Elon Musk's Crazy Real-Life Story

The story goes that when Robert Downey Jr. was figuring out how to portray a certain eccentric billionaire inventor named Tony Stark, he knew exactly where to look for inspiration: Elon Musk is often referred to as "the real Iron Man," and it's easy to see why. While Musk's billionaire peers focus on developing new social media strategies or selling ads, the world's richest science fiction geek prefers to take on the most fantastic concepts imaginable — whether those are intelligent cars, solar houses, or rocket ships to Mars — and turn them into real-life technologies.  

But seriously, in our mundane world, where did a comic book character like Elon Musk come from? What's his story? Not surprisingly, Musk has lived an interesting, bizarre life ... which, if he gets his way, will one day end with him dying on Mars, according to Vanity Fair. Here's how an introverted little boy in South Africa became the CEO of Tesla, the Boring Company, and SpaceX. 

His parents thought he was deaf

From an early age, Elon Musk's quiet, intense, and introverted personality stood out. According to biographer Ashlee Vance, Musk's mother, Maye, was dazzled by her son's brilliance. However, his demeanor also worried her, primarily because of his strange habit of distantly gazing off, seemingly oblivious to when others called out his name. This also concerned the doctors, who determined the boy was probably deaf. In response, Musk's parents had his adenoid glands surgically removed, hoping to restore his hearing. When this didn't change his behavior, Maye realized her son didn't have hearing loss: He just spent a lot of time in his head, dreaming of possibilities.

Musk's quiet, introverted personality did not impress some of his hyper-masculine peers, who abused him relentlessly. According to Investopedia, Musk may have also been verbally and emotionally abused by his father, whom he lived with after his parents divorced. Speaking about his childhood, Musk said all the bullying "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."

He started making video games when was only 12 years old

Despite the constant torment Musk endured in his social life, Ashlee Vance writes that he found solace in the dramatic good versus evil battles of comic books and science fiction novels like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Growing up, he came to believe that he should use his intelligence to "make the world a better place."

These stories also fired up his imagination, and he began using his noggin creatively before he was even a teenager. According to The Verge, Musk coded his own Space Invaders-esque computer game, titled Blastar, when he was only 12 years old. Remember, this was back in 1984, decades before today's generation of iPad-wielding toddlers. The magazine PC and Office Technology found Blastar impressive enough that it bought the code from Musk, giving the preteen a thrilling $500 check. Not surprisingly, the young Musk's ambitions didn't end there. According to Esquire, by 16 he was trying to open his own arcade business around the corner from his high school, though this effort was blocked by the town.

To avoid mandatory military service, he left South Africa behind

Elon Musk was a smart kid with big dreams and the drive to transform those dreams into reality. He had no intention of staying in his home country, and though he'd had his sights on the United States from an early age, the move westward was hastened during his late adolescence. At that point, as recounted by Foreign Policy, young South Africans like Musk were required to serve in the military and to enforce the horrific system of institutionalized racial segregation known as apartheid. Musk did not want to take part in this, later explaining that, "suppressing black people just didn't seem like a really good way to spend time."

Musk planned his exit strategy. His mother was Canadian, so he did the math and figured it'd be easier to become a U.S. citizen if he tried as a Canadian immigrant rather than a South African one. He started by visiting his mother's family in Canada, then went to school in Ontario, and finally made it to the United States when he was accepted by the University of Pennsylvania. His gamble paid off, perhaps even more than he expected: After Musk moved to North America, most of his family ended up following him there.

His college experience was ... unique

Ah, college. A time of study, advancement, and bills. How is a student supposed to afford it all? Not easily, but if you were Elon Musk back in the early 1990s, you would rent out a house and turn it into a student nightclub, according to Vogue. While attending the University of Pennsylvania, Musk and his roommate Adeo Ressi regularly threw parties that welcomed up to 1,000 attendees, all of whom paid a cover charge to get in. For Musk, this was just a clever way to pay the rent. While the party raged on, he'd often be up in his bedroom. After wrapping up his time at Pennsylvania with degrees in both physics and economics, Musk flew out to Stanford University to get a Ph.D. in applied physics. A lofty goal? Not lofty enough for Musk, who dropped out only two days later. This wasn't a rebellious move, though. Musk said he saw the internet boom happening around him, and he wanted to strike while the iron was hot. Maybe that's why he still doesn't care (that much) about college degrees.

Encyclopedia Britannica says in 1995, Musk got the ball rolling on his first startup company, Zip2, which was kinda like Google Maps before Google Maps was even a thing. Compaq bought Zip2 in 1999 for $307 million, and Musk got enough of that to start having fun.

He joined the PayPal Mafia

The term "PayPal Mafia" might conjure up visions of gangsters knocking on your door, issuing stern threats if you ever again cheat on PayPal with Venmo. But it actually refers to the founders of the company, including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Max Levchin, according to The Verge. After selling off Zip2 in 1999, Musk opened up a financial services company called X.com. At the same time, Thiel and Levchin were working for a company called Confinity, which ran their relatively unknown (and mostly unused) digital money transfer program, "PayPal." Confinity and X.com merged together, and this merged company was officially named PayPal in 2001. Okay, yeah, so this sounds awfully mundane for a future rocketeer like Elon Musk, but you gotta start somewhere. Business Insider says when eBay purchased PayPal, Musk lined his bank account with $165 million of the sale.

Then, he started up... a lot of huge companies

Okay, now we're at the point where the Elon Musk of the past becomes the Elon Musk we know today. Fine, fine, call it Muskman Begins if you must. Anyway, once Musk made all that money from PayPal, he had free rein to start putting his wildest ideas into practice, so he launched a ridiculous array of different companies, each one targeted at solving many of the biggest problems in the world today, according to Wired.

