Musk Biography Highlights

I read the new biography by Ashlee Vance on Elon Musk. Vance covers a lot of material about Elon, Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City.   I liked but did not love the book. Vance emphasized the chronology of these companies and a somewhat superficial look into the character of Elon.  This book only lightly covers his personal relationships (two wives, three divorces) and his business relationships at his companies.  Walter Isaacon’s book on Steve Jobs was more satisfying.

For this blog post, I am pulling out a few of the book’s interesting quotes which are in blue.

Silicon Valley Characteristics

Being a Silicon Valley native and successful entrepreneur, I related to many of the stories about all three of his companies trials and tribulations.  Startups need people who have intense focus and drive. I have also found a correlation between a challenging upbringing and career success. The CEO often needs to be the center of attention and many key employees achieve little public recognition.

At five and six, he had found a way to block out the world and dedicate all of his concentration to a single task.

For a number of years, there was no respite. You get chased around by gangs at school who tried to beat the shit out of me, and then I’d come home, and it would just be awful there as well. It was just like nonstop horrible.”

Tesla made its debut in the New York Times … While the story was a coup for Tesla, Musk didn’t appreciate being left out of the article entirely. “We tried to emphasize him, and told the reporter about him over and over again, but they weren’t interested in the board of the company,” Tarpenning said. “Elon was furious. He was livid.”

Lyons also saw an exhausted, stressed-out Musk spit coffee across a conference room table because it was cold and then, without a pause, demand that the employees work harder, do more, and mess up less. Like so many people privy to these performances, Lyons came away with no illusions about Musk’s personality but with the utmost respect for his vision and drive to execute.

“He has the ability to work harder and endure more stress than anyone I’ve ever met,” Gracias said.

“The mantra was that one great engineer will replace three medium ones,” Lloyd said.

For employees like Gwynne Shotwell and J. B. Straubel, working with Musk means helping develop these sorts of wonderful technologies in relative obscurity. They’re the steady hands that will forever be expected to stay in the shadows.

Greed versus Innovation

“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.”

In the last few decades, a lot of smart people have focused on making money instead of building things.  In earlier decades there were not as many opportunities to make large sums of money so rapidly, so smart people focused more on jobs that they enjoyed.

Robots Destroying Mankind

He opened up about the major fear keeping him up at night: namely that Google’s cofounder and CEO Larry Page might well have been building a fleet of artificial-intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind. “I’m really worried about this,” Musk said. It didn’t make Musk feel any better that he and Page were very close friends and that he felt Page was fundamentally a well-intentioned person and not Dr. Evil. In fact, that was sort of the problem. Page’s nice-guy nature left him assuming that the machines would forever do our bidding. “I’m not as optimistic,” Musk said. “He could produce something evil by accident.”

Having lived in Silicon Valley my entire life, I have seen this subject come up every decade or so.  Although machines are becoming more and more capable, they cannot think and are not conscious.  A good example is that self driving cars cannot discern the difference between a piece of paper or a rock on the road.

Living on Mars to Save Mankind

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 multiplanetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet— to cope with a worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness— then,” and here he paused for a moment, “I think that would be really good.”

Although I think continuing to explore space, rockets, and planes is a good thing, I do not agree with Elon that focusing on moving to Mars is a particularly good use of human effort.  First of all, the best approach to help humanity is not with technology but to focus on compassion and understanding other points of view.  In the technology area, I think we should focus on maintaining our existing planet instead of trying to find a way to get to and live on Mars.  A lot of my interest in Tesla is that I believe EVs can help prevent more climate change particularly when paired with solar.


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