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

by Ashlee Vance

Ecco, 2015

ElonMuskCoverThis is the most fascinating, entertaining, and hopeful biography I’ve read in a long time, perhaps ever. Its subject, Elon Musk, is one of the most brilliant and complex characters alive today, providing ample raw material for a good book.  But what really makes this book shine is that author Ashlee Vance, who had unprecedented access to Musk, his employees, family members, and supporters as well as detractors, has portrayed Musk with a thoroughness and insight that only a dedicated, skilled researcher and writer could pull off.

Musk has turned the traditional idea of capitalist entrepreneurship on its head by taking financial risks greater than most conventional CEOs, with MBAs in their pockets, would dare.  In his successive companies and business ventures – Solar City, Tesla, SpaceX – he has repeatedly taken sizable chunks of his personal fortune, accumulated from the success and subsequent sale of a previous venture, and sunk them into his next bold idea.  He has attracted outside investors as well, but much of his ability to do that has been based on his willingness to put his own wealth on the line along with theirs.  Musk is clearly driven not by money but by a genuine desire to make a positive impact on civilization, which he believes is in serious trouble.  Musk’s drive is almost obsessive; it has brought him more than once to the brink of financial and personal ruin.  He is infamous for committing to impossible deadlines and missing them, which puts unbearable pressure on his managers and employees.

Musk is a hard man to work for, because he expects everyone else to be as smart as he is and willing to work as hard as he does.  That said, he has been a magnet for attracting the best talent in American business, from Silicon Valley tech companies, from universities, from aerospace and the automobile industry.  His supporters are willing to go to the brink with him to make his bold ideas work.  Some of his employees, on the other hand, burn out and move on.  The same could be said of his former wives, one of whom he divorced, remarried, and divorced again.  His interpersonal and leadership skills are not without controversy.

Traditional automotive and aerospace company managers have often pronounced his ideas and business ventures laughable, only to discover a few years later that he is breathing down their necks, or even surpassing them with his innovative products and approaches.  Part of Musk’s ability to do that comes from his commitment to controlling every aspect of manufacturing, which has meant building rockets, cars, batteries, and now solar panels in the United States, with American labor.  This approach – which, we know too well, runs counter to modern corporate thinking – has made his companies far more nimble and cost effective than the established automotive and aerospace giants.  Musk is able to implement fixes and changes to his products far faster than other companies tied to offshore suppliers and burdened by contracts, trade agreements, and their own bureaucracies when they want to make changes in their components or processes.

Vance is obviously a Musk fan (mainly, it seems, as a result of genuinely getting to know Musk while writing this book), but he is also honest and forthright about Musk’s foibles and shortcomings. All in all, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future is an outstanding experience that has helped, at least a little, to shore up my faith in humanity and my hope for the future.

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