Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson

My Personal Summary

This book is a biography of Elon Musk, CEO currently of Tesla, SpaceX, Twitter, Neuralink and The Boring Company.

Elon has arguably done more than any other human in history to push humanity forward technologically.

He is known to be a nightmare to work for because he demands that employees put their job above all else in their life, but this is basically what is required to create earth-changing and history-altering technology at lightning speed.

For most of his life, Elon has worked for 100+ hours per week and sleeps very little.

He is a polarizing figure, but he will likely go down in history as one of the greatest entrepreneurs to ever live.

Note: Reading about Elon Musk has a similar effect as reading about Teddy Roosevelt – they both did so much in their lifetime and achieved so many extraordinary feats that it makes you want to do more with your own life.

Book Notes

  • The PTSD from his childhood also instilled in him an aversion to contentment. “I just don’t think he knows how to savor success and smell the flowers,” says Claire Boucher, the artist known as Grimes, who is the mother of three of his other children. “I think he got conditioned in childhood that life is pain.” Musk agrees. “Adversity shaped me,” he says. “My pain threshold became very high.”
  • Elon was born in 1971 in South Africa.
  • Elon’s dad, Errol, had a history of being abusive to Erin’s mom, Maye, and they divorced when Elon was 8 years old.
  • When he was nine and ten, he got A’s in English and Math. “He is quick to grasp new mathematical concepts,” his teacher noted. But there was a constant refrain in the report card comments: “He works extremely slowly, either because he dreams or is doing what he should not.” “He seldom finishes anything. Next year he must concentrate on his work and not daydream during class.”
    Reading remained Musk’s psychological retreat. Sometimes he would immerse himself in books all afternoon and most of the night, nine hours at a stretch. When the family went to someone’s house, he would disappear into their host’s library. When they went into town, he would wander off and later be found at a bookstore, sitting on the floor, in his own world.
  • At age thirteen, he was able to create a video game, which he named Blastar, using 123 lines of BASIC and some simple assembly language to get the graphics to work. He submitted it to PC and Office Technology magazine, and it appeared in the December 1984 issue
    Chapter 5: Escape Velocity: Leaving South Africa, 1989
    In 1989, at age 18, Elon moved to Canada, able to gain entry because his mother had been born there. He wanted to move to the U.S. but figured Canada was close enough for the time being.
  • In 1990, Elon enrolled in college at Queen’s, a short drive from Toronto where his mom and siblings were living.
    Highlight(yellow) – Page 48 · Location 647
    Musk also drew another lesson from his time at Scotiabank: he did not like, nor was he good at, working for other people. It was not in his nature to be deferential or to assume that others might know more than he did.
  • In 1992, Musk transferred to University of Pennsylvania for his junior year.
  • In college, Elon loved playing strategy games like Civilization and Polytopia.
  • At Penn, Musk received some internship offers from Wall Street, all lucrative, but finance did not interest him. He felt that bankers and lawyers did not contribute much to society.
  • Most techies who came of age in the 1990s gravitated to software more than hardware. They never knew the sweet smell of a soldering iron, but they could code in ways that made circuits sing. Musk was different. He liked hardware as well as software. He could code, but he also had a feel for physical components, such as battery cells and capacitors, valves and combustion chambers, fuel pumps and fan belts.
  • When he graduated in the spring of 1995, Musk decided to take another cross-country trip to Silicon Valley. He brought along Robin Ren, after teaching him how to drive a stick shift. They stopped at the just-opened Denver airport because Musk wanted to see the baggage-handling system.
  • The idea that Elon and Kimbal had in early 1995, just as the web was starting to grow exponentially, was simple: put a searchable directory of businesses online and combine it with map software that would give users directions to them.
  • They named the company Zip2, as in “Zip to where you want to go.”
  • From the very beginning of his career, Musk was a demanding manager, contemptuous of the concept of work-life balance. At Zip2 and every subsequent company, he drove himself relentlessly all day and through much of the night, without vacations, and he expected others to do the same. His only indulgence was allowing breaks for intense video-game binges.
  • Like Steve Jobs, he genuinely did not care if he offended or intimidated the people he worked with, as long as he drove them to accomplish feats they thought were impossible.
