In the spirit of Steve Jobs and Moneyball, Elon Musk is both an illuminating and authorized look at the extraordinary life of one of Silicon Valley’s most exciting, unpredictable, and ambitious entrepreneurs—a real-life Tony Stark—and a fascinating exploration of the renewal of American invention and its new “makers.”
Elon Musk spotlights the technology and vision of Elon Musk, the renowned entrepreneur and innovator behind SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity, who sold one of his Internet companies, PayPal, for $1.5 billion. Ashlee Vance captures the full spectacle and arc of the genius’s life and work, from his tumultuous upbringing in South Africa and flight to the United States to his dramatic technical innovations and entrepreneurial pursuits.
Vance uses Musk’s story to explore one of the pressing questions of our age: can the nation of inventors and creators who led the modern world for a century still compete in an age of fierce global competition? He argues that Musk—one of the most unusual and striking figures in American business history—is a contemporary, visionary amalgam of legendary inventors and industrialists including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, and Steve Jobs. More than any other entrepreneur today, Musk has dedicated his energies and his own vast fortune to inventing a future that is as rich and far-reaching as the visionaries of the golden age of science-fiction fantasy.
Thorough and insightful, Elon Musk brings to life a technology industry that is rapidly and dramatically changing by examining the life of one of its most powerful and influential titans.
Book Review by Alex Martin
When I walked into Barnes & Noble two weeks ago, I wasn’t actually looking to purchase a book. Usually, I go in, browse for 30 minutes, and get out. But when I walked around to the Physics and Science section, the first thing I saw was Elon Musk’s face.
Inevitably, I picked it up and began reading.
2 pages in, I decided I was in this for the long haul and sat on the floor, right there in the middle of the store. 15 pages in, my friends finally found me and forced me to leave. But I couldn’t part with this. I needed this book. Those first 15 pages captured me like so few books do (in fact, only one book in the past year has totally stolen my attention like this).
So I bought Elon Musk feeling on top of the world and excited to keep reading.
I travel a lot between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, PA, so, since I’m in the middle of taking classes in Pittsburgh, I swore to only read this book on the bus, because I knew once I picked it up again, I wouldn’t put down.
I was right.
The next day, I got on the bus, got to reading, and tuned out the world. Three hours later, I was nearly halfway through — and WOW. Vance’s writing style flowed right through my mind. No clunky sentences, no jarring phrases. It’s such an easy book to read, despite the complex nature of the contents.
Elon Musk, if you don’t know, is a biography. Yes, a biography. You’d expect the case-study of someone’s life to be boring and uneventful, dragging until the very end.
This wasn’t the case at all.
Vance opens the book at an interview with Elon Musk himself. The first line, a quote from Musk, “Do you think I’m insane?”, perfectly captures the whole context of the biography. Because as you experience the story, as you see the challenges Musk went through to reach the pinnacle he’s at today, the question nags at you. Musk isn’t soft-spoken, or easy on his employees, or a man who kicks his legs up on his desk and snoozes while his companies mill around him. Vance shows how Musk is both the CEO and an employee of his companies, simultaneously the teacher and student. He gets in the work, asks all the right questions, gives all the right orders. His vision is THE vision, and if you get in the way, Musk has been known to fire you on the spot.
Musk breaks every convention, every tradition, every standard. Vance takes you deep into the details, from Musk’s childhood and lineage in South Africa, all the way to Canada and the United States, where the bulk of the story unfolds.
When Musk looks at big businesses, he sees unmovable behemoths that refuse to change their methodologies. American innovation became a thing of the past. Technology and industry was growing – but nowhere near as fast as it should. So we follow Musk’s journey from his small start-ups, Zip2 and X.com, and move into his larger, more permanent ventures, namely SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity.
I myself am a huge fan of Elon Musk. Still, until the past year or two, I only thought of him as “that guy who made SpaceX” and “that guy who runs Tesla.” Until reading this book, I never knew the struggle — no, the hell he went through to make and keep these companies. You think, oh, he just has a lot of money.
Yeah, now he does. But did you know SpaceX and Tesla were hours away from going bankrupt? Did you know that the Falcon 1 rocket kept failing, and one more failed launch literally meant the end of SpaceX? Did you know SpaceX tested these rockets on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and would fix problems they encountered in a matter of days, as compared to months by standard companies?
This book is the first time Musk has explicitly let anyone interview him for a biography. Aside from a few questionable quotes that have been publicly denounced by Musk after the publication of this book, we’re still given a tremendous amount of insight into his head and how he runs the companies. Vance interviewed more than 300 people and spent over two years compiling this account. And I have to give credit to how up-to-date the information is. There are several events Vance mentions that occurred into 2015, such as the first landing attempt of Falcon 9 on the sea barge, which took place in January, and he refers to the second attempt as being in a couple weeks, which means that Vance included this information on a very tight deadline, probably mid-March (the second landing attempt happened on April 14, 2015).
I want to congratulate you, Mr. Vance. Well done. Very well done. I’m going to reread this book in a few weeks (probably after the scheduled June 19th third Falcon 9 landing attempt, this time on solid ground, as opposed to a barge). Anyone who wants a ridiculously thorough insight into Elon Musk’s life and companies should read this book. It had me from Page 1 all the way to Page 363, and even the appendices that come after.
This is an incredibly inspiring book, a important look into a game-changing business strategy, and a valuable lesson to the world. As Musk says, “If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it.”
“Mr. Vance tells the stories of both SpaceX and Tesla with intricacy and insight. . . . What does come through is a sense of legitimate wonder at what humans can accomplish when they aim high, and aim weird. (Dwight Garner, New York Times)
“[T]his work will likely serve as the definitive account of a man whom so far we’ve seen mostly through caricature. By the final pages, too, any reader will sense the need to put comparisons to Steve Jobs aside. Give Musk credit. There is no one like him.” (New York Times Book Review)
“[A] spirited and riveting biography.” (Wall Street Journal)
“The SpaceX and Tesla founder certainly sees setbacks as an unavoidable part of innovation. But a brilliant new biography paints a picture of him as an obsessive, intolerant perfectionist.” (Financial Times)
“Fascinating and superbly researched…” (The Guardian UK)
From the Back Cover
Veteran technology journalist Ashlee Vance offers an unprecedented look into the remarkable life of the most daring entrepreneur of our time. Elon Musk paints a portrait of a complex man who has renewed American industry and sparked new levels of innovation—from PayPal to Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity—overcoming hardship, earning billions, and making plenty of enemies along the way.
Originally published: 19 May 2015