“I think there are too many smart people pursuing Internet stuff, finance and law. That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation.”
It is the period of 1970s-1980s in South Africa. Apartheid is at its peak and a brilliant young kid has just started going to school. However, the school doesn’t interest him that much. Although he enjoys subjects like Maths and Physics, he is subjected to constant bullying at the hands of his classmates, and that torments him. And the situation at home is not too good either. His parents have divorced and he is mentally harassed by his father. If that is not enough, his country is practicing the policy of apartheid wherein he regularly sees the black people being discriminated against.
This was the sort of childhood that one of the greatest innovators of our times-Elon Musk-grew up in. Detailed in the book by Ashlee Vance, the author describes the events that helped shape the thinking of Musk into doing what he is known for today. Interested in computers and software, Musk taught himself coding and developed a video game at the age of 12 which was featured in a magazine and gave the world a first glimpse of the talent that was to be. Years later, not wanting to be drafted into the South African military, he used his mother’s Canadian ancestry and emigrated to Canada, with the hope of getting into the USA, which he believed was the place that was the solution to all his problems.
Musk always had the ability to see opportunities in places that other people do not, Vance writes. After graduation, he started Zip2 along with his brother and later founded X.com, which later merged with PayPal. Believing that man is not a one planet species, he founded SpaceX to establish a colony on Mars by making space travel cheap. Pioneering the concept of reusable rockets, SpaceX aims to bring the launch price to about a fifth of that of other companies (60 million USD v 350 million USD). The successful tests of Falcon rockets have brought that dream closer to reality.
He started Tesla motors (the name is a homage to Nikola Tesla-the developer of AC technology) to revolutionize car travel, the same as he did for space travel with SpaceX. He faced many detractors, with politicians and scientists he admired and respected openly saying that subsidies provided to electric and hydrogen cars were not worth it, apart from having no faith in these technologies. But the success of Tesla cars proved all that wrong.
Musk faced many challenges-both personal and professional-while starting and running these companies. But he never gave up. Vance analyses some of the characteristic traits of Musk that resulted in him being so successful. Apart from having the innate desire to do some good in this world, Vance also points to the turbulent childhood that Musk had in South Africa that made him socially awkward and thus pushed him deeper to “nerdy” stuff. Also, these experiences made him tougher and less likely to give up, something which has been echoed by his brother and mother alike.
After reading this book, I watched some of Musk’s presentations and interviews on YouTube. A recurring question posed by many to him relates to what makes him do the things that he does, and if his failures ever make him think about giving up. Without displaying any emotion, Musk replies that he never gives up, and the only way he would not do something he liked is if he was “dead or completely incapacitated.”
While I think, Musk is a bit extreme in his work (working upwards of 16-18 hours a day), I still believe the most important lesson we can learn from this book and his life, in general, is to never give up. Vance beautifully explains the rise and rise of Elon Musk right from his childhood to the present scenario, talking the readers through the formation of Zip2 to the work at SpaceX and Tesla now. This is a must-read for everyone who admires the genius that is Elon Musk.