Book Review: Elon Musk
Not the new one, sorry
This isn’t the new Musk biography everyone’s talking about. This is the 2015 Musk biography by Ashlee Vance. I started reading it in July, before I knew there was a new one. It’s fine: Musk never changes. He’s always been exactly the same person he is now1.
I read the book to try to figure out who that was. Musk is a paradox. He spearheaded the creation of the world’s most advanced rockets, which suggests that he is smart. He’s the richest man on Earth, which suggests that he makes good business decisions. But we constantly see this smart, good-business-decision-making person make seemingly stupid business decisions. He picks unnecessary fights with regulators. Files junk lawsuits he can’t possibly win. Abuses indispensable employees. Renames one of the most recognizable brands ever.
Musk creates cognitive dissonance: how can someone be so smart and so dumb at the same time? To reduce the dissonance, people have spawned a whole industry of Musk-bashing, trying to explain away each of his accomplishments: Peter Thiel gets all the credit for PayPal, Martin Eberhard gets all the credit for Tesla, NASA cash keeps SpaceX afloat, something something blood emeralds. Others try to come up with reasons he’s wholly smart - a 4D chessmaster whose apparent drunken stumbles lead inexorably to victory.
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, And The Quest For A Fantastic Future delights in its refusal to resolve the dissonance. Musk has always been exactly the same person he is now, and exactly what he looks like. He is without deception, without subtlety, without unexpected depths.
The main answer to the paradox of “how does he succeed while making so many bad decisions?” is that he’s the most focused person in the world. When he decides to do something, he comes up with an absurdly optimistic timeline for how quickly it can happen if everything goes as well as the laws of physics allow. He - I think the book provides ample evidence for this - genuinely believes this timeline2, or at least half-believingly wills for it to be true. Then, when things go less quickly than that, it’s like red-hot knives stabbing his brain. He gets obsessed, screams at everyone involved, puts in twenty hour days for months on end trying to try to get the project “back on track”. He comes up with absurd shortcuts nobody else would ever consider, trying to win back a few days or weeks. If a specific person stands in his way, he fires that person (if they are an employee), unleashes nonstop verbal abuse on them3 (if they will listen) or sues them (if they’re anyone else). The end result never quite reaches the original goal, but still happens faster than anyone except Elon thought possible. A Tesla employee described his style as demanding a car go from LA to NYC on a single charge, which is impossible, but he puts in such a strong effort that the car makes it to New Mexico.
This is the Musk Strategy For Business Success; the rest is just commentary. But to answer some of the more specific questions I had before reading the book:
Was Musk just a child of privilege?
Musk’s father Errol ran a successful engineering company in Pretoria, South Africa. For a while he also represented the anti-apartheid party in the city council. His net worth was probably in the single-digit to low-double-digit millions.
Some writers have made much of him “owning an emerald mine”. But the mine only cost $50,000, never really produced many emeralds, and closed after a few years - it was a side investment unrelated to the family’s wealth. Rumors that it used “apartheid labor” or produced “blood emeralds” are false: the mine was in Zambia, which had no apartheid or bloody conflicts.
Musk claims to be self-made; he moved to Canada at age 17 with $2500 and worked his way up from there. For a while he supported himself by cutting logs, Abe Lincoln style. Nobody paid for his college and he took out $100,000 in debt. Musk’s father invested $28,000 in his first company, but Musk dismissed this as a “later round” and claimed he was already successful at that point and would have gotten the money anyway. The total for that round was $200,000, so Musk’s father’s contribution was only about 15%.
Obviously there’s still some sense where he benefited from a privileged upbringing or whatever, but in a purely business sense he’s mostly self-made.
Is Musk smart? Does he understand the stuff his companies are building?
His employees seem to think so. Here’s a quote from former SpaceX employee Kevin Watson:
Elon is brilliant. He’s involved in just about everything. He understands everything. If he 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. One thing he understands really well is the physics of the rockets. He understands that like nobody else. The stuff I have seen him do in his head is crazy. He can get in discussions about flying a satellite and whether we can make the right orbit and deliver Dragon at the same time and solve all these equations in real time. It’s amazing to watch the amount of knowledge he has accumulated over the years.
Garrett Reisman, former SpaceX director (source):
What's really remarkable to me is the breadth of his knowledge. I mean I've met a lot of super super smart people but they're usually super super smart on one thing and he's able to have conversations with our top engineers about the software, and the most arcane aspects of that and then he'll turn to our manufacturing engineers and have discussions about some really esoteric welding process for some crazy alloy and he'll just go back and forth and his ability to do that across the different technologies that go into rockets cars and everything else he does.
Robert Zubrin, aerospace engineer and Mars exploration activist who helped get Elon interested in space (source):
When I met Elon it was apparent to me that although he had a scientific mind and he understood scientific principles, he did not know anything about rockets. Nothing. That was in 2001. By 2007 he knew everything about rockets - he really knew everything, in detail. You have to put some serious study in to know as much about rockets as he knows now. This doesn't come just from hanging out with people.
How does he know so much? Partly through reading; he famously read lots of rocketry textbooks before starting SpaceX, including old Soviet manuals nobody else had heard of. But also:
Musk initially relied on textbooks to form the bulk of his rocketry, knowledge. But as SpaceX hired one brilliant person after another, Musk realized he could tap into their stores of knowledge. He would trap an engineer in the SpaceX factory and set to work grilling him about a type of valve or specialized material. “I thought at first that he was challenging me to see if I knew my stuff,” said Kevin Brogan, one of the early engineers. “Then I realized he was trying to learn things. He would quiz you until he learned ninety percent of what you know.”
