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Tesla CEO Elon Musk is in some ways ‘the Steve Jobs of our time’: Walter Isaacson

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Tesla (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk has spent recent months dueling with Amazon (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos for the top spot on the list of the world's richest people. But Musk often draws comparisons with a different tech icon: late Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs.

In a new interview, author Walter Isaacson — known for his best-selling biography of Jobs — called Musk "in some ways the Steve Jobs of our time," saying both figures exemplify immense ambition, relentless drive, and a willingness to take risks. While Isaacson lauded Musk-led companies Tesla and SpaceX, he acknowledged that Musk's legacy remains unclear at this stage of his career.

"In some ways, he's the Steve Jobs of our time, he's crazy enough to think he can change the world and thus he might be one of the ones who do change the world," says Isaacson, author of a new book entitled “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.”

"I love the fact that he's a man of passion and obsession," Isaacson says. "I think we're still, as I said in Latin School, in media res, which means we're in the middle of the story."

Last year, Tesla reported record vehicle deliveries and joined the S&P 500, vaulting its stock more than 740% in 2020. The rapid growth made Musk the richest person in the world, though Bezos has since overtaken him. So far this year, Tesla stock has fallen from its high of $900 a share in late January. It was trading at roughly $688 a share on Thursday morning, up slightly as tech stocks rebounded from a recent selloff..

The success has brought even more scrutiny to Musk, who has stoked controversy in recent months over his criticism of COVID-19 closures, his relocation outside of California, and his vocal skepticism about bitcoin soon after Tesla purchased $1.5 billion worth of the cryptocurrency.

That confrontational personality has drawn comparisons to Jobs, a tech visionary who was notoriously hard on coworkers and others with whom he disagreed.

Furthermore, both were forced out of top positions at their companies. Jobs was fired in 1985 from his role as the head of a team developing Apple's Macintosh computer; and in 2018 Musk agreed to step down as Tesla's chairman in a settlement with the SEC, which stemmed from a tweet in which Musk said he had secured funding to take Tesla private at $420 a share.

"SpaceX and the S model, Tesla, all seem to be doing quite well," Isaacson says. "But like Steve Jobs, he's skating on the edge — and Steve got ousted at one point."

As Musk leads SpaceX and Tesla at the same time, the dual roles harken back to Jobs, who headed both Pixar and Apple in 1997 over his first year as Apple CEO. In Isaacson's biography, Jobs described that year as "really rough, the worst time in my life."

For his part, Musk has objected to the comparison with Jobs. In 2014, Musk told GQ that Jobs "was kind of a jerk" the one time they met at a party. Other critics of Jobs on this score point to his reportedly callous treatment of his daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, who recounted her father's harsh words and frugality in a memoir released in 2018.

In the same interview with GQ, Musk said employees at Tesla refer to Apple as "'Tesla's Graveyard'" for engineers who don't make it at the electric vehicle company.

Author Walter Isaacson, whose new book is
Author Walter Isaacson, whose new book is "The Code Breaker," speaks with Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer on "Influencers with Andy Serwer."

Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates also questioned the comparison between Musk and Jobs, telling Bloomberg last September that, “If you know people personally, that kind of gross oversimplification seems strange.”

Isaacson spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

Over the past 15 years, Isaacson has written biographies of Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Jobs. In addition to his writing, he teaches history at Tulane University and serves as a distinguished fellow at the Aspen Institute.

A Rhodes scholar, he took a job after graduation at a local newspaper in his hometown of New Orleans. He later climbed through the ranks at Time Magazine in the '80s and '90s covering presidential campaigns, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of Silicon Valley.

Speaking with Yahoo Finance, Isaacson also praised Bezos, whom the company announced in February will transition to an executive chairman position later this year.

Bezos "has just continually triumphed," Isaacson says. "Bezos has kept a relentless focus on [the] customer — and that really matters."

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