Elon Musk - Critical summary review - Ashlee Vance

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Elon Musk - critical summary review

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Technology & Innovation and Biographies & Memoirs

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 9780753555644

Publisher: Ecco Press

Critical summary review

Chances are that you have heard of SpaceX. Or that you would love to drive a Tesla. At the very least, you have probably used PayPal before. What do these three companies have in common? Their founder, Elon Musk. 

Ashlee Vance’s biography gives a unique insight into the life of one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time. So, if you’ve ever wondered how Musk became so successful, get ready to learn more about his life!

Growing up

    Ever since his early childhood, Elon Musk was driven by a vision for creating a better future for humanity. He believes this is achievable by making life on Mars possible for humans. 

Growing up in Pretoria, South Africa as the eldest of three children, apartheid and hyper-masculinity were always present in Musk’s early years. He did not have an easy childhood: he was bullied by his peers and psychologically tortured by his father after the divorce from his mother.

Musk believes that his tough childhood made him who he is and that it actually helped him cope with his intense work schedule. Musk often flies back and forth between San Francisco and Silicon Valley to work at his two companies Tesla and SpaceX. He also has custody of his five children, four days a week.

From early on, Musk stood out with his ability to intensely focus on a task. He would become so engrossed in his thinking that no one could shake him out of it. At some point in his childhood, this led to his parents wondering if he might be deaf. He also claims to have a photographic memory, saying that as a child he would often memorize everything he read. Musk traveled around the world with his family from a young age, and reading was his main hobby.

Musk especially loved Douglas Adams’ book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” It greatly influenced the young Musk, revealing to him that asking the right questions is much more important than finding the answers. By his mid-teenage years, Musk already had a goal in mind: to make the world a better place. Around the same time, he launched his first successful business venture. In 1984, at the age of 12, Musk sold the code for a computer game he had created, Blastar, and made $500. 

Becoming an entrepreneur

Musk is living the American dream these days as a multimillionaire, something he says he dreamed of before achieving it. As a young child, he always yearned to move to the United States, as it seemed to offer limitless possibilities for him to use his talents. Finally, in 1988, he arrived in Canada. He stayed at first with distant relatives and eventually enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. 

There, he met his future wife Justine Wilson. Their dating history is a good characterization of Musk. When she stood him up for their first date at an ice cream parlor, Musk questioned her best friend about where she studied and what her favorite ice cream was. A little later, he turned up at the library with two chocolate chip ice creams, and ultimately, he and Justine started dating. This determination seems to be a Musk character trait - his father Errol proposed seven times to Elon’s mother Maye until she finally accepted to marry him.

Queen’s University provided Musk with an outlet for his ambitions. He studied business and regularly took part in public speaking contests. His intense and competitive character was already becoming apparent in those early years. Even Justine said that her relationship with Musk had always been defined by a certain degree of competitiveness.

After two years at Queen’s, Musk eventually transferred to an Ivy League university, the University of Pennsylvania, where he received dual degrees in economics and physics. During that time, he also made influential friends such as Adeo Rossi, now a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. The two of them lived together and covered their rent by transforming their 10-bedroom house into a nightclub on weekends, charging $5 for entry tickets. During these events, Musk always stayed sober and to this day, he is not a big drinker. 

At the University of Pennsylvania, Musk identified the three industries that he would later pursue for his professional life: the internet, renewable energy, and space. He believed that he could make a big impact in these areas.

Becoming a millionaire

Straight after college, Musk jumped on to the dot-com bandwagon and founded his own start-up, Zip2 (originally: Global Link Information Network) with his brother Kimbal. This platform enabled businesses to be found online through an open, searchable directory. 

Musk had gained experience during several internships and was known for often pulling all-nighters. He has never been discouraged by not knowing enough about a certain area. In his early career as a software engineer, he would sit down and work until he had figured the problem out. Bruce Leak, a former lead engineer behind Apple’s QuickTime, said Musk had “boundless energy.” 

Eventually, Zip2 was bought by Compaq in 1999 for $307 million. Through the sale, Musk received a confidence boost and looked for a new project to pour his energy into. He eventually settled on online banking. At a time when people were even reluctant to buy books online, he founded X.com. 

At the same time, Max Levchin and Peter Thiel were working on creating PayPal. The two companies competed at first, but finally merged in 2000. Eventually, though, Thiel pushed Musk out as CEO, while he was on a plane for a much-delayed honeymoon with Justine. 

In 2002, PayPal was sold for $1.5 billion to eBay. As a major shareholder, Musk received $180 million, which enabled him to finally pursue his lifelong dream of trying to make life on Mars possible.

Reaching for the stars

To achieve this dream, Musk poured all of his wealth into the founding of three new companies: SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity. All of these companies are defined by an ambition to create things from scratch and by rethinking the aerospace, automotive, and energy industry, respectively.