People who have spent significant time with Musk will attest to his abilities to absorb incredible quantities of information with near-flawless recall. It’s one of his most impressive and intimidating skills and seems to work just as well in the present day as it did when he was a child vacuuming books into his brain. After a couple of years running SpaceX, Musk had turned into an aerospace expert on a level that few technology CEOs ever approach in their respective fields.
A few stories hint that occasionally he’ll personally take on specific projects, and does a good job:
The absolute worst thing that someone can do [at SpaceX] is inform Musk that what he’s asking is impossible. An employee could be telling Musk that there’s no way to get the cost on something like that actuator down to where he wants it or that there is simply not enough time to build a part by Musk’s deadline. “Elon will say, fine. You’re off the project, and I am now the CEO of the project. I will do your job and be CEO of two companies at the same time. I will deliver it,”’ Brogan said. “What’s crazy is that Elon actually does it. Every time he’s fired someone and taken their job, he’s delivered on whatever the project was.”
I was feeling bad about reading an eight-year-old biography just before an exciting new one comes out, but this story alone makes the whole book worth it.
(I’m nervous saying too emphatically that Musk is “smart”. These stories amply prove he is a great engineer and technologist. But this isn’t the same skill as being a philosopher/intellectual, and I think when he’s tried to form philosophical/intellectual opinions, they’ve been well-intentioned, shown good instincts, and sometimes displayed deep insight, but also often been unsophisticated or messed up key points. This shouldn’t be surprising! Remember, the correlation between most intellectual abilities, while positive, is only about 0.2 - 0.4. Musk seems IQ 150+ when he’s thinking about the interactions of well-behaved physical laws, and IQ 120 when he’s thinking about about horrible fuzzy messes. This sometimes takes him to weird places; he was one of the first people in the world to realize the risks from advanced AI, which is basically a physical-limits problem, but I think his alignment strategy is full of dangerous holes.)
Does Musk personally contribute to his companies’ innovative designs, or just ride on his employees’ coat-tails?
Musk contributes. He’s notorious for coming up with ideas and insisting upon them even when everyone else disagrees. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out to what degree he personally developed the idea vs. got it from someone else, but the “insisting on it even when everyone else disagrees” part is unmistakable:
Musk opted to [reduce the Model S’ weight] by making the body . . . out of lightweight aluminum instead of steel.
“The non-battery-pack portion of the car has to be lighter than comparable gasoline cars, and making it all aluminum became the obvious decision,” Musk said. “The fundamental problem was that if we didn’t make it out of aluminum the car wasn’t going to be any good.”
Musk’s word choice there—“obvious decision”—goes a long way toward explaining how he operates. Yes, the car needed to be light, and, yes, aluminum would be an option for making that happen. But at the time, car manufacturers in North America had almost no experience producing aluminum body panels. Aluminum tends to tear when worked by large presses. It also develops lines that look like stretch marks on skin and make it difficult to lay down smooth coats of paint. “In Europe, you had some Jaguars and one Audi that were made of aluminum, but it was less than five percent of the market,” Musk said. “In North America, there was nothing. It’s only recently that the Ford F-150 has arrived as mostly aluminum. Before that, we were the only one.”
Inside of Tesla, attempts were repeatedly made to talk Musk out of the aluminum body, but he would not budge, seeing it as the only rational choice.
It would be up to the Tesla team to figure out how to make the aluminum manufacturing happen. “We knew it could be done,” Musk said. “It was a question of how hard it would be and how long it would take us to sort it out.”
And although of course employees do the bulk of the work, it’s not a coincidence that Musk’s companies have better employees than their competitors4. Regarding Tom Mueller, the acclaimed chief engine designer at SpaceX:
Mueller ended up chatting with Musk for hours. The next weekend, Mueller invited Musk to his house to continue their discussion. Musk knew he had found someone who really knew the ins and outs of making rockets. After that, Musk introduced Mueller to the rest of his roundtable of space experts and their stealthy meetings. The caliber of the people impressed Mueller, who had turned down past job offers from Beal and other budding space magnates because of their borderline insane ideas. Musk, by contrast, seemed to know what he was doing.
Likewise, Musk didn’t found Tesla, and he didn’t invent their revolutionary battery technology. He started out as the main investor. But when the founders came to him asking for an investment - and saying the batteries were the main sticking point - he introduced them to a battery inventor with revolutionary ideas who had been toiling in obscurity, who Musk happened to know because he had been into electric cars since age ten and obsessively learning everything he could about them. And the battery inventor was positively disposed to Musk’s job offer, because Musk had previously given him $100,000 to keep working on his batteries, just because Musk thought they were cool and might come in useful one day if someone tried to build a really good electric car.
[Musk] interviewed almost every one of SpaceX’s first one thousand hires, including the janitors.5
Since these companies already have hundreds of engineers, each specializing in whatever component they’re making, why does it matter whether or not the boss is also a good engineer?
This was a question I struggled with while reading the descriptions of Elon’s engineering genius.
Part of the answer must come from that story above about him taking over people’s jobs. His strategy is to demand people do seemingly impossible things, then fire them if they fail. To pull that off, you need to really understand the exact limits of impossibility. You want to assign someone a task that everyone thinks is impossible, but where in fact if you give it your all and explore lots of out-of-the-box solutions you can just barely scrape through. If you assign someone a task that’s actually impossible, then you’ve fired a good employee for nothing.