  • In January 1999, less than four years after Elon and Kimbal launched Zip2, Proudian called them into his office and told them that Compaq Computer, which was seeking to juice up its AltaVista search engine, had offered $ 307 million in cash. The brothers had split their 12 percent ownership stake 60–40, so Elon at age twenty-seven walked away with $ 22 million and Kimbal with $ 15 million.
  • Musk now had the choice he had described to CNN: living like a multimillionaire or leaving his chips on the table to fund a new enterprise. The balance he struck was to invest $ 12 million in X.com, leaving about $ 4 million after taxes to spend on himself. His concept for X.com was grand. It would be a one-stop everything-store for all financial needs: banking, digital purchases, checking, credit cards, investments, and loans.
  • Musk’s management style had not changed from Zip2, nor would it ever. His late-night coding binges followed by his mix of rudeness and detachment during the day led his cofounder Harris and their handful of coworkers to demand that Musk step down as CEO. At one point Musk responded with a very self-aware email. “I am by nature obsessive-compulsive,” he wrote Fricker. “What matters to me is winning, and not in a small way. God knows why… it’s probably rooted in some very disturbing psychoanalytical black hole or neural short circuit.”
  • In 2000, Musk merged x.com with Peter Thiel’s company who was also working on modern banking, and PayPal was born.
  • PayPal went public in early 2002 and was acquired by eBay that July for $ 1.5 billion. Musk’s payout was around $ 250 million.
  • In 2001, Musk took a vacation to South Africa where he caught malaria and spent 10 days in intensive care and didn’t fully recover for five months.
  • Elon and his wife Justine had their first child in 2002. The baby died at 10 weeks old from sudden infant death syndrome. Elon was devastated.
    Chapter 18: Musk’s Rules for Rocket-Building: SpaceX, 2002–2003
  • Musk started SpaceX in 2002.
  • His focus on cost, as well as his natural controlling instincts, led him to want to manufacture as many components as possible in-house, rather than buy them from suppliers, which was then the standard practice in the rocket and car industries. At one point SpaceX needed a valve, Mueller recalls, and the supplier said it would cost $ 250,000. Musk declared that insane and told Mueller they should make it themselves. They were able to do so in months at a fraction of the cost. Another supplier quoted a price of $ 120,000 for an actuator that would swivel the nozzle of the upper-stage engines. Musk declared it was not more complicated than a garage door opener, and he told one of his engineers to make it for $ 5,000.
  • After a few years, SpaceX was making in-house 70 percent of the components of its rockets.
  • In 2003, Musk joined Tesla Motors as the chairman of the board and primary investor. He believed that cars must be electrified to help save the environment in the future.
  • The first two rocket launches made by SpaceX in 2006 and 2007 were failures.
  • After the death of their son Nevada, Justine and Elon decided to get pregnant again as soon as possible. They went to an in vitro fertilization clinic, and in 2004 she gave birth to twins, Griffin and Xavier. Two years later, again through IVF, they had triplets: Kai, Saxon, and Damian.
  • In 2008, Musk divorced Justine.
  • Carl Hoffman, a Wired reporter who had watched the failure of the second launch with Musk, reached him to ask how he maintained his optimism. “Optimism, pessimism, fuck that,” Musk answered. “We’re going to make it happen. As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”
  • Musk’s tolerance for stress is high, but 2008 almost pushed him past his limits. “I was working every day, all day and night, in a situation that required me to pull a rabbit out of the hat, now do it again, now do it again,” he says.
  • Falcon 1 had made history as the first privately built rocket to launch from the ground and reach orbit. Musk and his small crew of just five hundred employees (Boeing’s comparable division had fifty thousand) had designed the system from the ground up and done all the construction on its own. Little had been outsourced. And the funding had also been private, largely out of Musk’s pocket.
  • On December 22, as if to bring down the curtain on the horrible year of 2008, Musk got a call on his cell phone. NASA spaceflight chief Bill Gerstenmaier, who would later end up at SpaceX, gave him the news: SpaceX was going to be awarded a $ 1.6 billion contract to make twelve round trips to the Space Station.
  • The latches used by NASA in the Space Station cost $ 1,500 each. A SpaceX engineer was able to modify a latch used in a bathroom stall and create a locking mechanism that cost $ 30.
  • Musk married British actress Talulah Riley in 2010. They later divorced in 2012, remarried, then divorced again in 2016.
  • In 2010, Musk took Tesla public, the first IPO by an American carmaker since Ford’s in 1956.
