Book Review: Elon Musk
“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters” — Peter Thiel
Back in the 1960’s, the U.S. Government — passionate about innovation — funded research initiatives which laid the foundation for innovations that continue to power the American economy today: the computer, microchip, and internet.
Politicians and academics alike recognized innovation drove national security and economic independence. The Department of Defense funded DARPA and created the underlying networking stack that powers the internet of today. Corporations like Bell Labs, Intel, and Xerox created internal research divisions dedicated to innovation. The U.S. led the world in R&D spending. American innovation was thriving.
In the 1960s, 70% of R&D was federally funded while the 30% was contributed by industry. Today, 30% is federally funded and 70% is from industry. While there are some true research centers (GoogleX), the primary money is coming from industries like pharmaceuticals. The goal isn’t to advance science and technology or create the next internet — the goal is to create the next proprietary drug to make billions of dollars.
And what happened to NASA? The once shining light for American innovation and pride cancelled the space shuttle program — becoming completely dependent on Russian rockets to send astronauts to space. NASA couldn’t figure out how to make safe, inexpensive shuttles — so they became dependent on their once bitter cold war enemy to power their most important missions.
From an industry perspective, we have amazing companies that were a direct result of 1960s R&D. Apple, Google, and Microsoft, for example, based their products on both government (DARPA) and industry (Intel, Xerox, Bell Labs) innovations.
Innovation in the last 20 years has largely focused around the rise of companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, WhatsApp, and others. Rather than innovate to advance the world, their goal is to addict you to their products and ultimately sell more ads.
Amazon is another massive company born during the 90s internet boom. Their innovation? A logistics platform that delivers more things to you faster. A completely proprietary platform that benefits nobody but Amazon.
American innovation feels lost. Where is the hope and vision for a world better than it is today?
Elon is an innovator. He embodies long term visionary thinking that America so desperately needs.
His vision for sustainable energy and space exploration is simply so much larger than U.S. companies of today. I pulled out the Peter Thiel quote that started this post from this portion of the review because it’s so true. Innovation today is boring.
Elon Musk is everywhere. Running Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, OpenAI, unveiling cars, sending astronauts to space, on podcasts, in the press, stoking flame wars on Twitter, raising 5 teenagers, having a baby…
At this point, what could possibly be left to know about Elon Musk? What can we possibly learn in 2020 from a book published in the “prehistoric” Elon year of 2015? After all, half of the things Elon is doing today didn’t even exist in 2015.
Ashlee Vance began his biography on Elon back even further — in 2012 — initially without Elon’s permission. He interviewed 100’s of people and eventually Elon cooperated. His main goal was to write about Elon’s leadership style and provide an inside look on Tesla and SpaceX.
What he ended up with is far more valuable — an inside look into the vision, mindset, character, values, leadership style, and personality that drives one of the most successful visionaries of this generation. The history of Zip2, PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, and Elon’s other businesses are definitely interesting — but the character traits that drive Elon are much more so.
If you are a fan of innovation, leadership, vision, mindset, or just Elon himself — just read this book. It’s not a literary work of art, but will give you insight into what makes Elon tick. It’s a typical biography format — growing up, teen years, early start in business, early companies (Zip2, PayPal), personal life, the origin stories behind SpaceX, Tesla, up thru about 2012 when things started taking off for Elon.
This review is going to focus on what I learned about Elon himself. Not Tesla, not SpaceX, but Elon. For the record, I’m not a complete Elon fanboy. There are things about Elon I absolutely love — like his vision, resolve, and ability to take risks. But there are also things about Elon I personally don’t admire— like being a workaholic or how he has treated people.
Regardless of what you think about Elon — you can’t deny the success he’s had and his impact on the world. His vision and ability to innovate are a true hope for American innovation.
Elon Musk — Character Traits
Thru the stories about Elon’s history, companies, successes, and failures, I pulled out the common threads about Elon’s character and mindset which I feel define him. I attempted to order them in terms of how I feel they contributed to his success. I have to admit the order is mostly arbitrary.
- Intense Mindset
- Risk Taker
Elon’s goals and vision are crystal clear: make energy sustainable and inhabit Mars.
I think it’s easy to believe people like Elon have altruistic goals externally, but internally just want to make a ton of money. Big pharma is like that. They claim they are curing disease, but their true motivation is to find the next billion dollar breakthrough.
I don’t get that sense from Elon. Yes, he has a big ego, and yes he’s making a ton of money, but judging by his actions I feel he genuinely wants to help humanity thru innovation.
Before SpaceX was landing people on the ISS for a fraction of the cost of Russian rockets and Tesla was a $200B company, they were both on the brink of bankruptcy. Elon personally funded both companies with everything he had to keep them floating. If he were in it solely for the money, I don’t feel he would have pulled the trigger and invested his personal fortune. 2008 was a dark, hard year. The economy was in a recession, markets were down. Yet Elon made critical investments into both companies to keep them afloat. That’s not the action of someone who’s in it for the money. That’s someone who’s driven by vision.
Elon has made is “master plans” for Tesla and SpaceX publicly known and is executing straight from them. If he were in it strictly for the money, why would he ever do that? Tesla’s master plan — make an expensive toy for rich people, build a high end sedan, build more affordable cars, drive the price of batteries down, make more cars cheaper, drastically lower emissions. SpaceX’s master plan — commoditize rocket launches, reuse rockets to reduce the price 10x over the Russians, send people to Mars.
Both plans are wide open for others (Ford, GM, Boeing, Lockheed) to steal and execute — but they don’t. (Why not? Seems like they are stuck in visionless bureaucracy) If Elon was in it for the money, he wouldn’t have laid out his plans for the world to see.
