Elon Musk — Ashlee Vance
Start — 2/7/17 Finish — 2/18/17
“As Page puts it, ‘ Good ideas are always crazy until they’re not.’”
It’s often jarring reading about people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and other business icons. It’s very easy to feel that these men are of a different species, operating on a permanently higher level than the rest of us. And they may also make you question your own current way of living — why aren’t you gunning after some master plan, some idealistic vision of the future that you can call your life’s purpose? Maybe we don’t all have the imagination required for such ambitions. Or maybe these people are merely wired differently, either to feel a sense of urgency about their lives more acutely or to constantly exercise their creative ability.
Musk is an incredible human being. His relentless drive and long-term vision of a grander future have generated multi-billion dollar enterprises that have disrupted industries ranging from energy to space exploration to financial payment systems. All along this journey, he was called crazy or criticized for gaffes and failures to deliver on past promises. Entrenched players in large industries scoffed at him as he entered their markets with his radical ideas for change. And somehow, after coming close to bankruptcy quite a few times in his different ventures, he has managed to prevail again and again. While the future success of Tesla, SolarCity, and SpaceX remain to be seen (since they are all still quite risky and capital intensive), Musk has proven himself an innovator and an adaptable survivor. Say what you might about his temperament or his lack of empathy, he’s still quite the inspiration. He may even be our best hope at bringing technological progress towards the science-fiction ideals we’ve so far only held in dreams.
As far as the book goes, I’d say this was about on par with Brad Stone’s Bezos biography. It reads very much like a long BusinessWeek article — giving the reader all the facts while painting a half-fleshed out picture of its subject. We learn probably all we need to know about Musk’s companies’ origins and their operations. We get a little insight into his personal life, but not quite as much as I would like. The reader can begin to understand Musk’s vision of the future (even as it is rapidly expanding and growing ever more ambitious) as well as the overarching principles that drive him. But we never really get into any self-reflection or any deeper insight as to why he lives the way he does. I always come back to Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography as sort of the pinnacle of this chronicling of a successful man’s life. And held up to that light, Vance’s work doesn’t come close in terms of style, descriptive power, or ability to truly dissect a human’s character and his motivations.
That said, it’s still worth a read given how interesting Elon Musk’s life is and all that he’s accomplished.
· “Aspire to increase the scope and scale of human consciousness in order to better understand what questions to ask.”
o “The only thing that makes sense to do is strive for greater collective enlightenment.”
o Incessant reading since childhood
o Lord of the Rings, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
· Character Traits
o Willing to take huge amounts of personal risk
o Relentless drive
o Confrontational style
o Desire to reinvigorate people’s passion for science, conquest, and the promise of technology
o Deals with problems directly and decisively, many times stubbornly
o All-consumed by his work to the detriment of his marriage
o Increased focus and rationality during times of crisis
o Binary worldview — you’re either trying to make something spectacular with not compromises or you’re not
o Inter-disciplinary approach to problem solving
· Envisioned many of the early pieces of technology — directories, maps, sites that focused on vertical markets — that would become mainstays of the Web
o Then brought financial instruments and banking online to modernize the industry
o Then tried to make space exploration cheaper
o Then tried to bring electric vehicles to the masses for a cleaner planet
· Go to where the action is — the top thinkers, the most valuable networks, the most opportunity
· Entering an industry that had not evolved much over the past few decades, had little competition, and tended to make supremely expensive products that achieved maximum performance — there was a clear opportunity for a new category in the space
· “Everything he does is fast,” Brogan said. “He pees fast. It’s like a fire hose — three seconds and out. He’s authentically in a hurry.”
· What Musk has done that the rival automakers missed or didn’t have the means to combat was turn Tesla into a lifestyle. It did not just sell someone a car. It sold them an image, a feeling they were tapping into the future, a relationship.
· What’s more, SolarCity is a key part of what can be thought of as the unified field theory of Musk. Each one of his businesses is interconnected in the short term and the long term. Tesla makes battery packs that SolarCity can then sell to end customers. SolarCity supplies Tesla’s charging stations with solar panels, helping Tesla to provide free recharging to its drivers… Tesla and SpaceX exchange knowledge around materials, manufacturing techniques, and the intricacies of operating factories that build so much stuff from the ground up.
· The perceived lack of emotion is a symptom of Musk sometimes feeling like he’s the only one who really grasps the urgency of his mission. He’s less sensitive and less tolerant than other people because the stakes are so high. Employees need to help solve the problems to the absolute best of their ability or they need to get out of the way.
· After spending time with the man and studying him for years now, I’m convinced frankly that few people have the wherewithal to grasp the depth of Musk’s motivation and the strength of his will. While I see the same business flaws, personal foibles, and challenges as everyone else, I remain as convinced as ever that Musk will succeed in his quests. He’s not really wired to fail.