Elon Musk

By Ashlee Vance

I felt this book was pretty poorly written in quite a few places. Grammatically there are a number of sentences that are so jarring you have to read them a over multiple times to get what he his saying. There's a few things that Vance mentions that I found quite creepy such as when he introduces Elon's future wife when they first meet as "Talulah Riley, a virgin." No body needs to know that man. Vance also struggles to really grasp some of the basic science Elon talks about and ends up giving cocked up or non-descriptive explanations that make it hard for anyone to understand what he's talking about.

For example, SpaceX flew one of their rockets in a military cargo plane as opposed to the usual method of transporting it by barge in order to save some time. Even though airplane cabins are pressurized, the cabin pressure still drops pretty significantly at cruising altitudes. As the plane started to descend for landing the rocket began collapsing inward on itself. This is because as they were flying at high altitude the pressure inside the rocket slowly dropped to this lower cabin pressure. Then when plane began descending rapidly the pressure outside the rocket began to increase faster than the pressure inside the rocket (as the rocket was more or less sealed). Low pressure inside the rocket and high pressure outside the rocket caused a net force pushing inwards to be exerted all over the rockets body in a manner it wasn't designed for, causing it to crumple. Vance describes this by saying

This would have been a fine idea except the SpaceX engineers forgot to factor in what the pressurized plane would do to the body of the rocket, which is less than an eighth of an inch thick. As the plane started its descent into Hawaii, everyone inside of it could hear strange noises coming from the cargo hold. “I looked back and could see the stage crumpling,” said Bulent Altan, the former head of avionics at SpaceX. “I told the pilot to go up, and he did.” The rocket had behaved much like an empty water bottle will on a plane, with the air pressure pushing against the sides of the bottle and making it buckle.

The pressurized plane helped, not hurt. And comparing the rocket crumpling on a plane to a empty water bottle crumpling on a plane isn't a very helpful analogy. And the air pressure is pushing against both sides of the bottle. If you want to read a great example of a biographer who truly grasps the basic science worked on by the subject, read Isaacson's Einstein biography. That book has my favorite explanation of special relativity.  


That all being said, this is a pretty good book. The amount of research and interviews Vance did to provide mutliple view points to key times in Elon's life is pretty astounding. I do feel I understand Elon much better. Below are the three things I feel made Elon as successful as he is. 

He is a nano-manager. However, he's not the micro-managing type who waits for you to finish your work and then nitpick all the details where he would have made a different decision. Instead he's right there over your shoulder the whole step of the way and he's not afraid to get his hands dirty. If you are on the critical path and you get stuck, he'll come find you personally and try to help. His classic line at SpaceX was "There are five hundred people at this company. What do you need?" He also never tells his employees to do what he himself wouldn't do. He always has his desk in the most visible area of the office so that everyone can see the hours and weekend shifts he's putting in. My favorite story in the book was

An employee could be telling Musk that there’s no way to get the cost on something like that actuator down to where he wants it or that there is simply not enough time to build a part by Musk’s deadline. “Elon will say, ‘Fine. You’re off the project. I will do your job and be CEO of two companies at the same time. I will deliver it,’” Brogan said. “What’s crazy is that Elon actually does it. Every time he’s fired someone and taken their job, he’s delivered on whatever the project was.”

Elon above everything likes for things to be resolved and then moving on. He doesn't like things lingering in limbo. When his marriage with his first wife was rocky, he came home one night and said, "we either decide to stay together or we breakup tonight." She gave him a non-answer saying how she wanted another week to decide. The next day Elon told her he was filing for divorce. At SpaceX there was mutliple times where employees would be weighing two paths of action and Elon would just pick one, and that was final. They could then move on. When he was ousted from PayPal as CEO, he didn't fight it. He knew the board was making a bad decision, he had plenty of grounds to fight it, but he decided to just accept their decision and move on.

He has insanely high intelligence.

Musk initially relied on textbooks to form the bulk of his rocketry knowledge. But as SpaceX hired one brilliant person after another, Musk realized he could tap into their stores of knowledge. He would trap an engineer in the SpaceX factory and set to work grilling him about a type of valve or specialized material. “I thought at first that he was challenging me to see if I knew my stuff,” said Kevin Brogan, one of the early engineers. “Then I realized he was trying to learn things. He would quiz you until he learned ninety percent of what you know.” People who have spent significant time with Musk will attest to his abilities to absorb incredible quantities of information with near-flawless recall. It’s one of his most impressive and intimidating skills and seems to work just as well in the present day as it did when he was a child vacuuming books into his brain.