The interviewees all talk about Elon’s sharp understanding of physical principles. He excels at determining whether something is technically impossible or not. If it’s not, he hands it off to his employees as an implementation problem. If they screw up, he knows they screwed up the implementation and he didn’t accidentally hand them an impossible task. Steve Davis, director of advanced projects at SpaceX, describes his experience:
SpaceX needed an actuator that would trigger the gimbal action used to steer the upper stage of Falcon 1. Davis had never built a piece of hardware before in his life and naturally went out to find some suppliers who could make an electromechanical actuator for him. He got a quote back for $120,000. “Elon laughed,” Davis said. “He said, 'That part is no more complicated than a garage door opener. Your budget is five thousand dollars. Go make it work.’” Davis spent nine months building the actuator. At the end of the process, he toiled for three hours writing an e-mail to Musk covering the pros and cons of the device. The e-mail went into gory detail about how Davis had designed the part, why he had made various choices, and what its cost would be. As he pressed send, Davis felt anxiety surge through his body knowing that he’d given his all for almost a year to do something an engineer at another aerospace company would not even attempt. Musk rewarded all of this toil and angst with one of his standard responses. He wrote back, “Ok.”
The actuator Davis designed ended up costing $3,900 and flew with Falcon 1 into space.
Tesla’s finance director Ryan Popple has a related perspective:
Elon has a mind that’s a bit like a calculator. If you put a number on the projector that does not make sense, he will spot it. He doesn’t miss details.
Probably a good trait if you’re trying to keep costs down!
Same question, but what about design?
Like with engineering, Musk is hands-on in the design of his products, ie he comes up with wild ideas and demands they be implemented over everyone else’s objections. The book’s two main examples were the “falcon-wing” doors on the Model X, and the classic Tesla door handles that are flush with the car until you coax them out.
The idea of Musk as a design expert has long struck me as bizarre. He’s a physicist at heart and an engineer by demeanor. So much of who Musk is says that he should fall into that Silicon Valley stereotype of the schlubby nerd who would only know good design if he read about it in a textbook.
The truth is that there might be some of that going on with Musk, and he’s turned it into an advantage. He’s very visual and can store things that others have deemed to look good away in his brain for recall at any time. This process has helped Musk develop a good eye, which he’s combined with his own sensibilities, while also refining his ability to put what he wants into words. The result is a confident, assertive perspective that does resonate with the tastes of consumers. Like Steve Jobs before him, Musk is able to think up things that consumers did not even know they wanted—the door handles, the giant touch-screen—and to envision a shared point of view for all of Tesla’s products and services. “Elon holds Tesla up as a product company,” von Holzhausen said. “He’s passionate that you have to get the product right. I have to deliver for him and make sure it’s beautiful and attractive.”
More on the doors:
With the Model X, Musk again turned to his role as a dad to shape some of the flashiest design elements of the vehicle. He and [lead designer] von Holzhausen were walking around the floor of an auto show in Los Angeles, and they both complained about the awkwardness of getting to the middle and back row seats in an SUV. Parents who have felt their backs wrench while trying to angle a child and car seat into a vehicle know this reality all too well, as does any decent-sized human who has tried to wedge into a third row seat. “Even on a minivan, which is supposed to have more room, almost one-third of the entry space is covered by the sliding door,” von Holzhausen said. “If you could open up the car in a way that is unique and special, that could be a real game changer.
We took that kernel of an idea back and worked up forty or fifty design concepts to solve the problem, and I think we ended up with one of the most radical ones.” The Model X has what Musk coined as “falcon-wing doors.” They’re hinged versions of the gull-wing doors found on some high-end cars like the DeLorean. The doors go up and then flop over in a constrained enough way that the Model X won’t rub up against a car parked close to it or hit the ceiling in a garage. The end result is that a parent can plop a child in the second-row passenger seat without needing to bend over or twist at all.
When Tesla’s engineers first heard about the falcon-wing doors, they cringed. Here was Musk with another crazy ask. “Everyone tried to come up with an excuse as to why we couldn’t do it,” Javidan said. “You can’t put it in the garage. It won’t work with things like skis. Then, Elon took a demo model to his house and showed us that the doors opened. Everyone is mumbling, ‘Yeah, in a fifteen-million-dollar house, the doors will open just fine.’” Like the controversial door handles on the Model S, the Model X’s doors have become one of its most striking features and the thing consumers talk about the most. “I was one of the first people to test it out with a kid’s car seat,” Javidan said. “We have a minivan, and you have to be a contortionist to get the seat into the middle row. Compared to that, the Model X was so easy. If it’s a gimmick, it’s a gimmick that works.”
Needless to say, Musk named the Model X himself too.
Same question, but what about public relations?
Funny you should ask:
Musk has burned through public relations staffers with comical efficiency. He tends to take on a lot of the communications work himself, writing news releases and contacting the press as he sees fit. Quite often, Musk does not let his communications staff in on his agenda. Ahead of the Hyperloop announcement, for example, his representatives were sending me e-mails to find out the time and date for the press conference. On other occasions, reporters have received an alert about a teleconference with Musk just minutes before it started. This was not a function of the PR people being incompetent in getting word of the event out. The truth was that Musk had only let them know about his plans a couple of minutes in advance, and they were scrambling to catch up to his whims. When Musk does delegate work to the communications staff, they’re expected to jump in without missing a beat and to execute at the highest level. Some of this staff, operating under this mix of pressure and surprise, only lasted between a few weeks and a few months. A few others have hung on for a couple of years before burning out or being fired.
