Book: Elon Musk – Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future


Elon Musk needs no introductions. His biography is not only an analysis of his way of thinking but also a treasure trove of exciting Silicon Valley history and current trivia. While investigating the life of Elon, we learn about PayPal, Tesla, Solar City, and SpaceX. He took on every heavily-regulated, bureaucratic behemoth and ultimately came up on top.

Elon’s approach has cemented my long-held belief that there is a lot of lore and gossip about what “can’t be done.” And people tend to work very hard under that assumption, suffering the grueling reality of terrible workarounds.

But when you challenge the thing that “can’t be done” based on first principles, very often you can prevail, because you are the person who decided to care.

Why is Elon Musk so successful?

Because he decided to care.

“When Elon gets into something, he develops just this different level of interest in it than other people. That is what differentiates Elon from the rest of humanity.”

The go-to answer usually states, “because he is a genius,” but that is not very helpful. It also is not true. There are plenty of “tortured geniuses” who never achieve much of anything. Ideas are cheap, and execution is everything.

I believe Elon is successful because of:

  1. Relentless focus
  2. Capacity to suffer more personal cost than others
  3. Extraordinary intelligence

Intelligence is the easiest one to find. There are plenty of extraordinarily, intelligent people. But rarely you can find somebody who will be so focused and determined to challenge the industry incumbents on so many fronts and survive the pressures he did.

Thinking from the first principles

Elon is not a genius innovator constructing batteries in his garage. But he is always eager to work from first principles – the laws of physics or economics to calculate what would be possible. It takes serious brainpower to do that for rocket science, but the breakthrough is not in being smarter, but in doing things both differently and correct.

“We’re thinking, Fucking nerd. What can he be doing now?” At which point, Musk wheeled around and flashed a spreadsheet he’d created. “Hey, guys,” he said, “I think we can build this rocket ourselves.”

I am convinced that working with reality as it is is a rare superpower. 

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool,” said Richard Feynman. We are not keen on taking in the full consequence of our mistakes or recognizing the hard work and steep path ahead when our egos are on the line. “Embrace Reality and Deal with It” is the #1 principle of Ray Dalio (most successful hedge fund manager in history).

My wife says that it’s not true that we only use ten percent of our brains. We use the full 100%, but usually, 40% is busy fighting the other 50%, not leaving much to deal with issues at hand. Well, Elon uses every single neuron to further the advent of electric cars and make humanity an interplanetary species.

The fantastic adventures of Elon Musk

If you want to read more about these outlandish goals, I highly encourage the Wait But Why series:

In 2015, I got a call from Elon Musk. Not something you expect to happen. What ensued was a six-month deep dive into the world of Elon and his companies and four long articles about what I found. Here they are:

Tim Urban – “Wait but Why”