After the sale of PayPal, he and Justine moved to Los Angeles, where Musk first heard about the plan to send fornicating mice into Earth’s orbit in preparation for sending people to Mars. This was at a meeting of The Mars Society, which he joined.

Musk was delighted by the idea, but wanted to take it a bit further, and send the mice all the way to Mars. This turned into a plan to send a robotic greenhouse to Mars, and finally lead to the founding of SpaceX in 2002 (originally: Space Exploration Techniques). The idea was to build better, faster, and cheaper rockets and to ultimately become the “Southwest Airlines of space.” SpaceX has now succeeded in testing reusable rockets that can take payloads to space and then land back on their launchpads on Earth. 

The SpaceX factory in Los Angeles is one of the most advanced factories in the world. Situated in an old warehouse, it is a place where all levels of production intermingle. Technicians and programmers sit at desks in the same hall as the engineers who are putting the rocket engines together. Musk is always in the middle of it, personally supervising and getting involved in the work of both of his companies, Tesla and SpaceX. 

Musk has applied the Silicon Valley ethic to his companies. He runs them without bureaucratic hierarchies and encourages moving quickly - which is also why he often sets very tight deadlines that seem impossible to meet.

Electrifying the world

Tesla Motors was founded by Eberhard and Tarpenning to make a car powered by a lithium-ion battery. Musk invested in it and brought Straubel on board, who had already built the batteries that Eberhard and Tarpenning were looking for.

Tesla aimed to create all-electric cars that people want to drive. And Musk succeeded in making the electric car ‘’sexy’’ again. He delivered the Model S, an all-electric sedan, as well as the fastest and most beautiful electric cars ever seen. Tesla has now turned into the most successful American car company since Chrysler.

Across the United States, you’ll find solar-powered, supercharging stations where Tesla owners can refuel their cars in 20 minutes at no cost. Tesla has created a revolutionary, green, and self-sufficient transport method.

The third company Musk founded was SolarCity, in 2004. He co-founded it with his cousins, the Rive brothers. SolarCity allowed him to make his ambition of revolutionizing the solar energy business come true: it is now the largest installer and financer of solar panels for individuals and businesses in the United States. 

While at first glance Musk’s three ventures seem to be entirely separate from one another, he ultimately wants to unite them: Tesla makes the battery packs that store solar energy, which can then be sold by SolarCity. In turn, SolarCity solar panels power Tesla charging stations. And, Tesla and SpaceX “exchange knowledge around materials, manufacturing techniques, and the intricacies of operating factories that build so much stuff from the ground up.” 

Characterizing Musk

Being a world-leading visionary comes at the price of having a troublesome private life. Musk has been married three times, twice to the same woman. He has also been described as a “tortured soul” by his second wife, Talulah Riley.

In 2008, when both SpaceX and Tesla were on the verge of collapse and Musk was increasingly worried about dwindling money resources, his marriage to Justine fell apart. They have five children together. 

After the divorce, his friend Bill Lee took him to London to cheer him up, and it was there Musk met his second (also third) wife, 22-year-old Talulah Riley. They divorced in 2012. Musk soon realized he didn’t have time for dating in his busy schedule (according to him, a woman takes up at least 10 hours of his week). So eventually, he and Riley got back together and married again. Musk’s wives and girlfriends have described him as romantic and impulsive.

Moreover, he is a polarizing man. It has been said he can be hard to work with as he verbally abuses his employees, demanding 100% dedication to the job. But regardless of whether his employees like him or not, most admire him for his drive and mission. People in his companies are well aware they are trying to achieve the impossible every day.

Musk greatly admires resolve and is driven by a long-term vision for the future of humanity. It has led to him making millions of dollars and revolutionizing three industries at the same time. 

Final Notes

    Whether you’re a fan of Elon Musk or not, there is no doubt about his visionary dedication to work and the admirability of his aim to save the human race. If you want to gain more insights into his work with SpaceX and Tesla, “Elon Musk” is a must-read.

    The Washington Post summed up the work by saying: “For anyone interested in technology, entrepreneurship or the price of greatness, Ashlee Vance’s new book is a tremendous look into arguably the world's most important entrepreneur. Vance paints an unforgettable picture of Musk’s unique personality, insatiable drive, and ability to thrive through hardship. The book bursts with telling anecdotes and quotes that illuminate who Musk is.”

12min Tip

Take a page out of Musk’s book, and don’t let yourself be discouraged. No matter how crazy the idea, if you truly believe in it, you can achieve it.

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Who wrote the book?

Ashlee Vance is an American columnist who writes primarily on business. He is the author of the book Elon Musk. Vance is known primarily for writing for The Register from March 2003 to August 2008 but moved to the New York Times in September 2008 and then to Bloomberg Businessweek in January 2011. Companies covered by Vance, such as IBM, HP, Intel, and Dell, also write about a wide range of technology topics including... (Read more)

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