Book Notes: Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Before picking the book up, I only thought of Musk as “that guy who runs Tesla” and “that guy who runs SpaceX”. It was the first time Musk has explicitly let anyone interview him, and those close to him, for a biography.

Book Notes: Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

There are some books that you consume all in one go, then there are others that you consume bit by bit, only to give them the time and attention that they deserve. The book I picked up two years ago has come to an end today. Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance felt like I have read multiple books within one because of how the book is structured.

Before picking the book up, I only thought of Musk as “that guy who runs Tesla” and “that guy who runs SpaceX”. It was the first time Musk has explicitly let anyone interview him, and those close to him, for a biography.

The author has captured Musk’s personality traits, his strengths and weaknesses really well, and linked them to how they help him run multiple ventures and turn them into businesses. His personality traits are everything that makes him fight the world when everyone goes against him, and they’re everything that makes him prove the world wrong.

He knows the problems he’s trying to solve are the hardest but are very important, thus he wouldn’t let anyone come in between him and his quests.

And it’s almost as if he’s addicted to solving new problems and can’t quite stop himself from announcing things like the Hyperloop and the space Internet.

It’s also quite fascinating that he has learnt to turn some of his bad life experiences into strengths. One major bad experience is that he has suffered a lot. Suffering has always been Musk’s thing. The kids at school tortured him. His father played brutal mind games. Musk then abused himself by working inhumane hours and forever pushing his businesses to the edge. The idea of work-life balance seems meaningless in this context. For Musk, it’s just life, and his wife and kids try to fit into the show where they can. He feels that the suffering helped to make him who he is and gave him extra reserves of strengths and will.

Another point worth mentioning is what the author has mentioned multiple times and what I felt since the beginning is that people around Musk and in the technology industry have tended to liken Musk’s drive and the scope of his ambition to that of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. He treats his companies the same way and his companies, especially Tesla, reflect on his personality as much as Microsoft and Apple reflect the personalities of their founders.

Finally, the important takeaway is that Musk is never satisfied and keep pushing the team forward, often making the team confused that they’re unable to celebrate their successes the way they want.

It is an incredibly inspiring book that gives us tremendous amount of insight into how Musk merged atoms and bits in ways that few people thought possible and how the results have been spectacular.

Very well done Ashlee Vance for writing this book and thank you Elon Musk for sharing your stories with all of us! 🙏

✨ Interesting insights

🚀 Chapter: Liftoff

  • In May 2012, Falcon 9 rocket took off from the Kennedy Space Center. After 3 days, the capsule approached the space station, an unexpected glint kept throwing off the calculations of a lasterr used to measure the distance between Dragon and the ISS. SpaceX eventually decided to upload new software to the Dragon that cut the size of the visual frame used by the sensors to eliminate the effect of the sunlight on the machine.
  • “Elon is changing the way aerospace business is done,” said NASA’s Stoker. He’s taken the best of the tech industry like the open-floor office plans and having everyone talking and all this human interaction. It’s very different than how other aerospace companies operate.
  • In May 2014, Musk invited everyone to unveil the Dragon V2. Musk prefers to hold true Hollywood-style galas in the evening, rather than the usual tradeshows or daytime events. He opened the capsule’s doors with a bump of his fist. Musk explained, “I went for a similar style to the Model S (it used the same screens as Model S upgraded for space ops), but kept the aluminum isogrid uncovered for a more exotic feel.” Someone had finally built a spaceship worthy of scientist and moviemaker dreams.
  • Dragon V2 will run on a SuperDraco engine, first engine ever built completely by a 3-D printer to go into space. It’s strength and performance should exceed anything built by humans by welding various parts together.
  • The most mind-boggling of all: Dragon 2 will be able to land anywhere on Earth that SpaceX wants by using the engines to come to a gentle stop on the ground. No more landings at sea. No more throwing spaceships away. “That is how a 21st century should land,” Musk said. “You can just reload propelant and fly again.”
  • Part of the genius is SpaceX can reuse the same engine in different configurations, saving on cost and time. They have the complete control. “Four years ago, we could make two rockets a year, now we can make 20 a year.”
  • Space is also busy building by automating the processes needed to stand a rocket up on the pad, fuel it, and send it off.
  • They often experiment with new engines, landing legs etc of each of their launch.
  • It’s just never enough for Musk, no matter what it is. the December 2010 capsule launch to orbit Earth and return back successfully, which was one of the company’s great achievements where people worked tirelessly. When everyone was ready for the Christmas party and celebration of the historic achievement, Musk called the top execs to SpaceX for a meeting and asked them why a future rocket was running behind schedule.
  • One time, he rewarded 30 employees with additional stop option grants. When one of them demanded cash, he said, “In the long run, this is worth a lot more than a thousand dollars in cash.” He wasn’t screaming but seemed disappointed in them. Many of them are waiting for IPO, but Musk say that he cannot do that unless Mars mission looks more secure since that’s something that the investors do not really understand.

