Book review: Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Last time I reviewed Steve Jobs and the NeXT Big Thing. Today I want to review Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance. The juxtaposition of the two books is fortuitous— not because they let you compare the two men, but because they let you compare how the public responds to the same actions in different circumstances. I'll get to it in a minute, but here's a preview: it doesn't look good for the public.

The book is worth reading and I recommend it. It's 392 pages, which is ~50 pages longer than it should be. I found myself getting bored by the end. But it's no wikipedia page stretched into a book to make money. Ashlee has dedicated years to interviewing people in Elon's life, and eventually got regular access to Elon himself. You'll learn a lot that you wouldn't find on the internet (at least not easily).

In 392 pages you get to learn about five things— Elon's first company Zip2, his time at PayPal, Space X, Tesla, and Elon himself. That works out to ~80 pages per topic on average, which considering the subject matter can leave you wanting much more. (Did you know that Elon ran weekly parties upwards of 500 people in an off campus college house to make rent? His mom even visited and worked the door once.)

You learn pretty quickly that Elon has a high IQ, had a difficult, partially unhappy childhood, that he has unusually high levels of self-belief and inexhaustible tolerance for pain, that he can be ruthless with employees, business associates and even family, that he never stops working and never takes anything on faith.

One memorable part of the story was his return trip from Russia, after he attempted to buy a rocket and was laughed out of every meeting. He's on a flight back to America with friends and associates who went with him. The mood is somber. Everyone is processing the events; Elon is typing on his laptop. A few hours in he turns around and says: "guys, I think we can build our own rocket." He hands his friends the laptop with a spreadsheet— an exhaustive list of materials that go into making a rocket, along with the expected cost.

But let me get back to the juxtaposition with Steve Jobs. When Ashlee talks about Tesla he gets into the details of production problems that Tesla experienced from the beginning. One of the early problems was that the battery pack was heavy. Too heavy. Musks decides to compensate by making the body of the car out of aluminum. But there is a problem with aluminum— car manufacturers almost never use it because it tears during production and develops lines that make applying paint extremely difficult. Musk makes it work— he forces his people to invent new techniques and develop new production processes. This dramatically increases the cost of the car.

But that doesn't stop Musk. Not only does he decide to make the body out of aluminum, he decides to make Tesla factories into works of art. Everything is meant to be automated, clean, beautiful, and laid out in a way that's conducive to guest tours. He painted the factory white (if you've ever been to a car mechanic, you can imagine the consequences of this decision), and he put his engineers in the middle of factory floor so they'd be forced to mingle with production line workers.

What does this have to do with Steve Jobs? The fact that at NeXT, Jobs did *the exact same thing*. Word for word. He picked unusual materials for the NeXT cube case and demanded it be painted a particular shade of black, which was impossible because with traditional techniques that combination looked like shit. So Jobs forced everyone to solve this problem, which dramatically increased the price of the NeXT cube. But that wasn't enough. Jobs did the same thing with his factories— painted white, automated, designed to be toured, engineers sitting on the factory floor. And with each of these demands the price of the end product went up.

But there is one important distinction. Ashlee Vance praises Musk for his bold iconoclastic thinking, and for having the chutzpah to see it through given the enormous pressure from investors, customers, and employees not to raise the price of the car. But Randall Stross, the author of Steve Jobs & The NeXT Big Thing, spends pages criticizing Jobs for making the exact same set of decisions. One might argue that the difference is that Musk succeeded and Jobs failed with NeXT, but it isn't nearly so clear. Randall published his book in 1993, three years before Apple acquired NeXT. And Vance published his book in 2017, years before the price of Tesla skyrocketed (and even now many people are doubting the company's success).

This pattern is in every biography. Public opinion (and in particular, media coverage) is fickle, unprincipled, can change at a moment's notice, and can be diametrically opposed in exactly the same situations for essentially random reasons. Musk and Jobs picking materials and designing factories is an excellent example of this phenomenon.

Do read the book. I really enjoyed it. Here is a selection of quotes:

  • One thing Musk holds in the highest regard is resolve, and he respects people who continue on after being told no.

  • 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.

  • For Musk the distinction between stumbling into something and having intent is important.

  • “Try to imagine explaining that you’re investing in an electric car company, and everything you read about the car company sounds like it is shit and doomed and it’s a recession and no one is buying cars.“

  • There is no such thing as a well-adjusted public figure. If they were well adjusted they wouldn’t try to be public figures.

  • I remember his saying, ‘Being with me was choosing the hard path.’ I didn’t quite understand at the time, but I do now. It’s quite hard, quite the crazy ride.'

  • We don’t know too many people that have worked for him that are happy.

  • Elon’s mind was always way beyond the present moment.

  • It did not just sell someone a car. It sold them an image, a feeling they were tapping into the future, a relationship. Apple did the same thing decades ago with the Mac and then again with the iPod and the iPhone.

  • If Daimler wants to change the way a gauge looks, it has to contact a supplier half a world away and then wait for a series of approvals. It would take them a year to change the way the ‘P’ on the instrument panel looks. At Tesla, if Elon decides he wants a picture of a bunny rabbit on every gauge for Easter, he can have that done in a couple of hours.

  • It’s not really like there was a rush to this idea, and we got there first. It is frequently forgotten in hindsight that people thought this was the shittiest business opportunity on the planet. The venture capitalists were all running for the hills.

  • What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.

  • None of these startups understand the objective. The objective should be— what delivers fundamental value.