I just finished reading Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance. I may be a little behind the rush to read this one, but I am very glad that I read it. I hadn’t known very much about Musk. I saw a documentary on him a few years back and all that I could remember from it was that he was from South Africa, he was a genius and that he was involved with Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City. I now know him to be a relentlessly hard-working, visionary, genius that is pushing today’s technological advances further than they have ever gone before. After listening to the 13 hour audiobook, I can now recommend to you that you read this one. Elon Musk is nothing short of amazing, and there’s something we can all learn from him. One thing is for sure, you may not agree with his work/life balance, but hey, that’s just Musk for you.
Drive to learn
From the start of the book, to the very end, you will learn that Musk has never stopped learning. When he was young and in grade school, he read every book in his school and local library. After this he decided to grab an encyclopedia. He said something to the like of, “It’s amazing what you don’t know that you don’t know. You can learn so much just by reading.” Musk was known to be lost in a book when he was young. While I’m sure he continues to read today, the book focused on his reading as he grew up and how it shaped what he has become today today.
As an adult, they did give anecdotes showing his continual drive to learn. While Musk is a very talented engineer, there are those that he hires that specialize in certain areas. He often will pull people aside and quiz them for an hour, trying to see everything they know. The employee will feel like they are in an interview, firing off answers time after time, but they soon realize that it is just Musk wanting to learn more.
“We’re all hanging out in this cabana at the Hard Rock Cafe, and Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on eBay.”
Putting everything on the line
Elon makes big bets. Not only does he make big bets, he makes these bets with the knowledge that if it goes the wrong way, then he will likely lose everything: his companies, wealth, power and his basic livelihood. For many of us, making bets like this are not in our nature. It seems for Musk, that it is a natural tendency to have to put everything on the line, and then proceed to succeed.
Two days after Elon began at Stanford for college, he dropped out to start Zip2 corporation. You can think of it as one of the first online directories for businesses combined with a google maps. With the proceeds from the eventual sale of Zip2, Elon started X.com, one of the first online banks. Once X.com was sold to Paypal and then eBay later buying PayPal, Musk took the $165 million and invested a very large sum of it into SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity over the following years. The businesses would struggle and Elon would always have to put up more cash. It was in his nature, and still is.
“I will spend my last dollar on these companies. If we have to move into Justine’s parents’ basement, we’ll do it.”
Elon puts more time and energy into his work than almost anyone in the world. They say he worked 100 hour work weeks for 15 years. Not only does Elon work hard, he is said to make his employees work even harder. They work into the evenings (or all night) and weekends for him. Elon too, will be in the office on the weekends calling up suppliers. In his view, if the suppliers know Elon is working around the clock, they too will work hard to get him the parts and materials he needs in time.
“I would tell those people they will get to see their families a lot when we go bankrupt.” Elon to a disgruntled employee.
“One night he told me, ‘If there was a way that I could not eat, so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal.’”
Holding on to your vision
Vision. Having it is one thing, following through with it is another. Elon has a vice-like grip on what he wants and what his vision is. I did not know that it was Musk’s vision to put a colony on Mars. His #1 goal, above all else is to achieve this within his lifetime. Is it possible? I’ll leave that to SpaceX to answer, but one can not doubt that Musk has vision. From his vision for the first ever online banking system to Tesla and SpaceX. Elon’s mind has shaped these companies, and still is today. His drive, persistence and intelligence is what is making his visions a reality.
“My mentality is that of a samurai. I would rather commit seppuku than fail.”
A note on X.com: Toward the end of the book, there is a segment on Elon’s opinion of the paypal merger, and how he was ousted. He doesn’t wrong how paypal is being run today, in fact, he mentioned that he would likely would have made many of the decisions the current management is carrying out. The interesting point was that he believed X.com would have been a better brand to stick with. The X would signify the “transaction,” where it would be the epicenter of all online financial activity. He warrants that the X brand would carry much more weight than PayPal. I agree with him, I think X.com would today be a better brand, but then again this is coming from an Engineer (Musk) and an investor (myself).
The beginning of the book gives a great feel for who Elon is. The author, Ashlee Vance, recalls sitting down with him to discuss writing this book, she gives a great description of him.
“Musk stands six-foot-one, but ask anyone who knows him, and they’ll confirm that he seems much bigger than that. he’s absurdly broad shouldered, sturdy and thick. You would figured he would use this to his advantage and perform an alpha male strut when entering a room. Instead, he tends almost to be sheepish. His head tilted slightly down while walking. A quick handshake hello after reaching the table.”
It’s difficult to give the full gist of Elon’s demeanor and personality, for one, because this post can only be so long and, two, because I haven’t met him. Based on this book, though, Elon lives the life that he has set before him. He doesn’t live it for anyone else or care about anyone else – he lives to succeed in his endeavors.
“Everybody around here has slides in their lobbies. I’m actually wondering about putting in a roller coaster — like a functional roller coaster at the factory in Fremont. You’d get in, and it would take you around [the] factory but also up and down. Who else has a roller coaster? … It would probably be really expensive, but I like the idea of it.”