I have a co-worker, and really, he is more senior in the company that I work in, but we see things in a very similar fashion, that came into a meeting the other day talking about Elon Musk, the force behind Tesla Motors and SpaceX. Now, this co-worker is an extraordinary individual that has the unique background of having worked for Bill Gates, Steven Jobs, and Scott McNealy. I am a fan boy of the Silicon Valley, and this guy has been around.
So we chat for a while, and he tells me that Musk is one of the more dynamic leaders that he knows of. When you have somebody that has worked for visionaries like my co-worker has, this grabbed me. So, we go back and forth about this for a while, and finally he says, “Look Elon is going to change the world. I mean really change it. What he is doing is amazing.”
He then shoves the Ashlee Vance biography of Musk into my hands, and he tells me (and a few other in the meeting) to read the book. Normally, I devour books and other material, so I turn to him that say, “Well, I’m probably the only person here that will actually read this.”
Needless to say I spent the next 10 days getting through the book, and I understand what my co-worker was talking about. Musk is truly a visionary that has substantially changed the world, and we will all be better for the work he has done.
Musk by all accounts is a genius. As a young child, he simply started to read the encyclopedia, and once he had read it, he remembered it. He has a sticky mind, and his ability to simply recall information instantly or even years in the past is an incredible feat that most people are boggled at. However, he couples that innate ability with six other core skills:
a. Fearless: He is fearless about risk. He almost personally lost it all multiple times during the crash of 2009. However, his willingness to put it all on the line allowed him to create both these great companies.
b. Talent scout: He is a great recruiter. He fundamentally understands that the right person can make or break a company, therefore, he finds the right people.
c. Drive: He is wired with drive so high that he never needs any down time. His ability to constantly work and live and breath his business blows away both his fans and his distractors.
d. Empathy: He has a slightly malformed empathy center. By all accounts, he loves his family, but what he requests from his employees is basically how he drives himself. I don’t believe that most people are wired like Musk. They cannot drive themselves all the time. However, he demands this from his people. On one occasion, a PR person had an issue because his child was being born. Musk took him to task for neglecting his job. He is known for killing himself to get talent, but after he gets this talent, if they don’t measure up, he quickly gets rid of them even a month or a few quarters later. He demands a level of output so high that people burnout. The same can be said of his marriages. In many ways, his drive for his companies displaces his ability to deliver what his companions needed.
e. Focus: And unwillingness to allow anybody or anything to get in the way of his vision. Since much of his vision is based around doing things cheaper, faster or better, he is brutal on anybody that doesn’t drive lower costs, tighter schedules or the best quality.
f. Vision: He wants to leave fossil fuel behind, and make a colony on Mars.
These areas are the amazing dichotomies of Musk. On one level, he only cares about humanity. It is very apparent that the wealth that he has means little to nothing to him. His wealth is a simple tool for him to accomplish what he wants to accomplish. And much of what he wants to accomplish is taking mankind to the next overall level. Here is a man who has indicated that we may need to provide basic income (that is a government handout) to everybody in the US. On the other hand, he is unwilling to figure out a decent system in his companies to allow his employees to have a life outside of his all consuming passions.
“Do you think I’m insane?” is the first line of biography of Musk by Ashlee Vance.
In a dinner with Musk, where the author was trying to get permission to work with Musk on his biography, and this question came out. It is clear that this is the central question of the book. Vance invites us into Elon’s life to make a judgment on this. Vance is, in balance, is very kind to Musk. He could have focused on his divorces or the worse parts of his personality and drive that some might say are cruel. However, Vance never stays long on these subjects. While he talks about the divorces, he does not stay on them long, and he presents both sides.
When we take a look at a biography, we are tempted to spend as much time on the person as we are the man that makes something. Humans love to gossip, and being divorced three times (counting a twice divorce to the same woman), makes him a tempting target. What is clear to me, however, is that Musk is Musk. While his wives may of wanted him to change, and many men would be willing to change, Musk cannot change what is core to his nature. His wives should have seen what they were getting into.
While I may not want to incorporate all of the Musk ideas into my own life, what I can tell you is that reading biographies like this does heavily influence my thinking. What is critical in my thinking is that the bulk of Musk can be distilled into six major points as listed above. Why we may not want to live the same life as Musk, I think that the book allows us to understand why Musk will be measured amongst the greatest Americans to have lived.
While those that are closest to him may suffer burnout, it is clear that the companies Musk has built will return a massive amount of value to the USA, and his companies could well be an important ingredient our ability to compete on a world stage.
I strongly recommend this book. It not only gives insight into Musk, but it challenges us all to think beyond our own horizons, and inspires us to think about what we can achieve.