Book Review: Elon Musk’s Biography

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

This book is a chronological story about the life of Elon Musk, one of the greatest businessmen of our generation. The book starts with his grandfather’s adventures. It follows on the family history up to Elon’s birth after the book zooms in every aspect of Elon, his childhood, his environment, his education, his relationships, and the founding of his companies Zip2, PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla.

The author, Ashlee Vance, is an American business columnist focused in the tech world. He is the host of the Bloomberg series Hello Word, where he reports on the tech scene across the globe. For this book, he did many interviews with Elon, his family, friends, employees, ex-employees, investors, etc. The book is full of anecdotes and does not hold back when there is an adverse opinion, which, unsurprisingly, often comes from ex-employees and ex-wife. There are many quotes, stories, and emails straight from Elon too. Ashlee breaks down Elon’s motivations, action and then provides an excellent synthesis about why Elon Musk can do what he does.

This book is excellent for studying patterns of new innovative companies. It focuses on the chaos, drama, and uncertainty of a new venture. It also details Elon’s work ethic, his passion, resourcefulness, and the growth mindset necessary to execute essential things. 

Elon often reflects on past mistakes and explains his philosophies on company building. Some lessons learned are:

Summary

His grandfather, Haldeman, was an eccentric adventurer and a vital businessman who became a model for Elon. Haldeman had an airplane and was the first private pilot to get from Africa to Australia. After creating a fortune in Canada, he sold everything and moved to South Africa, where Elon was born in 1971. Elon says that he got his tolerance for risk from his grandfather. His grandmother was the first chiropractor in Canada. 

When he was young, according to his brother Kimbal, Elon usually read for up to 10 hours a day. Elon programmed and sold a space video game when he was 12 years old. There are some anecdotes of him being a strong advocate of solar energy. He has dedicated his life to the passions he had as a child. 

Science fiction and video games influence how he views himself, he says in the book, “Maybe I read too many comics as a kid. In the comics, it always seems like they are trying to save the world. It seemed like one should try to make the world a better place because the inverse makes no sense.”

At age 14, Musk had a full-on existential crisis, which is common amongst gifted people, but surprising in how young he was. He read a bunch of philosophies, and his conclusion was, “The really tough thing is figuring out what questions to ask. Once you figure out the question, then the answer is relatively easy. I came to the conclusion that really we should aspire to increase the scope and scale of human consciousness in order to better understand what questions to ask. The only thing that makes sense to do is strive for greater collective enlightenment.”

He had a really tough childhood. He was severely bullied in school and at home by his father. He credits his ability to handle the pressure. This resulted in him wanting to leave South Africa as soon as possible. He regarded the United States as the land of opportunity, so he returned to Canada to find a way to go to the US. He arrived in Canada at age 17. He studied there for two years at Queen’s University and then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated from economics and physics. 

He interned in a startup in San Francisco and then moved there after graduation. He founded a company called Zip2, which was the first type of internet map. Subsequently, Compaq bought Zip2, and he got 22 million from the sale at age 27. With that, he founded X.com, which later merged with PayPal and ultimately took that name. He was fired as CEO while being the largest stakeholder. 

After that, he started to study Space and moved to Los Angeles because there was a mature aerospace industry with lots of talent, thus showing the importance of founding the right company in the right place with the right talent.

In the meanwhile, eBay bought PayPal for 1.5 billion, and Elon received 180 million of it at age 31. After that, he invested almost everything he had to SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity. Around 60% of this book is about the ups and downs of SpaceX and Tesla, where he was CEO and dedicated most of his time.

When Elon started to study the space industry, he was shocked about the low ambitions of NASA because they had no plan to go to Mars and old technology. Elon wanted to reignite their dreams and started to devise a project to send plants to Mars. After organizing many conferences with the top people in the industry, the plan evolved to create a company that reduced the cost of space exploration and eventually colonizes Mars.

