If anything is to be learned from Ashlee Vance's biography of Elon Musk is that gifted children often have unsettled childhoods. However if those same kids develop into financially successful people the world might be better were they to put those resources and their talents to work doing things that seem to be impossible. I originally ordered this audio book because it seemed to me that Mr. Musk had attempted to do two of the three hardest and most complicated engineering and manufacturing tasks any one could attempt. One was space vehicles, and the other modern cars. I would say that the third is aircraft, which Musk may attempt later. That he has so far succeeded in the two he has tried is amazing. He not only did this but, I was to learn, he and his employees have totally rethought both systems, and are doing it entirely within the US, and with American labor.
His story could have be the all-to-familiar tale of a hi-tech engineer in Silicone Valley or Wall Street physicist-turned-finance-guy that made a pile of money early – in his case as a founder of PayPal – and then retired to live a life of luxury with no more than a dose of philanthropy to “give back to society”. Musk pushed past all of that to pursue childhood fantasies and dreams – turning them into real-life gains for humanity.
Consider that his company, SpaceEx, was the first private company to put a payload in orbit. Only a handful of entire countries had done that before. In fact SpaceEx, I believe, is the only organization (including countries) to have a orbit-payload-enabled booster rocket successfully execute a controlled lift-off, hover and vertical landing. As for electric cars, by starting from scratch, the whole process has been rethought. And going beyond the physical layout of the vehicle, the company is organized differently. Early in the process, his team at Tesla recognized that their vehicle (and electric vehicles in general) will have less need for maintenance and repair – a mainstay of dealerships. So Tesla made the decision to sell them directly through the internet and by showrooms that stand in conjunction with free solar-powered charging stations. He is getting a lot of serious push-back from traditional dealerships and, by extension, several state governments for this. But it really is the most efficient method. Without substantial maintenance income, Tesla dealerships would have had an extremely hard go of it and would have had to raise the already high sticker price too high to be practical. And efficiency is one of the many obsessions of Mr. Musk.
The only quibble I have with the text is that author makes a little too much of the apparent misery of Musk's childhood. Bullying has always been hardest on gifted children and Musk was obviously gifted. Surely the role of his parents, both positive and negative, must have been an even a larger influence than any school beatings. At least Elon as a child never really had to overcome grinding poverty. The book makes it clear that his father (also an engineer) left much to be desired as a parent – although no one in the family agreed to provide examples. But the fact is Musk choose to live much of his teenage years with his father even after his parents split. As strident and pedantic a task-master as anyone could image, his father still allowed his children to roam and explore to a great degree. To the teenage Elon, this must have been worth putting up with the negative stuff.
This the kind of book that both inspires and repels. It provides insight into much of what drives this extraordinary and often difficult man. And for those of us not blessed with his kind of visual photographic memory (and so very few are) we should take in this story to both marvel at its nuance and sincerely hope that the contributions of Musk continue.
To all of us, but especially to those to whom financial success has come, “Be ashamed to die until you have scored some victory for humanity.” – the educator Horace Mann, as quoted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.