toronto, she concluded, was where they should go. Tosca promptly sold their house and furniture in South Africa, then she joined their mother in Toronto, where Elon also moved. His brother, Kimbal, stayed behind in Pretoria to finish his last year in high school.
At first they all lived in a one-bedroom apartment, with Tosca and her mother sharing a bed while Elon slept on the couch. There was little money. Maye remembers crying when she spilled some milk because she didn’t have enough to buy any more.
Tosca got a job at a hamburger joint, Elon as an intern in Microsoft’s Toronto office, and Maye at the university and a modeling agency, and she also worked as a diet consultant. “I worked every day and also four nights a week,” she says. “I took off one afternoon, Sunday, to do the laundry and get groceries. I didn’t even know what my kids were doing, because I was hardly at home.”
After a few months, they were making enough money to afford a rent-controlled three-bedroom apartment. It had felt wallpaper, which Maye insisted that Elon rip down, and a horrid carpet. They were going to buy a US$200 replacement carpet, but Tosca insisted on a thicker one for US$300 because Kimbal was coming over to join them and would sleep on the floor. Their second big purchase was a computer for Elon.
He had no friends or social life in Toronto, and he spent most of his time reading or working on the computer. Tosca, on the contrary, was a saucy teenager, eager to go out. “I’m coming with you,” Elon would declare, not wanting to be lonely. “No you’re not,” she would reply. But when he insisted, she ordered, “You have to stay ten feet away from me at all times.” He did. He would walk behind her and her friends, carrying a book to read whenever they went into a club or party.
Mr. Musk’s college-admissions test scores were not especially notable. On his second round of the SAT tests, he got a 670 out of 800 on his verbal exam and a 730 on math. He narrowed his choices to two universities that were an easy drive from Toronto: Waterloo and Queen’s. “Waterloo was definitely better for engineering, but it didn’t seem great from a social standpoint,” he says. “There were few girls there.” He felt he knew computer science and engineering as well as any of the professors at both places, but he desperately desired a social life. “I didn’t want to spend my undergraduate time with a bunch of dudes.” So in the fall of 1990 he enrolled at Queen’s.
He was placed on the “international floor” of one of the dorms, where, on the first day, he met a student named Navaid Farooq, who became his first real and lasting friend outside of his family. Mr. Farooq’s father was Pakistani and his mother Canadian, and he was raised in Nigeria and Switzerland, where his parents worked for United Nations organizations. Like Elon, he had made no close friends in high school. At Queen’s, he and Mr. Musk quickly bonded over their interests in computer and board games, obscure history and science fiction. “For me and Elon,” Mr. Farooq says, “it was probably the first place we were socially accepted and could be ourselves.”
During his first year, Mr. Musk got A’s in Business, Economics, Calculus, and Computer Programming, but he got B’s in Accounting, Spanish, and Industrial Relations. The following year, he took another course in Industrial Relations, which studies the dealings between workers and management. Again, he got a B. He later told the Queen’s alumni magazine that the most important thing he learned during his two years there was “how to work collaboratively with smart people and make use of the Socratic method to achieve commonality of purpose,” a skill, like those of industrial relations, that future colleagues would deem had been only partly honed.
He was more interested in late-night philosophy discussions about the meaning of life. “I was really hungry for that,” he says, “because until then I had no friends I could talk to about these things.” But most of all, he became immersed, with Mr. Farooq at his side, in the world of board and computer games.
Mr. Musk had enjoyed all types of video games as a teenager in South Africa, including first-person shooters and adventure quests, but at college he became more focused on the genre known as strategy games, ones that involve two or more players competing to build an empire using high-level strategy, resource management, supply-chain logistics, and tactical thinking.
While he was at Queen’s, the first great computer-based strategy game was released: Civilization. In it, players compete to build a society from prehistory to the present by choosing what technologies to develop and production facilities to build. Mr. Musk moved his desk so that he could sit on his bed and Mr. Farooq on a chair to face off and play the game. “We completely entered a zone for hours until we were exhausted,” Mr. Farooq says. They moved on to Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, where a key part of the strategy is to develop a sustainable supply of resources, such as metals from mines. After hours of playing, they would take a break for a meal, and Elon would describe the moment in the game when he knew he was going to win. “I am wired for war,” he told Mr. Farooq.
One class at Queen’s used a strategy game in which teams competed in a simulation of growing a business. The players could decide the prices of their products, the amount spent on advertising, what profits to plow back into research, and other variables. Mr. Musk figured out how to reverse-engineer the logic that controlled the simulation, so he was able to win every time.
When Kimbal moved to Canada and joined Elon as a student at Queen’s, the brothers developed a routine. They would read the newspaper and pick out the person they found most interesting. Elon was not one of those eager-beaver types who liked to attract and charm mentors, so the more gregarious Kimbal took the lead in cold-calling the person. “If we were able to get through on the phone, they usually would have lunch with us,” he says.
One they picked was Peter Nicholson, the executive in charge of strategic planning at Scotiabank. Mr. Nicholson was an engineer with a master’s degree in physics and a PhD in math. When Kimbal got through to him, he agreed to have lunch with the boys. Their mother took them shopping at Eaton’s department store, where the purchase of a US$99 suit got you a free shirt and tie. At lunch they discussed philosophy and physics and the nature of the universe. Mr. Nicholson offered them summer jobs, inviting Elon to work directly with him on his three-person strategic planning team.
Mr. Nicholson, then forty-nine, and Elon had fun together solving math puzzles and weird equations. “I was interested in the philosophical side of physics and how it related to reality,” Mr. Nicholson says. “I didn’t have a lot of other people to talk to about these things.” They also discussed what had become Mr. Musk’s passion: space travel.
When Elon went with Mr. Nicholson’s daughter, Christie, to a party one evening, his first question was, “Do you ever think about electric cars?” As he later admitted, it was not the world’s best come-on line.
One topic Mr. Musk researched for Mr. Nicholson was Latin American debt. Banks had made billions in loans to countries such as Brazil and Mexico that could not be repaid, and in 1989 the U.S. Treasury secretary, Nicholas Brady, packaged these debt obligations into tradable securities known as “Brady Bonds.” Because these bonds were backed by the U.S. government, Mr. Musk believed that they would always be worth 50 cents on the dollar. However, some were selling as low as 20 cents.
Mr. Musk figured that Scotiabank could make billions by buying the bonds at that cheap price, and he called the Goldman Sachs trading desk in New York to make sure they were available. “Yeah, how much you want?” the gruff trader on the phone responded. “Would it be possible to get five million?” Mr. Musk asked, putting on a deep and serious voice. When the trader said that would be no problem, Mr. Musk quickly hung up. “I was like, ‘Jackpot, no-lose proposition here,’ " he says. “I ran to tell Peter about it and thought they would give me some money to do it.” But the bank rejected the idea. The CEO said it already held too much Latin American debt. “Wow, this is just insane,” Mr. Musk said to himself. “Is this how banks think?”
Mr. Nicholson says that Scotiabank was navigating the Latin American debt situation using its own methods, which worked better. “He came away with an impression that the bank was a lot dumber than in fact it was,” Mr. Nicholson says. “But that was a good thing, because it gave him a healthy disrespect for the financial industry and the audacity to eventually start what became PayPal.”
Mr. Musk also drew another lesson from his time at Scotiabank: He did not like, nor was he good at, working for other people. It was not in his nature to be deferential or to assume that others might know more than he did.
Excerpt has been adapted from Elon Musk. Copyright © 2023 Walter Isaacson. Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.