My highlights from the book

  • Like many an engineer or physicist, Musk will pause while fishing around for exact phrasing, and he’ll often go rumbling down an esoteric, scientific rabbit hole without providing any helping hands or simplified explanations along the way.
  • “I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing Internet stuff, finance, and law,” Musk said on the way. “That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation.” MUSK
  • On his thirtieth birthday, Musk rented out a castle in England for about twenty people. From 2 A.M. until 6 A.M., they played a variation of hide-and-seek called sardines in which one person runs off and hides and everyone else looks for him.
  • The family gained some measure of notoriety as people heard about Haldeman and his wife packing their kids into the back of the single-engine craft and heading off on excursions all around North America.
  • “We were left with the impression that we were capable of anything. You just have to make a decision and do it. In that sense, my father would be very proud of Elon.”
  • Over time, Musk has ended up thinking that his brain has the equivalent of a graphics chip. It allows him to see things out in the world, replicate them in his mind, and imagine how they might change or behave when interacting with other objects.
  • Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
  • “When Elon gets into something, he develops just this different level of interest in it than other people. That is what differentiates Elon from the rest of humanity.”
  • “Really smart people sometimes don’t understand that not everyone can keep up with them or go as fast,”
  • All the bankers did was copy what everyone else did. If everyone else ran off a bloody cliff, they’d run right 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.”
  • “We’re thinking, Fucking nerd. What can he be doing now?” At which point Musk wheeled around and flashed a spreadsheet he’d created. “Hey, guys,” he said, “I think we can build this rocket ourselves.”
  • Someone taped twenty of the batteries together, put a heating strip wire into the bundle, and set it off. “It went up like a cluster of bottle rockets,” Lyons said. Instead of twenty batteries, the Roadster would have close to 7,000, and the thought of what an explosion at that scale would be like horrified the engineers.
  • After Iron Man came out, Favreau began talking up Musk’s role as the inspiration for Downey’s interpretation of Tony Stark. It was a stretch on many levels.
  • Musk told Riley, a virgin, that he wanted to show her his rockets. “I was skeptical, but he did actually show me rocket videos,” she said.
  •  “I hadn’t had an opportunity to buy a Christmas present for Talulah or anything,” he said. “I went running down the fucking street in Boulder, and the only place that was open sold these shitty trinkets, and they were about to close. The best thing I could find were these plastic monkeys with coconuts—those ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ monkeys.”
  • Hotshot college graduates have historically been forced to pick between a variety of slow-moving military contractors and interesting but ineffectual start-ups.
  • They would hand out blank envelopes that contained invitations to meet at a specific time and place, usually a bar or restaurant near the event, for an initial interview.
  • They’re asked to write an essay for Musk about why they want to work at SpaceX.
  • Musk, though, wanted his engineers to watch what was going on with the machines at all times and to make sure they had to walk through the factory and talk to the technicians on the way to their desks.
  • Just by streamlining a radio, for instance, SpaceX’s engineers have found that they can reduce the weight of the device by about 20 percent.
  • SpaceX will sometimes load a rocket with both the standard equipment and prototypes of its own design for testing during flight. Engineers then compare the performance characteristics of the devices.
  • company created an e-mail filter to detect messages with “blue” and “origin” to block the poaching.
  • He would quiz you until he learned ninety percent of what you know.”
  • SpaceX’s top managers work together to, in essence, create fake schedules that they know will please Musk but that are basically impossible to achieve.
  • One person putting in a sixteen-hour day ends up being much more effective than two people working eight-hour days together.
  • “The mantra was that one great engineer will replace three medium ones,” Lloyd said.
  • Since Musk never writes anything down, he held all the alterations in his head and would run down the checklist week by week to see what the engineers had fixed.
  • “We have to decide what is the best sun visor in the world and then do better,”
  • He’s very visual and can store things that others have deemed to look good away in his brain for recall at any time. This process has helped Musk develop a good eye, which he’s combined with his own sensibilities, while also refining his ability to put what he wants into words.
  • To the extent that the world still doubts Elon, I think it’s a reflection on the insanity of the world and not on the supposed insanity of Elon.”
  • Musk paid $1 million for the Lotus Esprit that Roger Moore drove underwater in The Spy Who Loved Me and wants to prove that such a vehicle can be done. “Maybe we’ll make two or three, but it wouldn’t be more than that,” Musk told the Independent newspaper. “I think the market for submarine cars is quite small.” At
  • As Page puts it, “Good ideas are always crazy until they’re not.”
  • “I’ve learned that your intuition about things you don’t know that much about isn’t very good,” Page said.
  • “It’s kind of our recreation, I guess,” said Page.23 “It’s fun for the three of us to talk about kind of crazy things, and we find stuff that eventually turns out to be real.
  • He’s willing to suffer some personal cost, and I think that makes his odds actually pretty good.
  • “I don’t think we’re doing a good job as a society deciding what things are really important to do,” Page said.
  • “Elon came to the conclusion early in his career that life is short,” Straubel said. “If you really embrace this, it leaves you with the obvious conclusion that you should be working as hard as you can.”
  • “There’s this point that Mike Judge makes in Idiocracy, which is like smart people, you know, should at least sustain their numbers,” Musk said.
  • “I would like to die on Mars,” he said. “Just not on impact. Ideally I’d like to go for a visit, come back for a while, and then go there when I’m like seventy or something and then just stay there.
  • If my wife and I have a bunch of kids, she would probably stay with them on Earth.”
  • 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.
  • it was a little difficult because like the Linux system Max had created was called Max Code. So Max has had quite a strong affinity for Max Code. This was a bunch of libraries that Max and his friends had done. But it just made it quite hard to develop new features. And if you look at PayPal today, I mean, part of the reason they haven’t developed any new features is because it’s quite difficult to maintain the old system.
  • “Square is doing the wrong version of PayPal.
  • “I mean, it’s so ridiculous that PayPal today is worse than PayPal circa end of 2001. That’s insane.
  • “None of these start-ups understand the objective. The objective should be—what delivers fundamental value.

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