Unlike in engineering, where he tries to do everything himself but is often right, in PR he tries to do everything himself, does a terrible job, and never learns:
Musk’s approach has its limitations. He’s less artful with marketing and media strategy. Musk does not rehearse his presentations or polish speeches. He wings most of the announcements from Tesla and SpaceX. He’ll also fire off some major bit of news on a Friday afternoon when it’s likely to get lost as reporters head home for the weekend, simply because that’s when he finished writing the press release or wanted to move on to something else.
I don’t know how 4D-chess this is. Donald Trump is famously unpolished, but the media follows every crazy thing he says and he ends up with 10x more coverage than some other candidate who does everything “right”, plus ordinary people will listen to him out of morbid curiosity over what he’ll say next. Elon is certainly very famous, even more famous than you would expect “just” from him being the richest man in the world and making impressive products.
Still, the “releasing news on Friday afternoon” thing just seems like an unforced error, and makes me think everything else is also unforced errors and not 4D chess.
Does Musk’s talent just lie in choosing the right industries at the right time?
Definitely no. For one thing, he usually ends up in an industry by coincidence. He went into aerospace because he wanted to pull a publicity stunt with mice on Mars, tried to buy a rocket from the Russians, they were going to rip him off, and he decided to build a better rocket to spite them. He went into cars because the founders of Tesla asked him for an investment, he liked the company, and then he thought they were doing a bad job and he needed to take over. He took over Twitter because he was addicted to Twitter, got a seat on the board, and then the other board members said he had to behave and he didn’t want to.
But also, everyone else thinks he is choosing terrible industries at terrible times. Both electric cars and rockets were notoriously littered with the skulls of previous startup founders. A few years before SpaceX, a math whiz billionaire named Andrew Beal had thrown hundreds of millions of dollars - more than Elon had at the time - into a pretty similar private-rocket company; it failed before making a single launch. An electric car company called Better Place raised an order of magnitude more money than Tesla, then collapsed after a few years. A consultant who Musk hired jumped ship, started his own company, got the support of big VCs who wouldn’t touch Musk, then fell apart too. J.B. Straubel, Tesla’s CTO, said that it “is frequently forgotten in hindsight that people thought this [ie electric cars] was the shittiest business opportunity on the planet.”
But also, in some sense Elon didn’t “choose” electric cars and space. He was obsessed with those topics since childhood. One of his first close female relationships was with Christie Nicholson, daughter of a business mentor, when they were both in their late teens. She described their first meeting:
Elon had never met Christie before, but he went right up to her and led her to a couch. “Then, I believe the second sentence out of his mouth was ‘I think a lot about electric cars,”’ Christie said. “And then he turned to me and said, ‘Do you think about electric cars?”’
Does Musk really believe all the futurology stuff he talks about?
Musk was into Mars before he owned a rocket company. He started SpaceX because his previous attempts to raise interest in (nonprofit, not-related-to-him) Mars exploration went nowhere, and in the process he became angry that rockets were so expensive. He devoured science fiction as a child, admits it shaped his personality, and has a natural tendency to think in grand historical arcs.
He is very serious about AI alignment. He was one of the first backers of the AI alignment movement, before it was cool or anyone else cared or there was any real AI to align. I give him immense credit for that even though I think his particular AI alignment plans are bad.
I do think this displays the same pattern of “technically brilliant, philosophically erratic” - what will make a Mars colony become bigger and more important than eg an Antarctic base? We don’t colonize Antarctica, not because we can’t get there, but because there’s no benefit to doing so. The short-term reason to colonize Mars is to continue the grand arc of human progress, but those kinds of spiritual benefits only go so far in creating something big and self-sustaining6.
Elon is a treasure because when he puts effort into going to Mars it opens up lots of other frontiers like Starlink (high-speed Internet everywhere including the developing world, hard for authoritarian governments to censor) and maybe asteroid mining. His idealism will create lots of new trillion-dollar industries and accelerate human progress. I just don’t see any sign that he’s doing it efficiently, or on purpose, or steering in a well-thought-out direction.
Does Musk act childish when it doesn’t matter, but have the ability to rein it in when it really threatens the mission?
I was hoping something like this would be true. It would be a good solution to the cognitive dissonance. But no, Musk will throw tantrums even when they threaten the mission. Vance on SpaceX:
Employees who made detailed cases around what they saw as flaws in the Falcon 5 design or presented practical suggestions to get the Falcon 1 out the door more quickly were often ignored or worse. “The treatment of staff was not good for long stretches of this era,” said one engineer. “Many good engineers, who everyone beside ‘management’ felt were assets to the company, were forced out or simply fired outright after being blamed for things they hadn’t done. The kiss of death was proving Elon wrong about something.”
One of his worst moments came after a prototype Falcon 1 failed halfway through the launch. Musk immediately blamed key engineer Jeremy Hollman. This was a reasonable assumption - he had been the last person to work on the rocket before liftoff - but instead of waiting for the investigation, Musk went straight to publicly accusing him. Hollman flew to headquarters to confront Musk, they had a “shouting match at Musk’s cubicle”, and Hollman left the company. The investigation soon discovered he was blameless, but the damage was done:
Years later, a number of SpaceX’s executives still agonize over the way Hollman and his team were treated. “They were our best guys, and they kind of got blamed to get an answer out to the world,'“ Mueller said. “That was really bad. We found out later that it was dumb [bad] luck.”
