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

This book by Ashlee Vance sat on my wish-list since it came out two years ago. So, long overdue, last week I finally got to it and boy, what a ‘fantastic‘ read it is. There is lot to say about the man, his ideas and the ways he goes about bringing those ideas to life. Whether you like stories about next-level entrepreneurship or bold boyish imagination about where we are moving as a species, this book has it.

The book has made me even more convinced that Elon Musk might be the most interesting person in the world right now. Here are some observations about his personality from the book.

Suffering
  • The chapter that stood out most and is most telling about the character Elon Musk is and has, is called: ‘PAIN, SUFFERING, AND SURVIVAL’ . If you only have time to read one part of the book I suggest you read this. This aptly named chapter is an exhibition of almost inhuman effort to will two companies into existence in a period where the world was heading towards the worst financial crisis ever. And not just any plain old companies, but radical, human-life altering companies: SpaceX and Tesla. These were not instant successes and the companies were on the brink of bankruptcy for most of their existence and made Elon the joke of many gossip sites (hard to remember aye?). Building one of these companies would be an insane accomplishment, let alone two. And not just that, but in that same period Musk experienced a great personal tragedy with the loss of a child. His ability to take and take and take and keep going is unparalleled. The man has a very high threshold for suffering. Other examples that underline this are the severe bullying he endured as a child (at school and from his father) and the life-threatening case of malaria he contracted as a twenty-something year old, and the way he dealt with both.

“It’s how much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.” – Rocky

All-in
  • It seems to be all or nothing with Elon Musk. He either loves you or hates you, he either fully commits to an idea or its not a good idea. There is no in-between. He is always ready and willing to go all in. After his first company (Zip2) sold for some millions he could be set for life, but he bet it all with X/PayPal and made hundreds of millions, which he bet again on SpaceX and Tesla and nearly almost lost if it wasn’t for some lucky* breaks. (It must be noted Musk seems to defy the meaning of the word luck, his relentless push forward seems to create opportunities that other people might call luck. E.g. being able to buy a brand new $1 billion dollar Toyota factory for $42 million because of the crisis, can be called luck, or it could be the result of opportunities that come his way as a result of other efforts.)
Planning ahead
  • Besides demonstrating near savant-like abilities for memory recollection and his fantastic imagination, Musk has great strategic skills. He is always thinking two or three steps ahead. The end-goal for SpaceX is life on Mars. The intermediate steps to get there are creating re-usable affordable rockets that NASA wants to buy to launch satellites. The end-goal for Tesla is creating affordable EVs for everyone and thereby breaking the world’s dependence on oil. But the intermediate goal is creating low volume high-end expensive EVs to get the cash-flow going to create high volume lower-end EVs.
  • What’s striking is that the things he’s doing with SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity are things he was already thinking about as a teenager, as anecdotes and school essays will prove. However to start a space company you need a lot of money. Money made by first Zip2 and later PayPal. Intermediate steps. There are always short and long term goals with Musk.
  • Oh yeah, SolarCity, is this side company his cousins run, where Musk is the largest investor and acts as an adviser and at the time of writing the book was worth $7 billion alone.
Man of many talents
  • Besides an ultra rare combination of talents I would dare to suggest one of his greatest talents is his talent to attract other talent. Yes, he built and is building some extra-ordinary companies who produce groundbreaking technology every day and transform industries and he is the main man involved on all levels, from very specific details on welding or software design to high strategic thinking. However, he does and can not do this alone, and he knows this. He has a knack for finding and attracting like minded, passionate (near) geniuses. Of course such people seem to rather work for ambitious companies anyway, but still. Finding talent is the most important tool when building a company and Musk knows this.
  • This is not the say he exposes a lot of empathetic traits towards personnel. Remember: all or nothing. People come and go as Musk seems to fall in and out of love with them. The most wrenching example of this is a dispute with his former assistant. A woman who managed every aspect of his personal and professional multi-company life that ended after 12 years when she made some requests and he deemed her work “not that hard”. They parted and haven’t talked since.
  • Of course there are the comparisons to Jobs and Gates. Like the Tesla is the iPhone with regards to consumer impact. Or that it is very probable Musk will be the richest man in the world in a few years time. Or how the companies Apple and Microsoft bare their maker’s mark. You can make all sorts of comparisons between those men, but in the end they’re not that interesting. Even though Musk does not shy from attention he seems to mainly us it as a tool to take companies to the next level. (Btw, the book does a great job explaining why SpaceX is definitively the company that, on many levels,  embodies Musk’s spirit the best. From long term goals to dedication to get it done.)
  • Musk also has a low tolerance to suffer fools. He has no time for chit-chat, chumps down food in seconds, and is never longer in the restroom than 3 seconds, 2 of which you need to unzip your pants. He is man on a mission. A literal mission to Mars.

All in all this is a well written book, with well researched facts and also not without criticism towards the main subject. But even though he has accomplished so much already, what is most interesting is that this is actually work in progress. So you can only wonder what the future holds for Elon Musk and therefore the world. And we are all witnesses which is kind of fun and exciting.


Also published on Medium.