After reading this book, current events like the CRS-7 non-nominal launch are put in proper perspective. Called “Silicon Valley’s most audacious entrepreneur,” this book depicts Musk’s life from the perspective of a seasoned technology journalist who spent more than 30 hours in conversation with Musk himself and hundreds of people closest to him, covering all the trials and tribulations endured, from the beginnings with Zip2 and PayPal through his current projects of Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity.
The most interesting thing I learned about Musk is how focused he is on one mission. Vance put it well: “Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to…well…save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.” All of his projects have the same ultimate mission, to essentially save the human race, in one way or another. And the projects that he’s worked on that strayed from that mission, whether by forces out of his control, natural evolution, politics, he’s ditched. The book makes it clear that many of the decisions Musk has made in his quest have been tough ones. But he seems to always find success, or at the very least bounce back from failure with magnificent resiliency.
You also get to learn a bit about Musk first-hand through Vance’s interviews. Before reading this book, I knew what Musk was famous for, but never really had any idea about who he was. Throughout Elon Musk you get little gems like Musk talking about love:
‘I would like to allocate more time to dating, though. I need to find a girlfriend. That’s why I need to carve out just a little more time. I think maybe even another five to ten—how much time does a woman want a week? Maybe ten hours? That’s kind of the minimum? I don’t know.’
That is just a great, insightful excerpt into how Musk thinks and acts. He’s so driven, and so passionate, and so analytical, it infiltrates every aspect of his life. Excerpts like that made me appreciate Musk even more, not as an entrepreneur but as a human being.
Vance also goes through, in detail, Musk’s day-to-day schedule—and if you think you work hard, and can’t possibly do more with the hours left in the day after family and your 9-to-5, for no other reason should you read this book than to gain insight into how crazy the life is of a person who is attempting to save the human race. “There really wasn’t anything suave about him,” [Julie] Ankenbrandt said. “We all worked twenty hours a day, and he worked twenty-three hours.” (Ankenbrandt worked with Musk at the X.com start-up that eventualy merged with PayPal).
Elon Musk also brings to light other aspects of Musk’s life, like his hobbies (reading: he’s a fan of comics and Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, which is awesome), his driving leadership style (“I would be frustrated waiting for their stuff, so I’m going to go and fix your code and now it runs five times faster, you idiot.”), his thoughts on leisure (“That’s my lesson for taking a vacation: vacations will kill you.”).
A friend who saw me reading this book asked what I was getting out of it, what learnings I was taking away from it. Not something I ever really thought about when reading, but I kept the question in the back of my mind as I finished the book.
I think my main takeaway from this book was the reassurance of the old cliche “nothing in life comes easy”. The Falcon 1—the first privately-developed launch vehicle to go into orbit around the Earth—took 6 years (about four and a half more than Musk had once planned) and 500 people to make happen. Most, if not all, of Musk’s companies were at one point on the brink of bankruptcy. He’s had to make many tough decisions in life, including defining how much he’s willing to personally sacrifice to reach his goals, which has been nearly everything. It’s true: nothing in life comes easy. One of my favorite lines in Elon Musk is a quote from PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel:
To the extent that the world still doubts Elon, I think it’s a reflection on the insanity of the world and not on the supposed insanity of Elon.
The other thing this book reminded me is that “finding your voice” is something that takes a long time. When Musk was working on Zip2 and PayPal his leadership style was much different than what it is now. The difference is certainly due, in part, to his experiences building start-ups. But part of his current comportment is also due to something else, something more intangible. The way he’s grown into not only a leader, but an inspiration, to so many is incredible. How many other people could sell someone on a one-way ticket to Mars? Elon Musk, through its narrative of all the challenges Musk has endured in his career, reveals how someone on a mission to change the world handles crisis and perseveres, maintains passion and humanity and humility, in a way other great leaders of our time can’t or couldn’t.
Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity—I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon. Learning more about these companies and the man behind them makes Elon Musk more than a worthwhile read. But beyond that, Musk has a fascinating personal life, adding to the value of this biography. If you haven’t read Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future yet, I encourage you to pick up a copy and check it out as soon as possible.