Elon Musk is one of the folk heroes of modern entrepreneurship, so his new biography by Ashlee Vance has got a lot of attention. It's a compelling read and Vance has done an excellent job of tracking down anecdotes and input from everyone from junior SpaceX employees to Larry Page.
As usual I want to highlight the three most striking things that I took away from reading it:
1. Musk's childhood seems a precursor of his career
2. Musk has superhuman determination
3. Musk is able to combine extreme micro and macro perspectives on problems
Musk's childhood seems a precursor of his career
I am always suspicious of explaining success with narratives constructed after the fact, as they suffer from survivorship bias (most people with difficult childhoods don't become billionaire entrepreneurs), but Musk's upbringing does appear to have been extreme in several dimensions.
Partly, it was simply tough - at one point he describes it as "nonstop horrible" - but Musk also began exhibiting the characteristics that would define his career from an early age. He got his first computer - a Commodore VIC-20 with 5KB of memory - when he was nine and had published his first video game by the age of 12.
He was also an extreme risk taker and spent a period of his childhood experimenting wildly with chemistry and other sources of danger! Musk sums up this period nicely in the line: "it is remarkable how many things you can get to explode". In his teens, he began building businesses with little regard for convention; for example, he navigated the business permit process for an arcade business he created with his brother, despite being under 18 and having no family member who would sign on his behalf.
Musk has superhuman determination
Almost every anecdote in the book highlights Musk's obsessive determination. Vance notes that this is fundamental to Musk's sense of identity and that he wanted to impress on the author that, "he wasn't just sniffing out trends, and he wasn't consumed by the idea of getting rich. He's been in pursuit of a master plan all along".
Tesla's 2008 near-death experience is a fascinating episode. Having already invested $100m of his own money in the business, Musk went to extraordinary lengths to make sure the company didn't run out of cash, including sending "impassioned pleas to anyone he could think of who might be able to spare some money" (Sergey Brin was among those who stumped up), taking out personal loans and ultimately raising a $40m round through an elaborate series of negotiations and bluffs.
Vance also gets a great line from Larry Page that sums up the book's narrative on Musk: "Elon was going to make it work no matter what. He's willing to suffer some personal cost and I think that makes his odds pretty good. If you knew him personally, you would look back to when he started the companies and say his odds of success would be more than ninety percent". That's pretty extraordinary when you consider the normal probability of startup success; Musk is perhaps the ultimate example of Michael Dearing's idea of personal exceptionalism.
Musk combines extreme micro and macro perspectives
We often see 'big picture' and 'details' people as opposite types, but Musk's success appears to be founded on taking both approaches to extremes.
On the scope of Musk's vision, Vance quotes one of his colleagues: "He seems to feel for the human species as a whole without always wanting to consider the wants and needs of individuals". And yet, when it comes to Musk's problem solving approach, Larry Page says:
"The way Elon talks about this is that you always need to start with the first principles of a problem. What are the physics of it? ... There's this level of engineering and physics that you need to make judgements about what's possible and interesting".
This combination of planetary-scale company ambition with atomic-level product understanding seems the hallmark of Musk's career. The former is necessary to motivate; the latter to execute. One of Musk's triumphs is that he's been able to inspire a similar, almost messianic drive in his teams. I loved this line from one of his closest lieutenants at SpaceX:
"If you hate people and think human extinction is okay, then f*** it. Don't go to space. If you think it is worth humans doing some risk management and finding a second place to go live, then you should be focused on this issue"
This is fun and fascinating book. Vance admires, but doesn't deify, his subject. I'm struck by how our most successful founders at Entrepreneur First are Musk-like in their fearlessness, determination and focus. Few founders will reach Musk's level of serial success, but his is a career worth examining for people who aspire to have extraordinary impact. If you want to understand the world's most iconic entrepreneur, this book is a good place to start.