This was one of SpaceX’s most desperate hours, and Hollman was one of the people they most needed to keep, so I think it’s fair to say if he can fail here, he can fail basically any time.
Scattered among stories like these, there are a few stories of someone getting through to Elon, convincing him he’s wrong, and getting him to change course in a really fundamental way. But it didn’t seem like these were “the really important times” or anything. It just depended whether he was in a good or a bad mood that day. And it’s usually bad.
Do employees have strategies for routing around / deceiving Musk so they can get their jobs done without him mucking things up?
This is a commonplace of the “Elon is dumb actually” literature, and it’s basically true. For example:
SpaceX’s top managers work together to, in essence, create fake schedules that they know will please Musk but that are basically impossible to achieve. This would not be such a horrible situation if the targets were kept internal. Musk, however, tends to quote these fake schedules to customers, unintentionally giving them false hope. Typically, it falls to Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president, to clean up the resulting mess.
And at Tesla:
Tesla employees developed similar techniques to their counterparts at SpaceX for dealing with Musk’s high demands. The savvy engineers knew better than to go into a meeting and deliver bad news without some sort of alternative plan at the ready. “One of the scariest meetings was when we needed to ask Elon for an extra two weeks and more money to build out another version of the Model S,” Javidan said. “We put together a plan, stating how long things would take and what they would cost. We told him that if he wanted the car in thirty days it would require hiring some new people, and we presented him with a stack of resumes. You don’t tell Elon you can’t do something. That will get you kicked out of the room. You need everything lined up. After we presented the plan, he said, 'Okay, thanks.’ Everyone was like, ‘Holy shit, he didn’t fire you.’”
How do Musk’s companies move so fast while keeping costs so low?
If I really knew the answer to this one I would be a business consultant. But two things jumped out at me.
First, Zvi talks a lot about the dangers of middle management. I wasn’t able to find clear evidence that Musk’s companies have fewer layers of management than usual, but it seems like they have to: Musk micromanages everything too intensely to trust intermediaries. While he might not be able to check literally every employee’s work all the time, everyone knows he might check their work, and would be able to understand and judge it if he does - and they act accordingly.
There were times when Musk would overwhelm the Tesla engineers with his requests. He took a Model S prototype home for a weekend and came back on the Monday asking for around eighty changes. Since Musk never writes anything down, he held all the alterations in his head and would run down the checklist week by week to see what the engineers had fixed. The same engineering rules as those at SpaceX applied. You did what Musk asked or were prepared to burrow down into the properties of materials to explain why something could not be done. “He always said, ‘Take it down to the physics,”’ Javidan said.
This doesn’t sound like a man who has too many layers of middle management.
Second, Musk makes more components in house than his competitors. This increases start-up costs, but prevents later cost inflation, and gives him more control:
Tesla also has the edge of having designed so many of the key components for its cars in-house, including the software running throughout the vehicle. “If Daimler wants to change the way a gauge looks, it has to contact a supplier half a world away and then wait for a series of approvals,” Javidan said. “It would take them a year to change the way the ‘P’ on the instrument panel looks. At Tesla, if Elon decides he wants a picture of a bunny rabbit on every gauge for Easter, he can have that done in a couple of hours.”
Okay, but don’t give him ideas!
Why do people work for Musk?
The book paints a pretty grim picture of working at a Musk company. Employees get handed near-impossible problems, chewed out or fired if they fail, and barely thanked at all if they succeed. Work weeks are 90+ hours. Vance says Elon sent an angry email to a marketing guy who missed an event because his wife was giving birth, telling him to “figure out where your priorities are” (Elon denies this). So why do thousands of people, including the very best and brightest who could get jobs anywhere, work for him?
The cliche answer - that they believe in the mission - is mostly true. But many employees also talked about their past jobs at Boeing or GM or wherever. They would have some cool idea, and tell it to their boss, and their boss would say they weren’t in the cool idea business and were already getting plenty of government contracts. If they pushed, they would get told to file it with the Vice President of Employee Feedback, who might hold a meeting to determine a process to summon an exploratory committee to add it to the queue of things to consider for the 2030 version of the product.
Meanwhile, if someone told Elon about a cool idea, he would think about it for fifteen seconds, give them a million dollars, and tell them to have it ready within a month - no, two weeks! - no, three days! For some people, the increased freedom and the feeling of getting to reach their full potential was worth the cost.
“His vision is so clear,” [SpaceX employee Dolly] Singh said. “He almost hypnotizes you. He gives you the crazy eye, and it’s like, yes, we can get to Mars.” Take that a bit further and you arrive at a pleasure-pain, sadomasochistic vibe that comes with working for Musk. Numerous people interviewed for this book decried the work hours, Musk’s blunt style, and his sometimes ludicrous expectations. Yet almost every person—even those who had been fired — still worshipped Musk and talked about him in terms usually reserved for superheroes or deities.
That “even those who had been fired” comment was backed up multiple times throughout the book. People who had every reason to hate Musk would sound like they were trying to work themselves up to criticizing him, then sort of fizzle out and talk about how great he was instead. Even his ex-wife who had a protracted divorce suit against him spent most of the interview trying to make excuses for his behavior7.
