Book review: One of the most innovative person in Silicon Valley has a very interesting life story

“Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” by Ashlee Vance

There was a time when Elon Musk lived in South Africa, reads 2 books a day, and was being bullied. A time when he started off backpacking then living in Canada, and ended up nearly pursuing a PhD at Stanford before dropping it to pursue an opportunity in a new trend called the internet. There was also a time when he’s trying to make it in Silicon Valley but got back stabbed, a time when he backstabbed people. There was a time when he got fired from his job during his honeymoon, and years later when he finally take a vacation he almost died of malaria.

Indeed, Elon Musk has a very interesting life story, and his story is brilliantly captured by author Ashlee Vance in this gripping book, the most engaging biography I’ve ever read since Richard Branson’s autobiography Losing my Virginity.

According to neuropsychologists Musk’s behavior closely resembles someone who is profoundly gifted: “These are people who in childhood exhibit exceptional intellectual depth and max out IQ tests. It’s not uncommon for these children to look out into the world and find flaws—glitches in the system—and construct logical paths in their minds to fix them.”

And fix them he did. Nothing that he does is actually a groundbreaking idea like Thomas Edison’s lightbulb or Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, but he took the most obvious idea (like a failed electric car industry) and make some thinkering and changes to make them work brilliantly and more efficiently. Musk does not implement how a business usually done, but instead he change the methods completely.

With Tesla he tried to revamp how cars are manufactured and sold, and he also builds a worldwide fuel distribution network too. In SpaceX instead of sub-contracting the manufacturing of the parts, they make every single item themselves down to radio and power distribution unit, to save cost and to freely tinkering them.

An out-of-the-box visionary who managed to surround himself with fellow mad scientists, the trial and error stories of his ventures are very intriguing, such as creating a 6-men task force and give them money to blow up stacks of batteries to learn more about it. In everything all he does Musk shows the importance of picking up a plan, test it to the limit, and if it failed it failed fast and he then try a new approach.

To that end, this book is also a short history of the Silicon Valley, and the back stories of his “mad scientists” surroundings, like Tom Mueller, J.B. Straubel, Gwynne Shortwell, Franz von Holzhausen and of course Musk’s legendary assistant Mary Beth Brown.

Musk is very involved in his ventures and very in control, in fact he interview himself the first 1000 employees in SpaceX, not only the engineers and software developers, but also the janitors and technicians.

And as you can guess, Musk is a no-nonsense type of person, very efficient, and hates wasting time. Like other pioneering entrepreneurs like Gates, Bezos and Jobs, Musk is also known of being difficult at times, including when he fired a marketing guy for having a typo error, in which the author elaborate “ the perceived lack of emotion is a symptom of Musk sometimes feeling like he’s the only one who really grasps the urgency of his mission. He’s less sensitive and less tolerant than other people because the stakes are so high.”

The stakes are truly very high that he neary lose his entire fortune and on a verge on a nervous breakdown during the 2008 crisis, during which Tesla nearly ran out of money for development, and when the crisis meant that nobody was buying a car. By July 2008 he only had money for the companies to survive until end of year, was even on a verge of bankruptcy hours before a new deal was signed and save his companies and his personal fortune. It was that close. It was that interesting.

His larger-than-life character is so interesting that Robert Downey Jr once spent time with Elon Musk, took a tour of his factories and had a long conversation over a meal to get into Musk’a psyche. After that visit Downey then requested a Tesla Roadster to be installed at his newly-inspired character’s workshop in his upcoming Iron Man movie. That’s right, Elon Musk is the real-life inspiration for the movie character Tony Stark.

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