Obviously, there's that little company named Tesla, with its self-driving cars. Then there's SpaceX, which is seeking to send humans to Mars within the next decade or so. But hey, it doesn't stop there. For example, are you fed up with clogged city traffic? So was Elon Musk, so he created the Boring Company for the purpose of boring tunnels deep underground to lighten traffic congestion. What about solar power? SolarCity isn't just putting up solar panels, it's building rechargeable solar "Powerwall" batteries for your home. His company Neuralink wants to turn cloud-based AI into an extension of the human brain, rather than a replacement. The list goes on. Though Musk didn't actually start every company that he's now known for, he's become the guiding creative force for all of them.

He once went broke (yes, really)

Considering how much Elon Musk has on his plate, it only makes sense that he's tripped over the occasional stumbling block. However, 2010 hit him especially hard, according to the New York Times, when he confessed that he'd run out of cash and was living off loans from other wealthy friends. Of course, being a "broke" billionaire isn't like being a broke regular person. As CNBC explains, Musk was "asset rich" and "cash poor," which meant he was sitting on a fortune of potential wealth but getting actual investment dollars would have meant selling off some the assets of his beloved companies — or selling off the companies themselves. Selling his shares to make a quick buck would've made financial sense at the time, but Musk chose not to. This decision paid off in the end: His ship turned around, and he's now worth billions.

Even today, Musk's adventurous, freewheeling style certainly carries some risks, which he's not afraid to laugh at. In 2018, Musk did an April Fools' tweet joking that Tesla had gone bankrupt, and that he was handling the depression by binge-drinking "Teslaquilla" bottles. The joke may be a little too prescient — Tesla's stock hasn't been doing well, and it's now under investigation for possible safety violations at its factory.

His relationship history is complex

Musk is notoriously quiet about his private life, but according to the Independent, romantic relationships are extremely important to him. He's previously stated that, "If I'm not in love, if I'm not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy," and confessed that he finds it deeply depressing to sleep alone in an empty house. However, being one of the busiest men on the planet has made it difficult for Musk to find the soul mate he's yearning for, resulting in a somewhat tumultuous relationship history.

He met his first wife, novelist Justine (Wilson) Musk, during his college days in Canada, and the two married in 2000. Though the couple has five living children, whom Elon describes as "the loves of his life," they suffered through a messy divorce in 2008, with Justine explaining that she hated feeling as if she'd been pigeonholed as a "trophy wife," according to Marie Claire. He then courted the woman who would become his next wife, Talulah Riley. Things seemed to be going well, with Talulah and Justine even becoming friends and pen pals. Unfortunately, this second marriage broke apart eight years later. Musk's most recent relationship was with actress Amber Heard, but reportedly the two had such conflicting schedules that they were forced to call it quits. For now, Musk is still looking for "the one."

His first son died as an infant

By all reports, Musk is deeply devoted to his children, all five of whom are boys. The conception of these children was helped via in vitro fertilization, which resulted in Justine Musk giving birth to twins in 2004 and triplets in 2006, according to Esquire

However, back in 2002, Elon and Justine were forced to deal with the heartbreaking loss of their first son, Nevada Alexander Musk. Nevada only lived for ten weeks before he suddenly stopped breathing, a tragic situation known as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The loss of Nevada was extremely difficult for Elon. Though Elon himself has remained quiet on the matter, Justine claims that he tried to emotionally repress his grief. She wrote that, "He was very much in the mode of stiff-upper-lip, the-show-must-go-on, let's-get-it-over-with. He doesn't do well in the dark places." She later wrote in Marie Claire that he was similarly stiff about her more open, vulnerable expressions of grief, and that he completely refused to discuss the death with her.

He used to be way too obsessed with Diet Coke

How does a man like Elon Musk keep his mind so laser-focused throughout the day when he has so many different projects? When it comes to stimulants, caffeine seems to be his favorite. While his tendency to drink a couple cups of coffee a day is hardly abnormal, Inc. writes that Musk used to be a major Diet Coke fiend. How much Diet Coke did he drink? Well, we don't have the numbers, but Musk once said that "I got so freaking jacked that I seriously started to feel like I was losing my peripheral vision. Now, the office has caffeine-free Diet Coke." 

Sounds like he made a good call in ditching the caffeine, though drinking any form of soda isn't particularly healthy. But hey, what about harder drinks? Other than those aforementioned (and certainly fictitious) "Teslaquillas," Musk wrote in a Reddit AMA that his drink of choice is whiskey.

He wants to prevent humanity from being destroyed by AI

Some people worry they'll never get a big house. Some people worry about their bills. Some people worry they'll never see a beautiful future where one day, finally, their roommate actually does the dishes. But the issue that Elon Musk loses sleep over is the possibility of humanity getting supplanted by a Skynet-like artificial intelligence, and he's been devoting a lot of his time, money, and expertise to saving the future from what he thinks are the wrong kind of robots.

According to Vanity Fair, Musk has been warning of the potential threat of a computerized apocalypse since at least 2014. (And hey, Terminator is very convincing.) Musk is watching AI very carefully, and he has publicly advocated for a national (or international) oversight committee on AI matters to keep researchers in check. He believes the key element in preventing an AI takeover is to focus on integrating humans and machines: basically, turning people into cyborgs. Which, honestly, doesn't seem so far-fetched when you consider how often people stare at their phones. Regardless, Musk takes this issue so seriously that it has been referred to as "Elon's crusade." Considering that other techies like Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking have fully agreed with him, we should probably pay attention.