Tesla CTO J. B. Straubel says:
Elon is incredibly difficult to work for, but it’s mostly because he’s so passionate. He can be impatient and say, ‘God damn it! This is what we have to do!’ and some people will get shell-shocked and catatonic. It seems like people can get afraid of him and paralyzed in a weird way. I try to help everyone to understand what his goals and visions are, and then I have a bunch of my own goals, too, and make sure we’re in synch. Then, I try and go back and make sure the company is aligned. Ultimately, Elon is the boss. He has driven this thing with his blood, sweat, and tears. He has risked more than anyone else. I respect the hell out of what he has done. It just could not work without Elon. In my view, he has earned the right to be the front person for this thing.
Is Musk autistic? Is he socially skilled?
I hate binary “is so-and-so autistic Y/N?” questions, but Musk is definitely odd. He must have some social skills, since he’s dated various models and starlets, won the loyalty of thousands of employees, and become a press darling. But like his business success, sometimes this owes more to persistence and intensity than traditional good-decision-making. Here’s what the book has to say about him courting his first wife8, Justine (this is before Elon was rich, when they were both in college):
He made his first move just outside of her dorm, where he pretended to have bumped into her by accident and then reminded her that they had met previously at a party. Justine, only one week into school, agreed to Musk’s proposal of an ice cream date. When he arrived to pick up Wilson, Musk found a note on the dorm room door, notifying him that he’d been stood up. “It said that she had to go study for an exam and couldn’t make it and that she was sorry,” Musk said.
Musk then hunted down Justine’s best friend and did some research, asking where Justine usually studied and what her favorite flavor of ice cream was. Later, as Justine hid in the student center studying Spanish, Musk appeared behind her with a couple of melting chocolate chip ice cream cones in hand […]
Musk pursued a couple of other girls, but kept returning to Justine. Any time she acted cool toward him, Musk responded with his usual show of force. “He would call very insistently,” she said. “You always knew it was Elon because the phone would never stop ringing. The man does not take no for an answer. You can’t blow him off. I do think of him as the Terminator. He locks his gaze on to something and says, ‘It shall be mine.’ Bit by bit, he won me over.”
Although it’s unfair and doesn’t relate to Elon specifically, I can’t help thinking of this anecdote about how Elon’s father Errol courted his mother Maye:
According to Maye, Errol spent about seven years as a relentless suitor seeking her hand in marriage and eventually breaking her will. “He just never stopped proposing,” she said.
And here’s what Vance says about this question:
“Elon’s worst trait by far, in my opinion, is a complete lack of loyalty or human connection,” said one former employee. “Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought. Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared; maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.” [...]
People also linked this type of behavior to Musk’s other quirky traits. He’s been known to obsess over typos in e-mails to the point that he could not see past the errors and read the actual content of the messages. Even in social settings, Musk might get up from the dinner table without a word of explanation to head outside and look at the stars, simply because he’s not willing to suffer fools or small talk. After adding up this behavior, dozens of people expressed to me their conclusion that Musk sits somewhere on the autism spectrum and that he has trouble considering other people’s emotions and caring about their well-being.
There’s a tendency, especially in Silicon Valley, to label people who are a bit different or quirky as autistic or afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s armchair psychology for conditions that can be inherently funky to diagnose or even codify. To slap this label on Musk feels ill-informed and too easy.
Musk acts differently with his closest friends and family than he does with employees, even those who have worked alongside him for a long time. Among his inner circle, Musk is warm, funny, and deeply emotional. He might not engage in the standard chitchat, asking a friend how his kids are doing, but he would do everything in his considerable power to help that friend if his child were sick or in trouble. He will protect those close to him at all costs and, when deemed necessary, seek to destroy those who have wronged him or his friends.
Is Musk a 4D chessmaster?
There’s one sense in which Musk plans many moves ahead: he is always working on the next product or two in his product line, even when the company seems about to collapse because they can’t get the current product out in time.
When SpaceX was on its last few hundred thousand dollars, and the Falcon 1 kept blowing up, and no private company had ever launched a rocket to space before, and they only had a few weeks to make Falcon 1 fly and restore investor confidence before the company went bankrupt - Elon was still putting some of his energy into planning the Falcon 5 and Falcon 9. The same thing happened with the Tesla Roadster and the Model S.
In every other way, no, he’s not a 4D chessmaster. His mistakes are real mistakes. He’s not secretive about his plans; more often he says them openly and nobody believes him. And many of his biggest victories came to him by luck, or at least by putting himself in a position where opportunity could strike.
Take Starlink. This is now considered SpaceX’s “killer app”. But Musk didn’t even consider it for the company’s first decade. He learned it was possible in 2014, when inventor/entrepreneur Greg Wyler’s proto-Starlink company proposed a partnership with SpaceX. Musk liked the idea so much that he stole it (he claims Wyler would have done it wrong; in his defense, Wyler implemented his own version and I’m not a satellite expert but it feels much less exciting). Musk didn’t plan Starlink. He just happened to be in the exact right place to make it happen.
This is the impression I’m getting now reading about Tesla’s self-driving program. It’s banking on the next frontier of self-driving being massive training runs kind of like LLMs. Cruise and Waymo have a little training data from their own records. But Tesla, which has had some kind of halfway self-driving feature for years, recorded all its data, and sent it back to HQ, has the biggest data trove in the world. Musk wasn’t expecting this to happen. But by doing things bigger and faster than anyone else, he must have put himself in a place where something was going to right for him.