  • At times he treated the rest of life as an unpleasant distraction. “The sheer amount of time that I spent at work was so extreme that any relationship was very difficult to maintain,” he admits. “SpaceX and Tesla were difficult individually. Doing them both at the same time was almost impossible. So it was just all work all the time.”
  • Random: On his 42nd birthday, Musk had a steampunk Japanese themed birthday party and sustained a serious neck injury that would plague him for years after attempting to wrestle a real sumo wrestler.
  • One of Musk’s ways of increasing productivity is constantly asking if some part or machine is even necessary, both at Tesla and SpaceX.
  • In 2018, Tesla became the most shorted stock in history after Musk announced they needed to make 5,000 cars per week at their Fremont factory, a figure that seemed to be physically impossible.
  • Elon decided to build a massive tent outside the factory where cars could be produced, allowing Tesla to hit the 5,000 cars per week quota by the deadline he had set.
  • “A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle.”
  • SpaceX would make and launch its own communications satellites, in effect rebuilding the internet in outer space. “Internet revenue is about one trillion dollars a year,” he says. “If we can serve three percent, that’s $ 30 billion, which is more than NASA’s budget. That was the inspiration for Starlink, to fund getting to Mars.”
  • The plan was to send satellites into low-Earth orbit, about 340 miles high, so that the latency of the signals would not be as bad as systems that depended on geosynchronous satellites, which orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth. From their low altitude, Starlink’s beams cannot cover nearly as much ground, so many more are needed. Starlink’s goal was to eventually create a megaconstellation of forty thousand satellites.
  • Musk had three children with the artist known as Grimes.
  • “We need to get to Mars before I die,” he said. “There’s no forcing function for getting us to Mars other than us, and sometimes that means me.”
  • Musk had helped his cousins, Peter and Lyndon Rive, launch SolarCity in 2006, and he bailed it out ten years later by having Tesla purchase it for $ 2.6 billion.
  • In 2021, mostly due to a meteoric rise in Tesla stock price, Musk became the richest person in the world with a net worth over $300 billion, passing Jeff Bezos.
  • In 2021, he became the richest person in the world, SpaceX became the first private company to send a civilian crew into orbit, and Tesla reached a trillion-dollar market value by leading the world’s auto industry in a historic shift into the era of electric vehicles.
  • During a conversation that month about the milestones his companies had reached, he explained to me why he thought Tesla was on a trajectory to be the most valuable company in the world, one that made $ 1 trillion in profits every year. Yet there were no notes of celebration or even satisfaction in his voice. “I guess I’ve always wanted to push my chips back on the table or play the next level of the game,” he said. “I’m not good at sitting back.”
  • From the very beginning, he saw the potential that Twitter could become what he had envisioned for X.com, a social network that supported financial transactions.
  • Self-driving cars, Musk believed, would do more than merely free folks from the drudgery of driving. They would, to a large extent, eliminate the need for people to own cars. The future would belong to the Robotaxi: a driverless vehicle that would appear when you summoned it, take you to your destination, then ride off to the next passenger. Some might be owned by individuals, but most would be owned by fleet companies or Tesla itself.
    Chapter 81: “Let that sink in”: Twitter, October 26–27, 2022
  • Musk bought Twitter for $44 billion in 2022.
  • Musk has an intuitive feel for engineering issues, but his neural nets have trouble when dealing with human feelings, which is what made his Twitter purchase such a problem. He thought of it as a technology company, when in fact it was an advertising medium based on human emotions and relationships.
  • The moderator asked what advice he would give to someone who wanted to be the next Elon Musk. “I’d be careful what you wish for,” he replied. “I’m not sure how many people would actually like to be me. The amount that I torture myself is next level, frankly.”
  • “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,”
  • Interesting: After taking over Twitter, Musk announced that the environment would be more hardcore and he sent out a poll to the 3,600 remaining employees asking who wanted to stay or who wanted to leave and receive 3 months severance. 2,500 chose to stay.
  • There were just under eight thousand employees when Musk took over on October 27. By mid-December, there were just over two thousand.
  • Interesting: Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, is considered Musk’s mentor. He bought 98% of the Hawaiin island of Lanai for $300 million in 2012.

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