Ever since I bought it years ago, I kept putting it off because I felt I had no purpose in reading it. Now I do with the Quintillion Ink-Strokes series.

Plot

It follows Elon Musk’s ancestry up to his life in South Africa. Ultimately, he went to Canada and then the United States where he would create start-ups and ultimately used the money bought from his sales of them to establish himself as the eccentric “space-cowboy” that we know of today.

There is a lot of focus put on the people who surrounded Musk the most–and tolerated his demeanor. They provide an insight into Musk’s hiring strategy. Whether they would become engineers or assistants, they knew that they would have to have as much investment in Musk’s ambitions as he did.

It ends with Vance discussing the future in terms of what type of direction Musk wants technology to go. He does provide some critical conversation about how the future would be particularly bleak to the working class, since space travel and electric cars might only be available to the wealthy, while the only jobs they would have are severely limited due to AI. Nonetheless, Vance is hopeful, just like Musk, in that humanity will be able to become a multiplanetary species.

Themes

Musk has lots of nerdiness that would be typical of any eccentric entrepreneur’s childhood and life thereafter. He was a big fan of the Star Wars series, which inspired him to name his first space project Falcon after the Millennium Falcon. In his down time, he gathered his associates to play in the multiplayer mode of his favorite video games. The eccentric genius gave Robert Downey Jr. enough inspiration to model his Iron Man character after him after talking with him. As for the design for the Tesla car models, he insisted that they not look standard, rather built for the wealthy. At that point, he was not afraid to negotiate with an engineer to change the model.

The fact that he had ambition based on science fiction was enough for him to lead a career in attempting to popularize space travel and electric cars. Most of the duration involved making numerous tests and learning what went wrong. He was very obsessed with every single detail which helped him every time there was a test. Usually, the problems were either the salty weather in the environment around the test site, or it was a mishap in part by one of the engineers.

As for the persona outside of his companies, he earned the reputation of having extravagant parties and being the “space-cowboy.” Throughout his time in the companies and his personal life, he tried to maintain a tough, rugged facade, to the point of concealing any financial problems from even his own employees.

A notable feature of Musk is his eccentricity, particularly when it comes to his interactions with people. When he started gaining ground as an entrepreneur with Zip2, he was not adept at negotiation or basic empathy. In fact, he was quite stand-offish which turned off many business associates around him. This caused friction with former associates, whether it was X.com or with Tesla. Nonetheless, his steadfastness helped ensure the success of SpaceX and Tesla when their niches in space travel and electric cars were notorious for being money pits.

With time, however, he managed to read people. He knew when to not take any sales from any passing salesperson, and when negotiating the price for the equipment for his rockets, he gave out a spreadsheet of the prices needed for each component, which dismantled any reckless spending or being taken advantage of with artificially high prices. This would avoid either fleecing him or just wasting his time. There were moments when he had to negotiate the prices of materials for his SpaceX project. However, when the time came for him to either take a government loan or have venture capital, he knew that the venture capital given to Tesla meant sacrificing his own position as CEO, so he instead took the alternative and ended up succeeding.

Another theme concerning Musk is his desire to surround himself with the brightest people he could find, particularly for his space program. When everyone else was scoffing at him for his ambition, he managed to attract the attention of many proficient engineers. Of course, it did not stop him from firing any of the engineers who did not keep up with him, either in terms of deadlines or his personality.

There is a lot of tension between not just Musk and his engineers and adversaries, but also the US government, specifically NASA. The latter looked down upon SpaceX as being juvenile and not able to live up to the standards that they set. Ultimately, after years of testing, SpaceX proved that the United States would no longer have to rely on the Russian and Chinese governments to purchase their space materials.

Elon Musk

His personal life was pretty tumultuous throughout his career, since he separated a number of times both with his first wife and his second. He was so invested in his work that he rarely had time to visit his five children. Even with his second wife, he found little satisfaction. This definitely shows the level of commitment he had to make for everyone’s well-being.

Writing Style

Vance mentions that Musk uses the profanity all the time around his compatriots, and as such he uses it throughout the book within the contexts of Musk’s discussions. Indeed, Musk is a very blunt individual and does not tiptoe with conventional speech.

While Vance uses a lot of scientific jargon, he does not do so overwhelmingly, since I could tell which part connects to the other, or determining what went wrong. The economic jargon pertaining to start-ups and billionaires, however, I am trying to get used to. I did not expect a glossary, though I tried to visualize the obstacles Musk endured to get where he is now as of the book’s publication.

The way that Vance talks about Musk’s accomplishments and failures is in retrospect to when it happens in the time that they happened. Vance also mentions the names of the people who were close to Musk throughout his career and updates them by discussing how they became an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, as though to suggest that they got their start alongside Musk.

Real World Application

Experimentation is a risky business, yet it made Musk into one of the most important people in the decade. He managed to synthesize different disciplines into unique business models for SpaceX and Tesla. It is for that reason why these companies were able to stand out among their competitors.

The cliche phrase “anything’s possible” can definitely apply to Musk. With strong dedication and self-sacrifice, it was possible for Musk to follow his passion in space travel and a gasoline-free future. It was mentioned in the book that Musk managed to make green technologies attractive, particularly in a time when they were seen as abysmal investments.

Suggest This Book To…

  • Anyone who is considered a “nerd” in a derogatory sense, since Musk might connect with him on various levels. While it is considered sexy to be a little nerdy today, there does continue to be–not necessarily stigma–but downplaying of the role that nerds can have on society.
  • Anyone who dreams big. Of course, space travel is one of the biggest dreams, though there are other big dreams out there, such as reversing climate change, ending poverty, or making sure every cat has a home. This biography can prove that even among the working class can anyone be successful so long as they have commitment.
  • Any student in Physics, Astronomy, or Aerospace fields, since they can truly comprehend that the future is always present if you choose it to be. If one man can help lead the direction towards space travel with many people who surround him branching out into various directions, then who knows how many more would also?

 

Vance, Ashlee. “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.” HarperCollins. 2015.

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