books business

Book review: Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance

Among the various books that people bought me for Christmas is this one: Elon Musk – How the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is shaping our future. It’s a detailed, entertaining and inspiring biography.

It’s likely that you have an opinion about Elon Musk. Journalist Ashlee Vance has spoken to what feels like hundreds of people about the man, and descriptions vary from a PT Barnum style huckster, Tony Stark from the Iron Man comics, Thomas Edison, to the somewhat lazy ‘new Steve Jobs’. But if he is anything at all, Musk is his own man.

There’s no question in my mind that he’s a genius. He has the ability to learn, recall and calculate on the fly in ways that very few people can keep up with. He has a brain the size of a planet and an ego to match. He is intensely logical and blunt to the point of being obnoxious. His work rate is ridiculous and the pressure he piles on his employees is, to my mind at least, on the wrong side of the ethical borderline. But he certainly gets things done – often things that are broadly considered impossible.

This biography, which he cooperated with but did not control, follows Musk from his troubled childhood in South Africa to his student days in Canada. It traces early successes with the Zip2 internet start-up, to that first big fortune with PayPal. Musk then sank the entirety of his personal fortune into a space company, at a time when only governments could afford to go to space – and then an electric car company when nobody was sure such a thing would ever be viable. He came within a whisker of losing everything on both of them before they became the multi-billion dollar propositions they are today.

The book is as much about the companies and the technology they have pioneered as it is about Musk, which is important. These are not insignificant companies. SpaceX has revolutionised space by creating reusable rockets. They use off-the-shelf components and the latest Tintin-inspired prototype is made out of steel instead of carbon fibre, dramatically reducing costs and launching a new space age. Working on that part-time, Musk’s other job is at Tesla – the first successful automotive start-up in America since Chrysler all the way back in 1925.

Of course, these are team efforts. That’s easily forgotten in the internet fawning over Musk, and his willingness to take all the credit. The book relies on interviews to tell its story, and it fills in the gaps on all the engineers, quants and space enthusiasts that are part of these history-making projects.

Despite its 400 pages, the book is still incomplete. There’s no mention of Musk’s work in AI, no more than a sentence or two about philanthropy, and little about climate change despite it being a major motivator behind Musk’s work. Not that a biography ever could be complete while Musk is alive and working, because he moves too fast: “There’s no telling what Musk will have unveiled next by the time you read this” says Vance. Initiatives since the book was written include The Boring Company, Neuralink, Powerwall, SolarCity’s tile roofs, sending his car to Mars, and some ill-advised social media activity.

For all his flaws, one thing that I find interesting about Elon Musk is that he has a broader vision than many business people, and money is not the key motivator. Take Tesla. In Musk’s words, “the overarching purpose of Tesla Motors is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy”. So far the company is more or less following the ‘secret’ masterplan that Musk wrote in 2006 and that’s still there on the website. SpaceX has the “ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets” right there on its ‘about’ page. These are not modest goals.

Musk feels that people have lost ambition, and that’s something that I agree with – certainly in Britain at least. We can’t imagine a four-day week, or participative democracy, or the end of poverty, all things that previous generations would have talked about and hoped for. Our sights are too low. How are we going to stop climate change, create a circular economy, or solve global inequality unless we’re prepared to attempt big things? Perhaps it takes an extraordinary man like Elon Musk to remind us of what we might be capable of.

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