Monday, September 14, 2015

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashlee Vance

This book sparked a huge amount of talking points, so I did my best to narrow it down as much as I could, but be warned: this is still going to be a rather long review.

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashlee Vance. Ecco; 2015. 400 pages. eBook. 

Elon Musk: the man behind some of the greatest and most innovative companies of our time: Paypal, Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, and maybe even the Hyperloop one day. Subtitling his biography with 'Inventing the Future' is the best and most accurate description I could possible think of for Musk because, essentially, that's exactly what he's doing.

Prior to reading this book, I only knew bits and pieces about him from snippets I would read in magazines, newspaper, online article, et cetera. I wanted to know more, so when I saw this book and saw that it seemed to have good reviews citing its objectivity and accuracy, I felt that it would be a good starting-off point for learning more about this determined and bullheaded man.

I'd like to start off by saying that Vance is a brilliant biographer. I have read my fair share of biographies, but I'm not sure if I've ever read one that was as equally engaging and entertaining as it was informative. As fascinating as biographies can be, I always - almost without fail - find myself losing interest at some point, whether it is because the author has gone into some minute detail that I don't particularly care about, or because their writing just simply seems to get distracted and bogged down by facts and figures. Vance masterfully avoids falling into this trap of biography-writing, and instead keeps everything snappy, to-the-point, and full of striking details. Now, this could be helped by the fact that Musk is such a unique and controversial figure, but Vance still works some wonderful writing charm of his own to complement his subject.

Not only has Vance crafted a wonderfully detailed and interesting book, but he has shown immense thoroughness and a stubbornness of his own in order to make this book happen. As Vance relates, Musk is not exactly a fan of the media, and therefore does not want many things - especially books - written about him - and definitely not if he doesn't have much say in what is written in said book. Vance, however, continues on, impressing Musk enough with his eagerness and determination that he is given the approval to write this book on his own. With that, let us move on the man himself: Elon Musk.

Musk is not afraid to take risks. He is the king of coming up with what appear to be crazy, futuristic, impossible ideas that no one believes in - but the most exciting part is that he almost always does pull them off, no matter what it takes (and that is not an exaggeration). All it takes is a stubborn, ruthless, persevering, and exceedingly intelligent man.

Musk has a blunt, straightforward attitude that should be admired as much as it is feared. The thing that is most striking about Musk is that he knows what he wants and he goes for it; I find this extremely admirable. He doesn't stop at anything anyone says or at any dilemmas he runs into. Now, sure, he might be a bit harsh and completely alienate or frighten his employees, but that's because he has the bigger picture in his head. He knows what he wants done, and he knows what it takes. Musk is not one to sit around toying with vast amounts of scenarios on how to get things done; he wants answers, and he wants them fast. As one employee of Musk has stated:

"If [Elon] asks you a question, you learn very quickly
not to go give him a gut reaction. He wants answers that 
get down to the fundamental laws of physics."

Don't expect sympathy or friendly conversations if you work for Musk; instead, expect to work hard. But, you should also expect to make history and create things that no one ever believed could be created. Musk is also an avid learner whose goal is to not only make great inventions, but to constantly learn more about what he is doing. He was cited as almost constantly quizzing engineers working on rockets at SpaceX, not to test that they knew their stuff, but so that he could learn everything.

On a personal level, Musk is not the warmest person you'll meet. He seems to rank up with other geniuses like Steve Jobs who, although brilliant, aren't exactly friendly people. I won't go into his personal life too much, as I feel that is better left for each reader to discover, and I don't particular want to overshadow or take away from his accomplishments; however, I had a hard time liking him as a person. Now before you all get mad at me for foisting my opinion and focusing on his personality, I want to make it clear that I'm not saying it's important to like someone as a person in order to respect or admire them. I'm merely saying that despite my immense awe and admiration for Musk, he's not exactly someone that I think I would enjoy spending time with. Would I like to hear about his ideas? Sure. Otherwise, not so much. His attitude towards women bothered me at times, and some of his actions towards his peers and employees were also not entirely admirable, and those qualities force me to keep Musk at a human level and not place him up on some godlike pedestal.

Although Musk is often portrayed as somewhat coldhearted, he does have some great qualities, and also has many quirky personality traits that are quite interesting to discover. For instance, he has a tendency to narrow in on minute details that most big companies would not see a problem with. For instance, a favorite part of mine is when Vance copies an email that Musk sent to employees regarding acronyms that were being used around the SpaceX factory, which contained a subject line reading "Acronyms Seriously Suck." In it, Musk bluntly and forcefully states that any and all acronyms that are not obvious and already in place must stop being used immediately, as it becomes much too complicated to figure out what people are saying, and "no one can actually remember all these acronyms... This is particularly tough on new employees." While this seems like an incredibly small and unimportant issue, it actually makes quite a lot of sense; these acronyms that were meant to increase productivity were actually slowing it down, which Musk explains: "The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurt communication." Productivity is one of the most important thing to Musk, and that is exactly how he thinks.

Overall, Elon Musk: Inventing the Future will be receiving four stars, as it was extremely informative and entertaining, and it was definitely a great read for me. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys biographies, technology, Elon Musk, or simply an education and engaging read.

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