Mark Bao's Reviews > Elon Musk: Inventing the Future

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance
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May 23, 2015

it was amazing

Excellent and inspiring. This book brought up one key question: do you have to be a bit reckless to be good? Musk was reckless in two areas: in the risks he took, and the way that he manages his companies.

As for the first, the number of near-death experiences that Tesla, SpaceX and earlier companies went through is almost a running joke throughout this story. The Falcon 1 failed three times, exhausting the company's funds, before achieving a successful fourth flight. Tesla avoided bankruptcy by taking on a NASA-approved loan from SpaceX plus a last-minute acquisition of a company Musk invested in pulled through, and avoided being derailed by a predatory investor by a bluff on the order of $40 million. Combine these with the many situations where it didn't look like Tesla was going to build anything substantial, plus the negative media attention—the fact that Musk continued to persevere and pull through at times where most normal people would have given up is crazy.

This risk undoubtedly took a toll on his life and relationships, through three divorces and the insane sleep deprivation he and the others on the team go through. It brings up the question—when you're doing things as big as this, how reckless do you have to be? Should you have a breaking point? Does the sustainable, get-eight-hours-of-sleep-and-exercise approach really work? Or is the right thing to do actually to push through, get four hours of sleep, and get shit done? Are those that prefer the 'sustainable' option the ones that don't succeed as much, and the reckless ones the ones that actually make progress?

As for the second, the way that he manages his companies, he was reckless in what he demanded from people. The most notable story is of SpaceX, where employees worked on a crappy atoll in the Marshall Islands for months to deliver the Falcon 1 rocket launches. In a Jobs-like fashion, his outward personality is cold, demanding, and fearful: employees are on edge all the time and have to have answers. If someone is the bottleneck on a project, there's immense pressure on them to deliver. And you never want to be the deliverer of bad news—and if you are, you better have a solution to back it up:

The savvy engineers knew better than to go into a meeting and deliver bad news without some sort of alternative plan at the ready. “One of the scariest meetings was when we needed to ask Elon for an extra two weeks and more money to build out another version of the Model S,” Javidan said. “We put together a plan, stating how long things would take and what they would cost. We told him that if he wanted the car in thirty days it would require hiring some new people, and we presented him with a stack of resumes. You don’t tell Elon you can’t do something. That will get you kicked out of the room. You need everything lined up. (Loc 4277)

And while that is actually a good way to work—to have everything lined up—is Musk's approach the right way to manage a company? Is it the only way to be successful on incredibly difficult things? Or are Tesla and SpaceX successful in spite of this way of working—that it actually holds people back?

Other than those questions, this is a very good overview of Musk's life and personality, and the trials and tribulations he went through to be successful—a path beset by an immense number of setbacks and late deliveries.

What comes through clearly is how much of a genius this guy was. To get a sense of what this guy is like, consider that in his childhood, he ran out of books to read at the local library and the school library, and sometimes would read for ten hours a day. Dude also has a memory that's not only photographic, but he can wrangle images and numbers and relationships between them in his head. Insane. His ability to ingest and retain information, and his approach to knowledge, is nuts:

People who have spent significant time with Musk will attest to his abilities to absorb incredible quantities of information with near-flawless recall. It’s one of his most impressive and intimidating skills and seems to work just as well in the present day as it did when he was a child vacuuming books into his brain. After a couple of years running SpaceX, Musk had turned into an aerospace expert on a level that few technology CEOs ever approach in their respective fields. (Loc 3421)

What also comes across was how much Musk believes in the technological future and how much he as done to restore that promise to humanity. It's clear that he is one of the top people pushing technology and humanity forward, and that's incredibly inspiring.

What I found a bit lacking in this book, which would have made this an excellent book, was more about Musk's inner life. Vance hypothesizes that Musk seems cold and non-emotional because he has a different sort of empathy than others: he emphasizes with the entire human species, and wants to do the most he can for them, but that makes him forget the individuals in front of him. But what does Musk think about this? How does Musk characterize his own values and experiences? Of course, this is something that few biographies do anyway, but for someone as dynamic as Musk, it would have been a welcome addition to the surface-level 'what he did' information.

The guy's a genius, and this book, I think, represents that well. The inside look into Musk's life and work from the mid-2000s is thorough and really gives you a fantastic backstory into Musk's experience with Tesla and SpaceX. showing he did to make them successful, making this into an endlessly inspiring biography.

FIVE STARS — Changed how I see things
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Reading Progress

May 23, 2015 – Started Reading
May 23, 2015 – Shelved
May 23, 2015 –
18.0% "Fantastic and insanely inspiring. Musk really is a genius."
May 24, 2015 –
64.0% "Incredible."
May 25, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Mattias (new)

Mattias Pavlina sweet review

Arjun awesome review. i'm generally skeptical of new books after being burned too many times, but this just jumped to the top of the list.

Visnja Zeljeznjak Great review. You're asking all the questions I'm asking myself regarding Musk. I've already read one unofficial biography of Musk, I'll probably read this one too.

message 4: by Chris (new) - added it

Chris O'Connor Reckless + taking risks - yes, I guess it's more a case of "not afraid to fail". Great review - can't wait to read it.

message 5: by David (new) - added it

David Liu Extremely thoughtful review

Kshitija Very nice review.

Mark C. Jokela Utopian pipedream. Western Civilization will have crashed before ten percent of the book's subject matter materializes.

Christina Andric i totally agree with your review...though i think there is no need to be reckless towards your employees

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