🚗 Chapter: The Revenge of the Electric Car

Although it started with the roadster, the main purpose of which was to proof to the world what an all-electric car can do.

Here’s some interesting insights of Model S Sedan, released in mid-2012:

  • It has two trunks, the front trunk is famously known as frunk.
  • The volume level in the sound system naturally goes to 11, which is an homage to This is Spinal Tap and a reflection of Musk’s sense of humor.
  • The weight in the seat when one sits in is all it takes to start the car.
  • If something goes wrong with the car, it would be picked up and the customer would be given a loaner while it repaired the Model S.
  • While the owner slept, Tesla’s engineers tapped into the car via the Internet connection and downloaded software updates. When the customer took the car out for a spin in the morning and found it working right, he was left feeling as if the magical elves had done their work.
  • Tesla also began installing software updates overnight with new features, making it a gadget that actually got better after you bought it.
  • Tesla reflects on Elon Musk’s personality as much as Intel, Microsoft, and Apple reflect the personalities of their founders. Marc Tappening, Tesla’s cofounder, said, “Elon pushed Tesla so much further than we ever imagined.”

📜 Favorite Quotes from the book:

Elon Musk, the guy himself.

  • “The list of people who would not mind if I was gone is growing.” — Elon Musk
  • “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.” — Elon Musk
  • “My mentality is that of a samurai. I would rather commit seppuku than fail.” — Elon Musk

Larry Page, co-founder of Google

  • “Good ideas are always crazy until they’re not.” — Larry Page
  • “I think we’re just not educating people in this kind of general way. You should have some leadership training and a bit of MBA training or knowledge of how to run things, organize stuff, and raise money. Engineers are usually trained in a very fixed area. When you’re able to think about all of these disciplines together, you kind of think differently and can dream of much crazier things and how they might work. I think that’s really an important thing for the world. That’s how we make progress.” — Larry Page

Maye Musk, Elon's mother

  • “In the comics, it always seems like they are trying to save the world. It seemed like one should try to make the world a better place because the inverse makes no sense.” — Elon Musk “He goes into his brain, and then you just see he is in another world. He still does that. Now I just leave him be because I know he is designing a new rocket or something.” — Maye Musk

Kimbal Musk, Elon's brother

  • “…just the insane set of experiences changes how you view risk. You don’t grow up thinking getting a job is the hard part. That’s not interesting enough.” — Kimbal Musk

Justine Musk, Elon's ex-wife

  • “He’s built like a tank. He has a level of stamina and an ability to deal with levels of stress that I’ve never seen in anyone else.” — Justine Musk, Elon Musk’s ex-wife

J. B. Straubel, co-founder and former CTO of Tesla

  • “Elon came to the conclusion early in his career that life is short. If you really embrace this, it leaves you with the obvious conclusion that you should be working as hard as you can.” — J. B. Straubel

Derek Proudian, funded Elon's first startup, Zip2

  • “Really smart people sometimes don’t understand that not everyone can keep up with them or go as fast.” — Derek Proidian

Jeff Hammerbacher, an early Facebook engineer

  • “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” — Jeff Hammerbacher

Link to the book that I get a kickback from: 😜

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