A 4D chessmaster is someone who wins by being smarter than everyone else. I think Elon Musk is 1-in-1,000 level intelligent - which is great, but means there are still 300,000 people in America smarter than he is.
I think he wins by being 1-in-10,000,000 intense. This comes out in every anecdote about him. Like when he tries to exercise:
As a bonding exercise one weekend, Musk, Ambras, a few other employees [of Zip2, his first startup] and friends took off for a bike ride through the Saratoga Gap trail in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Most of the riders had been training and were accustomed to strenuous sessions and the summer’s heat. They set up the mountains at a furious pace. After an hour, Russ Rive, Musk’s cousin, reached the top and proceeded to vomit. Right behind him were the rest of the cyclists. Then, fifteen minutes later, Musk became visible to the group. His face had turned purple, and sweat poured out of him, and he made it to the top. “I always think back to that ride. He wasn’t close to being in the condition needed for it,” Ambras said. “Anyone else would have quit or walked up their bike. As I watched him climb that final hundred feet with suffering all over his face, I thought, That’s Elon. Do or die but don’t give up.”
When he got his first computer at age 9:
Elon’s computer arrived with five kilobytes of memory and a workbook on the BASIC programming language. “It was supposed to take like six months to get through all the lessons,” Elon said. “I just got super OCD on it and stayed up for three days with no sleep and did the entire thing. It seemed like the most super-compelling thing I had ever seen.”
At his first startup:
Musk never seemed to leave the office. He slept, not unlike a dog, on a beanbag next to his desk. “Almost every day, I’d come in at seven thirty or eight a.m., and he’d be asleep right there on that bag,” Heilman said. “Maybe he showered on the weekends. I don’t know.” Musk asked those first employees of Zip2 to give him a kick when they arrived, and he’d wake up and get back to work.
At PayPal, as per his first wife:
“I had friends who complained that their husbands came home at seven or eight,” she said. “Elon would come home at eleven and work some more. People didn’t always get the sacrifice he made in order to be where he was.
At Tesla, when its finances started to crater:
Because of the long hours that he worked and his eating habits, Musk’s weight fluctuated wildly. Bags formed under his eyes, and his countenance started to resemble that of a shattered runner at the back end of an ultra-marathon. “He looked like death itself,” [second wife Talullah] Riley said. “I remember thinking this guy would have a heart attack and die. He seemed like a man on the brink.” In the middle of the night, Musk would have nightmares and yell out. “He was in physical pain,” Riley said. “He would climb on me and start screaming while still asleep.”
I think this level of intensity - combined with a high-even-if-not-unprecedently-high level of engineering ability - is enough to explain why he succeeds despite his flaws.
Do you think Elon will succeed at X/Twitter?
I lean towards yes.
This book taught me that everyone always predicts Elon will fail at whatever he does. When he started the original X (later PayPal), everyone who knew anything about finance told him he would fail. Just because he was a hotshot coder who could write software didn’t mean he could navigate the totally-different and heavily-regulated world of finance. Elon, who started out indeed knowing nothing about finance, learned on the job and got a $200 million exit. Gawker voted Tesla #1 in their Biggest Tech Flops of 2007 (also on their list were Facebook ads and the Android . . . maybe journalists don’t actually understand tech?)
Even after the Roadster, people said it was impossible Tesla could produce the Model S. Even after Falcon 1, people said it was impossible they could get reusable rockets. This is one of those cases where people comically refuse to update, again and again.
On the other hand, this time Ashlee Vance himself is skeptical. He says:
I think Twitter is a different and unique challenge. This is not something where you’re building a rocket or a car and you can marshal tons of troops to push toward this goal. There’s part of this that takes a sense of consumers’ tastes, of society’s tastes. If this company is really going to make more money, it has to get bigger and it has to have another hit. We’ve seen the hit, which is that it’s this place where everybody gathers to chat. But that hasn’t paid enough of the bills.
So this is where you start getting into kind of a territory where we just don’t know. There’s not a lot of evidence that Elon’s necessarily good at reading these kinds of signals. And it takes a bit of luck.
I go back and forth on this. Abstracting away “the vibes”, you could argue Musk’s first year at Twitter has actually had a lot of positives:
He fired 80%-90% of the workforce without any clear change in user experience. This was bad for the fired people and bad for PR. But it makes him look more competent than whoever was there before him and hired 5-10x more people than they needed. [edit: see contrary perspectives here and here]
Although stories from this winter claimed that Twitter Blue was a dud, anecdotally I’ve been seeing lots more people using it lately. This could provide X with a revenue source independent of advertising and make them well-placed to survive any future chatbotpocalypse.
Easily survived a challenge from Facebook Threads.
Community Notes seems much better than before (I have no proof that this is true or Elon’s doing), so much so that in a fair world he might get credit for building it into a game-changing anti-misinformation tool.
The negative has been a cringey rebrand and a war with advertisers over free speech. We’ll forget the old brand soon enough, and it seems unlikely that advertisers can boycott X forever.
But more important: Vance might be right that Musk’s bad at PR. And PR (ie keeping advertisers and the media happy) is a core part of Twitter-as-it-currently-exists. But people keep failing by not taking Musk literally. And if you listen to his literal words, his plan is to create “X, the everything app”. I don’t know what this will entail (something something payments?). But PR might not be a core part of it.
So many people have gone broke betting against Elon Musk that I’m going with “probably he’ll do a good job”.
