After countless suggestions, both from human friends and friendly algorithms predicting my book preferences, I finally downloaded the bestselling biography written by Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Indeed, my friends–both carbon-based and silicon alike–were right. I found it very worthwhile.
There are so many takeaways from the book for me, but one thing kept striking me over and over. Yes, Musk’s story of going from janitor to billionaire is impressive. Yes, his work ethic and engineering-oriented mind make for fascinating stories. But the real issue that kept striking me is that Musk doesn’t seem that motivated by making money for himself, though of course he’s done that in droves. Rather, his entire reason for existence is to use business as a way to help solve some of what he sees as humanity’s most pressing problems.
As Vance points out, “Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to . . . well . . . save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.”
As a child Musk created a video game and published the code he’d written for anyone else to play it, winning him accolades awarded to such prodigies. Given how much he loved (and still loves) video games, Musk contemplated making them for a living, but decided it would be a waste of his life. “How much effect would that have on the world,” Musk asked Vance. “It wouldn’t have a big effect… I couldn’t bring myself to do that as a career.”
Maybe Musk will be a guest on Business for Good some time, but in his recent fascinating Joe Rogan interview, Musk summed up his philosophy in one sentence: “We should take the set of actions that are most likely to make the future better.“
For him, that means addressing climate change by helping wean humanity off fossil fuels via Tesla and Solar City. And it means using SpaceX to render humanity a multi-planetary species, reducing the risk of our extinction in the event of an earthly catastrophe, whether from the heavens (like an asteroid) or from ourselves (more likely).
There are no shortage of ways to become rich without doing any good, and even while doing harm. But becoming rich seems incidental to Musk’s goal of doing good. That’s why declared in 2014 that Tesla would open-source all of its patents, making it easier for competitors to move away from fossil fuels too. “The decision was a straightforward one for Musk,” Vance writes. “He wants people to make and buy electric cars. Man’s future, as he sees it, depends on this.”
Musk’s sheer audacity in advancing toward his goals is another lesson worth noting from the book. Ideas that others regarded as fanciful–at best–didn’t seem that outrageous to him. Of course, starting a car company is one such idea, but that attitude predates his success with PayPal and other start-ups that made him a billionaire. Vance notes that Musk and his brother Kimbal, before moving to the US, would regularly read the newspaper and “identify interesting people they would like to meet. They then took turns cold-calling these people to ask if they were available to have lunch.” Sometimes it worked.
This anything-is-possible attitude paved the way for the fruition of all types of seemingly insane ideas. SpaceX was pilloried as being pie-in-the-sky (or rather blown-up rockets in the sky), until it became one of the most consistent rocket launchers on the planet. The death of Tesla has been predicted dozens of times, and yet the car’s been named by auto experts as the top car on the market. (Not the top electric car; the best car you can buy.)
This isn’t to suggest that all ideas considered bad aren’t actually bad. But it does bring to mind the Michaelangelo maxim: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
If I had the chance to talk with Musk, there are so many questions I’d want to ask him. For example, the book describes his reckless spending after first becoming rich. How does Musk feel about that now? What’s his view on the ability of charities and governments to help solve the problems he’s concerned about? Why is he so concerned about declines in family sizes in developed countries when we already have nearly 8 billion of us? (Might overconsumption of our resources actually put humanity in a more perilous position than small family sizes?) Kimbal is very interested in food sustainability for climate and other reasons; is that a concern of Elon’s too? How does he personally feel about animal experimentation related to his company Neuralink?
Musk of course has his share of haters out there, and this review isn’t intended to address their criticisms. Vance indeed paints a picture of a guy who seems pretty tough to work for, but yet is driven with a messianic zeal to save the humanity from itself. Musk may in fact have more concern for humanity than for individual humans.
For anyone who wants a front-row seat to understanding one of the most successful inventors and entrepreneurs in human history, Vance’s book does a good job. It may just inspire you to start your own company to solve problems the world needs solved, too.