BOOK NOTES: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

I had one consistent thought as I was reading Ashlee Vance’s book on Elon Musk: my aspirations, even if combined with those of everyone I personally know pale in comparison to those of Elon Musk.

And it truly made me want to pause, step back, and think about how I can think bigger. Actually, it made me want to redefine big.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the book (plus some of my own notes).


“Do you think I’m insane?”

  • V: A question I haven’t asked myself for a long time, and is now bothering me.

One thing that Musk holds in the highest regard is resolve, and he respects people who continue on after being told no. 

  • V: Rebellion (for a good reason).

Turning humans into space colonizers is his stated life’s purpose. “I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future,” he said. “if we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multi-planetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet – to cope with the worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness – then I think that would be really good.”

  • V: “Multi-planetary species” – I had not known this was a word since the last sci-fi book or movie I’ve consumed, a long time ago.

Silicon Valley, though, operates within a warped version of reality.

  • V: Which is why people, especially in more traditional companies, use the word “Silicon Valley” like it’s a golden word that will pluck them out of the realities of having a mature business.

“I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing Internet stuff, finance, and law. That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation”

  • V: Really?! I thought “Internet stuff” was the thing of today… And it is. Again, here’s another way to look at things.

“The best minds of our generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”, Jeff Hammerbacher, an early Facebook engineer, told me. “That sucks.”

  • V: It is true! But it has always been like this, hasn’t it?

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

  • V: I want both. I want flying cars, and I also appreciate having a space to share my 140 characters.

CHECK: What Happened to the Future – essay by VC firm Founders Fund

Musk rejected that logic by throwing $100 million into SpaceX, $70 million into Tesla, and $10M into SolarCity.

  • V: An intense belief in his mission.

“We’ve grown fucking soft.”

Building things – especially big things – is a messy business.

Elon is the shining example of how Silicon Valley might be able to reinvent itself and be more relevant than chasing these quick IP’s and focusing on getting incremental products out.

He does what he wants, and he is relentless about it. It’s Elon’s world, and the rest of us live in it.

READ: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams 

He points out that one of the really tough things is figuring out what questions to ask. 

  • V: Let me just reiterate that. Figuring out what questions to ask.

READ: The Lord of the Rings, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is  a Harsh Mistress 

He wasn’t just sniffing out trends, and he wasn’t consumed by the idea of getting rich. He’s been in pursuit of a master plan all along. “I really was thinking about this stuff in college. It is not some invented story after the fact. I don’t want to seem like a Johnny-come-lately or that I’m chasing a fad or just being opportunistic. I’m not an investor. I like to make technologies real that I think are important for the future and useful in some sort of way.”

  • V: In this case, it seemed a bit like he wants to take control of his own story. The book sometimes comes off as marketing/PR for Elon, to be honest. But even if we strip everything off, I don’t think we can ever scratch the surface of what the guy has achieved.

He has boundless energy.

  • V: And so do we.

“All the bankers did was copy what everyone else did. If everyone else ran off a bloody cliff, they’d run off a cliff with them. If there was a giant pile of gold sitting in the middle of the room and nobody was picking it up, they wouldn’t pick it up either.”

  • V: Life question – are you also like that?

That’s part of what separates Elon form mere mortals. (V: speaking about the way he invests almost all of his money on his companies)

Elon would say that this is not a normal business environment, and you have to suspend normal business thinking. 

Paypal Mafia: Reid Hoffman, Thiel, Botha, Musk

He always works from a different understanding of reality than the rest of us.

  • V: Reminds me of Steve Jobs.

[Musk had a] desire to do something meaningful with his life – something lasting. He wanted to inspire the masses and reinvigorate their passion for science, conquest, and the  promise of technology.

On the fourth and possibly final launch for SpaceX, September 28, 2008: “When the launch was successful, everyone burst into tears,” Kimbal said. “It was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had.” Musk left the control room and walked out to the factory floor, where he received a rock star’s welcome. “Well, that was freaking awesome,” he said. “There are a lot of people who thought we couldn’t do it – a lot actually – but as the saying goes, ‘the fourth time is the charm,’ right? There are only a handful of countries on Earth that have done this. It’s normally a country thing, not a company thing… My mind is kind of frazzled, so it’s hard for me to say anything, but, man, this is definitely one of the greatest days of my life, and I think probably for most people here.”

“He has the ability to work harder and endure more stress than anyone I’ve ever met,” Gracias said. “What he went through in 2008 would have broken anyone else. He didn’t just survive. He kept working and stayed focused.” … “Elon gets hyper-rational. He’s still able to make very clear, long-term decisions. The harder it gets, the better he gets.

Interview riddle for engineers: “You’re standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?” (Answer: North Pole)

“Where else could you be?” (Answer: Somewhere close to the South Pole where, if you walk one mile south, the circumference of the Earth becomes one mile.)

  • V: No idea what they’re talking about. Must research on this.

“Everything he does is fast,” Brogan said, “He pees fast. It’s like a fire hose – three seconds and out. He’s authentically in a hurry.”

Musk on his approach: I certainly don’t try to set impossible goals. I think impossible goals are demotivating. You don’t want to tell people to go through a wall by hanging their head against it. I don’t ever set intentionally impossible goals. But I’ve certainly always been optimistic on time frames. I’m trying to recalibrate to be a little bit more realistic… So, i think generally you do want to have a timeline where, based on everything you know about, the schedule would be X, and you execute towards that, but with the understanding that there will be all sorts of things that you don’t know about that you will encounter that will push the date beyond that. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have tried to aim for that date from the beginning because aiming for something else would have been an arbitrary time increase.

  • V: He’s not the best with words in my opinion. But I get what he’s saying.

Musk guides his engineers into taking ownership of their own delivery dates. “He doesn’t say ‘You have to do this by Friday at 2pm,’” Brogan said, “He says, ‘I need the impossible done by Friday at 2pm. Can you do it?’ Then when you say yes, you’re not working hard because he told you to. You’re working hard for yourself. It’s a distinction you can feel. You have signed up to do your own work.

  • V: Amazing tactic to take note of.

Either you’re trying to make something spectacular with no compromises or you’re not.

But there is now a degree to which you have to ask whether his success is an indictment on the rest of us who have been working on much more incremental things.

He believes in the technologies to the extend that he thinks they’re the right things to pursue for the betterment of mankind.

Employees need to help solve the problems to the absolute best of their ability or they need to get out of the way.

He’s not chasing momentary opportunities in the business world. He’s trying to solve problems that have been consuming him for decades.

Elon has that deep appreciation for technology, the no holds-barred attitude of a visionary, and that determination to go after long-term things that they both had. (comparing Musk to Jobs and Gates)

READ: Average is Over by Cowen

“Well, what should I really do in this world?”

  • V: A question for everyone.

“Good ideas are always crazy, until they’re not.” (Larry Page)

“I’ve learned that your intuition about things you don’t know much about isn’t very good. The way Elon talks about it is that you always need to start with the first principles of the problem. What are the physics of it? How much time will it take? How much cheaper can I make it?” (Larry Page)

It bothers Musk a bit that his kids won’t suffer like he did. He feels that the suffering helped to make him who he is and gave him extra reserves of strength and will.

He seems to feel for the human species as a whole without always wanting to consider the wants and needs of individuals. And it may well be the case that this is exactly the type of person it takes to make a freaking space Internet real.

So, what do you think of this?