“They're going for records in all the wrong ways.”

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
by Ashlee Vance
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Elon Musk is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the 21st century. He has disrupted major industries that were previously dominated by large, established companies. In 2015, the technology writer Ashlee Vance published a biography about Musk, which provides detailed insight into Musk’s life, character, and ventures.

As of September 2017, Vance writes for Bloomberg Businessweek and is known for his featured portraits (Collison brothers, geohotz) and “Hello World” series (Iceland). Just like Musk, he was born in South Africa and shares a fascination for technology.

As early as in his teenage years, Musk displayed strong interests in scientific topics. Science fairs, model rockets and programming were his métier. In 1988, he moved to Canada and — after flourishing in university — entered the realm of startups. Together with his brother, he founded Zip2 which provided a widely used business database. Vance illustrates how Musk’s mindset and principles developed during that time: Strong-mindedness and an extreme commitment allowed him to succeed with his companies. Later on, with the launch of and merger with PayPal, Musk propelled himself to a position that guaranteed the resources for the plans which followed.

Especially the descriptions of SpaceX’s early days are very impressive. The work climate and far from optimal conditions under which the Falcon 1 rocket was developed are hard to imagine. A great deal of anecdotes shows that Musk values talent and extremely committed, hard-working employees.

Over the course of the book, Vance describes something he calls the “Unified field theory of Elon Musk”: All of Musk’s businesses are interconnected based on the goal of making humanity a multi-planetary species. He has aligned his whole life based on reaching this techno-utopian goal.

At times, Vance’s descriptions of Tesla or SpaceX seem partial: He doesn’t reflect about possible negative aspects and it seems like his admiration for Musk prevents him from seeing beyond the perceived idealism. Furthermore, Musk definitely is a man of extremes, but sometimes Vance tries too hard to remind the reader of this fact.

Although Musk cooperated on the writing of the book, he himself said that the book was not “independently fact-checked” and that it “should be taken with a grain of salt”. Vance describes one incident in which Musk allegedly rebuked a Tesla employee who missed an event to witness the birth of his child. Musk denied that this incident happened and referred to the account as “hurtful”.

The Tesla CEO is known for his very practical and straightforward strategy. Despite the fact that he is deeply rooted in Silicon Valley startup culture, a parallel comes to mind: In many ways Musk approaches problems like a hacker would do. Just like the title of this blog posts quotes him: Musk is aware of the structural limitations and historic bloat in these industries and isn’t afraid to reinvent the wheel over and over.

Despite some inaccuracies Vance sheds light on a person which many people here in Europe only know vaguely. His biography of Musk is definitely recommendable and sparks inspiration by showing how strong commitment and taking risks facilitate success.

Surely, Musk’s future projects will be of great interest to the public — and it remains to be seen whether he will reach his goals to inhabit Mars. Currently, Musk is additionally shifting his attention to Hyperloop, The Boring Company, Neuralink and OpenAI. Exciting ventures.