Saturday, June 6, 2015

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

When I was a sophomore in high school, and a happy and popular-enough underachiever (I made mostly Bs and Cs), my school performed an IQ test on my classmates and me. When we received our scores, mine was 138 (which is pretty high) and I remember thinking, “That can’t be right! I’m not even in the Honor Society.” I also remember thinking maybe there are different kinds of “smart.”

In spite of my IQ, I struggled in school, finding the rote memorization that was the hallmark of the education system of my time, difficult to master. And rather than pursue a science-related degree in college, which is where my true interest lie, I chose a path more compatible with my culture. I became an elementary school teacher, who never really taught. Since then I’ve pursued careers for which my degree allowed, and satisfied my interest in science through lots and lots of science-related books.

Which brings me to Ashlee Vance’s recent bestseller, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Maybe you don’t know who Elon Musk is, but you undoubtedly recognize the company PayPal, which Musk created and sold for billions after he’d dropped out of Stanford University at the age of 24. And maybe you’ve heard of the Tesla electric car, which Musk also invented and built and which is now selling like hotcakes. But here are some things you probably don’t know about Musk, and I didn’t know about Musk before I read Vance’s biography of him. By the way, Musk cooperated with the author in spite of the fact that Vance said up front Musk would not be allowed to read or edit the book before it was published.

Musk, who was raised in a broken South African family, was horribly bullied as a child by his peers and by his architect dad who was emotionally detached and who exposed him to the vastness of the world and probably shaped Elon’s extreme inquisitiveness.

The other thing you may not know is that if a human lands on Mars in our lifetime, it will probably be Musk who makes that happen. Musk’s bottom line ambition is to die on Mars, and that’s not just goofy dreamer talk. Musk’s company SpaceX is the largest provider of legitimate space-destination services in the world (i.e. satellites and supplies to space stations).

This book is well written with just enough science to feel authentic, but not so much that you get bogged down in complicated narrative. It also covers the personal as well as the business side of Musk’s history in a really cohesive way. We get to know not just the smart side of Musk, but also the person side. I found it particularly fascinating how a man with such extreme ambitions and a very hard-core work ethic could carry on a pretty normal personal life, dating, marrying, having kids (5 boys, pictured), and enjoying the things in life that we all enjoy.

But here’s the thing that is most fascinating to me. Elon Musk’s ambitions are outrageous by any standard. And then he achieves them. “I want to invent an electric car that can go from 0-60 mph in 3 seconds, travel 800 miles on a single charge, and sell it for less than $50,000,” he says. “Ha-ha,” says everyone. And then he does it. “I want to be the most reliable and least expensive private supplier of space cargo transportation,” he says. “Ha-ha,” says everyone. And then he does it. “I want to establish a colony on Mars so earthlings will have a place to go when earth becomes unlivable,” he says. “Ha-ha,” says everyone. And then – well, I fully expect he’ll succeed.

I want to be the female equivalent of Elon Musk.  Okay, so maybe I want to fantasize being the female equivalent of Elon Musk – a decidedly more chicken-shit ambition, but infinitely easier.

If you have an interest in science, or if you have an interest in one of the most fascinating characters of the millennium, I think you’ll enjoy this book. I was enraptured.

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