SpaceX was founded in 2002. As expressed in their website, “SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” The book goes into detail on the first four launches, detailing the failure of the first three, the success of the fourth one, and how Elon managed the whole situation and pushed the company forward.

Tesla was founded one year later in 2003 with the mission to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. At the beginning of the company, he got some cofounders, which he later fired, and explains how he got the talent needed to create electric technology, the development of the prototype, the roadster, and the problems that arose from taking the prototype to market. 

He was also Chairman and the largest stakeholder of SolarCity, which became the biggest installer of solar panels in the country. His cousins started it. The book barely talks about SolarCity.

Conclusion

Elon’s life story leaves you reflecting on the impact you are doing with your life. He makes anyone feel small, but that is a good feeling because he inspires you to think bigger, be more ambitious, and excited about the future.

This is one of the fastest books I have ever read. I highly recommend it. If you buy it, it would probably be best to buy it on kindle so you can update it without additional costs. 

Quotes that made me ponder 

“He opened up about the major fear keeping him up at night: namely that Google’s co-founder and CEO Larry Page might well have been building a fleet of artificial-intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind. ‘I’m really worried about this,’ Musk said.” — Ashlee Vance

“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. Newly minted Model S owners regularly opt to begin living the Musk Lifestyle and outfit their homes with solar panels. Tesla and SpaceX help each other as well. They exchange knowledge around materials, manufacturing techniques, and the intricacies of operation factories that build so much stuff from the ground up.” — Ashlee Vance

“One former SpaceX executive described the working atmosphere as a perpetual-motion machine that runs on a weird mix of dissatisfaction and eternal hope. ‘It’s like he has everyone working on this car that is meant to get from Los Angeles to New York on one tank of gas. They will work on the car for a year and test all of its parts. Then, they set off for New York after that year, all of the Vice Presidents think privately the car will be lucky to get to Las Vegas. What ends up happening is that the car gets to New Mexico — twice as far as they expected — and Elon is still mad. He gets twice as much as anyone else out of people.’” — Ashlee Vance

“The way Elon talks about this is that you always need to start with the first principles of a problem. What is the physics of it? How much time will it take? How much will it cost? How much cheaper can I make it? There is this level of engineering and physics that you need to make judgments about what’s possible and interesting. Elon is unusual in that he knows that and he also knows business and organization and leadership and governmental issues.” — Larry Page, Co-founder of Google

“I don’t think we are doing a good job as a society deciding what things are really important to do. I think like we are just not educating people in this kind of general way. You should have a pretty broad engineering and scientific background. You should have some leadership training and a bit of MBA training or knowledge of how to run things and organize stuff and raise money. I don’t think most people are doing that, and it’s a big problem. Engineers are usually trained in a very fixed area. When you are able to think about all of these disciplines together, you kind of think differently and can dream of much crazier things and how they might work. I think that’s a real and important thing for the world. That’s how we make progress.” — Larry Page

“I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing Internet stuff, finance, and law. That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation” — Elon Musk

“I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future. If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multi-planetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planter — to cope with a worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness — then I think that would be really good.” — Elon Musk

“There is a fundamental problem with regulators. If a regulator agrees to change a rule and something bad happens, they could easily lose their career. Whereas if they change a rule and something good happens, they don’t even get a reward. So, it’s very asymmetric. It’s then very easy to understand why regulators resist changing the rules. It’s because there’s a big punishment on one side and no reward on the other. How would any rational person behave in such a scenario?” — Elon Musk

“The objective of a company should be — what delivers fundamental value. I think it’s important to look at things from a standpoint of what is actually the best thing for the economy.” — Elon Musk

Post-publication

Many things have happened since the publication of this book in 2015:

Additional Links

If you want a deep dive on Elon Musk and his companies, I highly recommend The Elon Musk Post Series on waitbutwhy.com.

I also recommend Joe Rogan’s conversation with Elon Musk in Sept 2018 and May 2020.

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