Okay, but the real question - why did he change Twitter to X?
I should stop accusing everyone of re-enacting trauma, but I think he’s re-enacting his trauma.
In 1999, a young Elon Musk founded a payments startup called X. It did okay, but it soon became clear that the savvy business decision was to merge with competitor Confinity. The original plan was to stay X and keep Musk as chairman (later CEO). But Confinity leader Peter Thiel pulled a coup, took the CEO position, and renamed the company PayPal.
Musk kept his shares and did great financially, but has always considered this his big business failure. He had more ambitious plans for the company; more important, he really hates losing. Even “losing” in a way that made him $200 million. It’s the principle of the thing. He’s been bitter about this for twenty years.
So now he’s taken over someone else’s company, renamed it “X”, and embarked on an ambitious plan to turn it into a payments solution, which this time will surely work. Trauma re-enactment, for sure.
Musk has a saying: “The most entertaining outcome is the most likely”. The most entertaining outcome here would be for Peter Thiel to take over Twitter and rename it “PayPal”. I can’t wait.
Vance starts with the story of the biography itself. When Musk learned he was being profiled, he called Vance, threatened that he could “make [his] life very difficult”, and demanded the right to include footnotes wherever he wanted telling his side of the story. When Vance said that wasn’t how things worked, Elon invited him to dinner to talk about it. Elon arrived late, and spent the first few courses talking about the risk of artificial superintelligence. When Vance tried to redirect the conversation to the biography, Elon abruptly agreed, gave him unprecedented access to everyone, and won him over so thoroughly that the book ends with a prediction that Musk will succeed at everything and become the richest man in the world (a bold claim back in 2015).
I like this story but find myself dwelling on Musk’s request - why shouldn’t he be allowed to read his own biography before publication and include footnotes giving his side of the story where he disagrees? That sounds like it should be standard practice! If I ever write a post about any of you and you disagree with it, feel free to ask me to add a footnote giving your side of the story (or realistically I’ll put it in an Open Thread).
The book gives several examples of times Musk almost went bankrupt by underestimating how long a project would take, then got saved by an amazing stroke of luck at the last second. When Vance asked him about his original plan to get the Falcon 1 done in a year, he said:
Reminded about the initial 2003 target date to fly the Falcon 1, Musk acted shocked. “Are you serious?” he said. “We said that? Okay, that’s ridiculous. I think I just didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. The only thing I had prior experience in was software, and, yeah, you can write a bunch of software and launch a website in a year. No problem. This isn’t like software. It doesn’t work that way with rockets.”
But also, the employees who Vance interviewed admit that whenever Musk asks how long something will take, they give him a super-optimistic timeline, because otherwise he will yell at them.
I wondered whether Elon was self-aware. The answer seems to be yes. Here’s an email he wrote a friend:
I am by nature obsessive compulsive. In terms of being an asshole or screwing up, I'm personally as guilty of that as anyone, and am somewhat thick-skinned in this regard due to large amounts of scar tissue. 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.
More on Musk’s recruitment strategy:
Musk would personally reach out to the aerospace departments of top colleges and inquire about the students who had finished with the best marks on their exams. It was not unusual for him to call the students in their dorm rooms and recruit them over the phone. “I thought it was a prank call,” said Michael Colonno, who heard from Musk while attending Stanford. “I did not believe for a minute that he had a rocket company.” Once the students looked Musk up on the Internet, selling them on SpaceX was easy. For the first time in years if not decades, young aeronautics whizzes who pined to explore space had a really exciting company to latch on to and a path toward designing a rocket or even becoming an astronaut that did not require them to join a bureaucratic government contractor. As word of SpaceX’s ambitions spread, top engineers from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital Sciences with a high tolerance for risk fled to the upstart, too.
Here’s a description of an interview with Musk:
Each employee receives a warning before going to meet with Musk. The interview, he or she is told, could last anywhere from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes. Elon will likely keep on writing e-mails and working during the initial part of the interview and not speak much. Don’t panic. That’s normal. Eventually, he will turn around in his chair to face you. Even then, though, he might not make actual eye contact with you or fully acknowledge your presence. Don’t panic. That’s normal. In due course, he will speak to you.
From that point, the tales of engineers who have interviewed with Musk run the gamut from torturous experiences to the sublime. He might ask one question or he might ask several. You can be sure, though, that he will roll out the Riddle: “You’re standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?” One answer to that is the North Pole, and most of the engineers get it right away. That’s when Musk will follow with “Where else could you be?” The other answer is somewhere close to the South Pole where, if you walk one mile south, the circumference of the Earth becomes one mile. Fewer engineers get this answer, and Musk will happily walk them through that riddle and others and cite any relevant equations during his explanations. He tends to care less about whether or not the person gets the answer than about how they describe the problem and their approach to solving it.
The only good answer to this question I’ve ever heard is that maybe it’s some sort of grand charter city proposal, and the benefit is that Earthly governments can’t touch it. As I explain later, I don’t think Musk is enough of a 4D chessmaster to think of this and keep it secret, although maybe he’s just so good a chessmaster that he hides it.
Or else that’s just what Vance focuses upon.
Here’s a story about him courting his second wife, Tallulah Riley:
The couple had lunch the next day and then went to the White Cube, a modern art gallery, and then back to Musk’s hotel room. Musk told Riley, a virgin, that he wanted to show her his rockets. “I was skeptical, but he did actually show me rocket videos,” she said.