Elon Musk’s Struggle Story: Abuse, Loss, and Divorce

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Elon Musk" by Ashlee Vance. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Elon Musk’s struggle story? How did he deal with personal hardships?

The Elon Musk struggle story began during his childhood when he was bullied at school and had to deal with his parent’s divorce. Later in life, he dealt with the sudden death of his first child and multiple divorces. Elon didn’t waste time mourning and instead focused all of his attention on his businesses.

Keep reading to explore the Elon Musk struggle story.

Childhood Struggles

The Elon Musk struggle story began when he was a child. When Musk was eight years old, his parents divorced, and his mother Maye moved the three children to the Musk’s holiday home on the east coast of South Africa. After a few years, Musk decided to live with his father, Errol. Vance notes that Musk wouldn’t go into great detail about his father, but he acknowledged that Errol was a difficult person to be around, inflicted a level of psychological torture on him, made his life miserable, and dismissed Musk’s dream of moving to America.

(Shortform note: While Musk doesn’t explain the specifics of what made Errol a difficult father, Maye provided more insight in her memoir A Woman Makes a Plan. She explains that Errol was manipulative and abusive—physically, financially, and emotionally. In another interview, Musk supported her claim, stating Errol was physically violent with him when Musk was very young.) 

The Elon Musk struggle story continues for him at school. Musk’s bookishness and know-it-all reputation set him apart from his peers, and he was beaten and bullied by a group of boys for several years. Musk noted that this was one of the most difficult experiences of his childhood. The bullying finally stopped when he switched to a different high school with a more peaceful environment.

Personal Life as an Adult

The Elon Musk struggle story didn’t end when he became an adult. While Musk spent a lot of time and energy on his businesses, he also made time for his personal life, including dating, having children, and divorce.

In May 2002, Musk and his first wife, Justine, welcomed their first child, Nevada. When he was 10-weeks old, Nevada died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The Musks were devastated. Musk confided in a few of his friends about his grief. But while Justine openly mourned, Musk didn’t think making his sadness public was productive. Instead, he turned his attention to the future and his companies.

(Shortform note: Some experts note that the death of a child may result in lifelong mourning and grief. Vance notes that Justine and Musk grieved differently after Nevada’s sudden death, and experts note that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. But these differences can result in misunderstandings between partners. Instead, experts encourage people to respect others’ style of grief, whether it’s emotional, action-based, internalized, or a mix of everything.)

By 2008, Musk was devoting his time to Tesla’s production issues and SpaceX’s launch problems. He usually worked seven days a week, and as a result, he didn’t spend much time at home with his family. Justine was unhappy due to postpartum depression following the birth of their triplets in 2006, and she was dissatisfied with being treated like a trophy wife. Their relationship deteriorated until Musk filed for divorce. 

The next month, Musk met a 22-year-old actress named Talulah Riley, and they got married a few weeks later. Justine continued to post on her blog about the divorce and Musk’s new wife. This exacerbated the bad press surrounding Musk and his companies, which added to his stress and the Elon Musk struggle story. Musk and Riley later divorced, remarried, and divorced again.

(Shortform note: Musk’s turbulent marriages and divorces highlight an important part of the entrepreneurial lifestyle—they may be more prone to divorce than the US average, which is already one of the highest in the world, for a number of reasons. First, entrepreneurs take risks, especially when it comes to finances—they’ll use their own money to back their ventures. But an entrepreneur often doesn’t understand how risk affects their spouse, who often doesn’t have as high of a risk tolerance. Another reason is that entrepreneurs usually devote the bulk of their time and energy to their business, rather than their spouse’s life or emotional needs, which can foster feelings of neglect or resentment in a spouse.)

Ability to Handle Stress

The Elon Musk struggle story resulted in him having an extremely high stress tolerance. Vance explains that one of Musk’s most distinct traits is his ability to handle extreme amounts of stress. He perseveres even when a situation gets difficult. Musk credits this ability to having a rough childhood and learning to endure hard circumstances.

He frequently used this ability, given the high-stakes nature of his businesses. But on top of the stress of his financial situation and companies, Musk experienced stress from the death of his first child, the scrutiny of the press, and his divorce. Most of these incidents happened in 2008, when both SpaceX and Tesla faced bankruptcy. While most people would have broken down from this amount of stress, Musk kept moving forward.

Elon Musk’s Struggle Story: Abuse, Loss, and Divorce

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Here's what you'll find in our full Elon Musk summary :

  • A look into Elon Musk’s childhood and early companies
  • Musk's roles in SpaceX and Tesla, and later, in SolarCity
  • The traits and management methods that helped Musk succeed

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