book image

Elon Musk

by Walter Isaacson

Date finished: 04 Apr 2024

Elon Musk is one of the most important figures of the 21st century and this biography is fascinating in all the possible meanings of the word. Whether you feel hate, admiration, or indifference about Elon Musk, I think this book is an astounding read. I look forward to reading more of Isaacson's biographies.

All Book Notes | Amazon page

Note: As an experiment, I have not taken notes or highlights while reading this book. Last time I’m doing this, writing in the book while reading is a far superior experience.

Thoughts and impressions right after finishing the book

Pages of the book that I liked so much that I took a picture

“I need to catch the internet wave”

In 1995 Elon was getting ready to pursue a PhD on solid state capacitors. Like every student who right after uni he was going through a contemplative period, and was asking himself which things will truly affect humanity. He came up with the internet, sustainable energy, and space travel.

In summer of 1995 Netscape, a web browser, had just IPO’ed reaching a market value of $2.9B. He realized that the internet was. not going to wait for him to finish graduate school, and if he failed, he could always go back to it.

I need to put everything else on hold. I need to catch the internet wave.

I feel the same about AI the past months. There is a huge wave, and it’s not going to wait for anyone.

Mission first, business second

After they sold PayPal, Elon wanted to start SpaceX to make humans a multi-planetary species. He worried that if we don’t colonize Mars, there is a high chance humanity will go extinct.

Every one of his friends and advisors told him he’s stupid. “How is this a business?”, Reid Hoffman had said.

Elon starts with a mission, and later finds a way to make it work financially.

One reason he wanted to start SpaceX was that it scared him that technological progress is not inevitable. It can stop, and even backtrack. Space exploration had basically been stale for 50 years.

Technology only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better.

Also, life cannot be merely about solving problems. You need to have huge, grand goals, that inspire you and give you purpose.

He preached SpaceX as a mandate from Heaven

Max Levchin said:

One of Elon’s greatest skills is the ability to pass of his vision as a mandate from heaven.

People were trying to convince Elon that SpaceX was a stupidly risky move, which only made him more resolved to do it.

The likeliest outcome is that I will lose all my money. But what’s the alternative? That there be no progress in space exploration? We’ve got to give this a shot, or we’re stuck on Earth forever.

To my point above about incredibly simple, but on-point metrics: the goal of SpaceX was to minimize cost per pound of payload into orbit. This was the obsession that drove increasing engine thrust, reducing rocket mass, and making reusable rockets.

Elon sets unrealistic deadlines that transform projects from completely insane to merely being very late.

The laws of physics

Elon never respects any requirement set by a human unless re-proven to be true. Every requirement had to come with the name of a human who made the requirement. All requirements are merely recommendations.

The only immutable requirements are the ones necessitated by the laws of physics.

The idiot index

Elon has an inherent skepticism about everything, and this includes prices of goods. If any product has a high Idiot Index, it is highly likely that the design is too complex, or the manufacturing process too inefficient.

\[Idiot \ Index = Total \ cost \ of \ component \over Cost \ of \ raw \ materials\]

A hardcore showman

Elon has an inherent tendency towards showmanship. It’s very interesting because he’s a huge introvert.

When he bought Twitter and cut 75% of it’s workforce he said:

I’m a big believer that a small number of exceptional people who are highly motivated can do better than a large number of people who are pretty good and moderately motivated.

He had slept on the floor of his first office at Zip2 in 1995.

He had slept on Tesla’s Nevada battery factory in 2017.

He had slept under his desk at the Fremont assembly plant in 2018.

None of this was truly necessary, but he loved the drama, and the urgency. Above all, he understood the importance of leading by example, like a war general who rallies his troops.

When he acquired Twitter, it had a vastly different culture than the one he instilled in his companies. In order to show them hardcore, he slept at Twitter headquarters during the entire transition period.

The Algorithm

This is so good that I made it a separate post.

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