The Infinite Rebuy 

It’s a simple and compelling explanation for how Elon Musk has made it this far.

A decade ago, I had a fairly positive impression of Elon Musk as the real-world version of Tony Stark. However, in the intervening years, the man has shown himself to be tremendously flawed. Worse, becoming the world’s richest man has seemingly led to him regressing, rather than maturing. Last year, I referred to him as both “an overconfident idiot” and “a colossal freaking moron”, and nothing I’ve seen since has altered my thinking.

Musk is particularly in the news of late not just due to his ownership of Twitter, which he recently officially renamed to “X formerly Twitter”, but also because of Walter Isaacson’s new biography. That book, titled simply “Elon Musk”, is by all accounts not very good. Among other things, it has been referred to as an “insight-free doorstop”. At 688 pages, I don’t imagine it will be worth my time.1

Thankfully, others have taken the time to read it and pull out something of value. Dave Karpf has done a particularly fine job of detailing the flaws in both “Elon Musk” (the book) and Elon Musk (the man). His piece begins with a scene from the book in which Musk is playing poker:

“Elon just proceeded to go all in on every hand and lose. Then he would buy more chips and double down. Eventually, after losing many hands, he went all in and won. Then he said “Right, fine, I’m done.” It would be a theme in his life: avoid taking chips off the table; keep risking them.

That would turn out to be a good strategy. (page 86)

Karpf then notes the following:

There are a couple ways you can read this scene. One is that Musk is an aggressive risk-taker who defies convention, blazes his own path, and routinely proves his doubters wrong.

The other is that Elon Musk sucks at poker. But he has access to so much capital that he can keep rebuying until he scores a win.

Isaacson, our narrator, doesn’t grasp the difference. He doesn’t understand poker well enough to recognize Musk as the grandstanding sucker at the table. So he portrays Musk’s complete lack of impulse control as a brilliant, identity-defining strategic ploy. (If you go all-in and lose six times, then go all-in a seventh time and win, then you’re still down five buy-ins.)

It’s that parenthetical that really stuck with me: “If you go all-in and lose six times, then go all-in a seventh time and win, then you’re still down five buy-ins.” Quite so. Karpf spells things out even more clearly later in the piece:

If you want to be hailed as a genius innovator, you don’t actually need next-level brilliance. You just need access to enough money to keep rebuying until you succeed.

That sure seems to be a fitting explanation for the truth about Elon Musk.


  1. Also, I’ve had a distaste for Isaacson ever since he was the speaker at my college graduation. His speech was structured around lessons he’d learned researching his biography of Benjamin Franklin, along the lines of “Lesson number one: ‘Haste makes waste’. What that means to me is…”. The address was terribly dull, and when Isaacson intoned “Lesson number ten…”, I was eager for what I assumed was its imminent conclusion. Then he said “Lesson number eleven…”, and I’m quite certain I groaned audibly.

    Once he hit eleven, there was simply no telling how much longer that borefest would continue! 15 lessons? 20? 50? Thankfully, if memory serves, the speech mercifully wrapped up at a dozen lessons. And yet, there are times I worry I might still be seated in that audience listening to him drone on, with everything since being nothing but an escapist fantasy. Does “One Foot Tsunami” even exist, or have I just dreamed it up? ↩︎