Elon’s vision is so much bigger than what we see from many of today’s “most innovative” companies. Elon seeks out and thrives on hard problems. So do his employees. Like Steve Jobs before him, Elon expects and gets the best out of people. People work best when they are missionaries — working for someone on something they truly believe in. Elon provides that.
The world needs more people with an Elon Musk level of vision.
The word that kept popping into my mind when reading the book was “intense”. Elon is very intense. From a young age, he had the ability to deeply focus and concentrate. He was an avid reader who read for entire days straight. I feel this intensity and ability to focus allows him to execute on so many fronts. If he were easily distracted, there would be no way to deliver the way he has.
That intensity carries over into his work ethic. He’s all in on everything he does. He researches and studies the foundational first principles of very difficult subjects (physics, jet propulsion, aerospace, material science) and learns quickly from experts. He dedicates time to learning the science and engineering behind his industries. He’s in the trenches with his employees testing products and doing designs.
I have absolutely no idea what it takes to send people safely into space. Or land a rocket upside down on a marshmallow floating in the ocean. The amount of engineering it would take to do either of those would be unbelievable. Elon didn’t do this alone — far from it — but his mindset of approaching problems from first principles, doing deep engineering research, and ultimately determining that building his own rockets was not only feasible but a competitive advantage is amazing.
Elon’s companies are keeping American innovation relevant.
SpaceX has done what NASA couldn’t — safely and affordably send astronauts into space. SpaceX is doing things so far beyond NASA’s ability it’s embarrassing. Landing rockets upside down in the ocean, even building capsules that just look great. It’s not hard to beat a competitor that isn’t trying. But NASA did try — they just realized they couldn’t do it and quit.
Tesla is clearly the most innovative auto manufacturer the U.S. (world?) has. Tesla’s over the air software updates, auto pilot advancements, super charging network, and direct to consumer sales model are far superior to anything the U.S. auto manufacturers have done in the last 50 years.
Elon doesn’t deserve all the credit — or perhaps as much credit as he deserves. But corporations reflect their leader. Elon is an innovator. His companies innovate.
America needs more people like Elon willing to take on entrenched incumbents (Ford, GM) or entire countries (China, Russia) and truly innovate.
I find it absolutely inspiring that someone is willing to step up and challenge auto makers in making cars or nations like China and Russia in space programs. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to do one of those, let alone both.
Elon is a risk taker. He invested nearly all his money into keeping Tesla and SpaceX going when both companies were simultaneously on the brink of bankruptcy. Tesla couldn’t deliver the Model S due to production problems and delays and SpaceX couldn’t launch a rocket.
Yet Elon poured his personal money into both companies in the midst of a deep national recession (2008–2010). Unbelievable.
Elon has an unparalleled ability to endure pain — taking massive risks in deeply entrenched politics, and high barrier to entry markets.
It can’t be easy to innovate in today’s America. Competitors have actively tried to kill SpaceX and Tesla.
SpaceX had to sue their own customer — the U.S. Government — just to allow them TO BID on contracts that would keep the company afloat. Boeing blocked SpaceX from testing rockets at Hawthorne Air Force Base — forcing SpaceX to find their own site.
Tesla as been sued for their direct to customer sales model. Ford blocked them from using the “Model E” name due to trademarks.
When most people would have collapsed, Elon pushed on. The harder it got, the better he got.
Think about the pain. In 2008, with the economy collapsing, two failing companies, he invests damn near everything he has to keep both companies afloat. His determination and resolve is unparalleled.
Elon Musk — Outtakes
I firmly believe America needs more people like Elon. A true innovator, risk taker, and visionary.
Success doesn’t come easy. It hasn’t been all shiny cars and safe launches for Elon. Success for Elon was paved with setback and hardship.
Many early engineers at Tesla and SpaceX were burned out and left. Elon is not easy to work with. Stories of Elon’s demanding leadership, immediately firing people and lack of grace, reminded me of Steve Jobs.
Perhaps you get to a level of leadership where you just don’t put up with absolutely any bullshit at all. I’ll probably never get to that level to find out. But Elon — like Jobs before him — is. And perhaps that requires being demanding and being hard on people.
Let’s be clear — Elon is a workaholic. He works all day, every day. While I admire Elon in many respects and realize I probably wouldn’t be writing this without him being a workaholic, I also feel like that’s a bad way to live.
When Steve Jobs died, he reflected on his life. Concluding that his children were “10,000 times better than anything I’ve ever done”. I don’t know what Elon’s relationship with his children is like, but given the pedestal he puts work on, I hope he puts his children first.
Toward the end of the book, the discussion turned to a broader “Unified Theory of Elon Musk” — a forward looking section that described Elon’s beliefs and the author’s thoughts on the future of both Elon and his companies.
What became apparent to me very quickly was how America is viewed from an innovator’s perspective.
Elon feels that schools are doing a disservice to America by being overprotective and not allowing kids to suffer. By giving everyone a trophy for playing and an A for trying. I completely agree — I feel the American culture toward education and the education system itself is weak.
Larry Page (a good friend of Elon) was mentioned in this section. Larry prizes Elon, his accomplishments, and his long term visionary thinking. He feels we need more long term revolutionary thinkers like Elon as opposed to today’s short term thinking American politicians. It’s hard to argue with Larry — America’s position toward global innovation is falling.
The book isn’t great, it’s a bit dated, but it does one thing well — exposes you to a true American (well, technically South African) visionary innovator who is transforming critical industries with the goal to make the world a better place. Oh, and colonize Mars.