Saturday, 3 June 2017

Biography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance - Book Review

Aptly subtitled “How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future”; Elon Musk’s biography by Ashlee Vance is perhaps the most balanced biography that I have read in a long time. The reason I chose the word “balanced” to describe this biography is because it not only puts forward to the reader Elon Musk’s point of view but also those of his co-workers, friends, family and competitors.


The book is a journey through Elon Musk’s life right from his birth place in South Africa to his student days in the United States of America followed by his entrepreneurial ventures. It goes through the story of how Elon Musk set up Paypal, the first Internet payment company which in many senses had laid the foundation for online financial transactions to his vision of setting up a human colony in Mars.

Any ordinary person would think that the idea of colonizing Mars is perhaps ridiculous, but then if you go through this biography, you shall realize that this is not something that Elon Musk would consider unachievable and uncalled for. In the age of setting up software companies at the Silicon Valley this is a person who ventures into fields which are not typical of people working in software. While most of the budding entrepreneurs for many years right from the launch of the first iphone have generally focused on creating apps that “revolutionize” the world, Elon Musk was one who in the true sense went on to do something that would change the game. He rather ventured into a territory not looked at by software engineers and set up an electric car manufacturing company Tesla and set up SpaceX to provide cheaper alternatives for companies to launch satellites into space. He then goes on with ideas like that of Solar City, creating solar panels and proposes the setting up of the fastest mean of transportation in the world - Hyperloop. What makes it astonishing is the fact that he does all these at around the same time. It’s no wonder when you read in the biography that he is used to working around eighty hours a week juggling his companies and managing them all at the same time.

While the book applauds all the wonderful work that Elon Musk does and the new technologies that he has brought into the face of earth, it also gives due weightage to the opinion of many other people about him and his work. The author Ashlee Vance has done a commendable job in interviewing a number of people for the compilation of this biography. It gives a sneak peek into the personal life of Elon Musk too. The biography talks about his relationship with his first wife Justine Wilson a Canadian author and the ups and downs that they went through in the marriage which finally ended in a divorce and also her opinion of Musk which is a mix of admiration and resentment. How Elon met his second wife Talulah Riley is also an interesting episode. When it comes to Tesla the author does not shy away from putting the views of Martin Eberhard, one of the co-founders of the company who in a way feels cheated by Elon Musk.

However, my favourite parts of this biography were the success stories of Tesla and SpaceX. SpaceX is a first of its kind. Generally private companies do not enter the field of space technology and SpaceX did it in style. But it was not an overnight success. There were a lot of ups and downs. The initial failures that SpaceX faced while launching their space vehicles did not deter Elon Musk. He was faced with a severe financial crunch. But even those employees and ex-employees who despised him for his demanding nature would mention that he was inspiring at the face of those adversities. With his sheer determination, SpaceX went on to launch a large number of space vehicles, satellites and became the first private company to launch and berth a space vehicle with the International Space Station.

The story of Tesla is equally inspiring. In an age when even renowned car manufacturers would shy away from designing an electric car Tesla came into picture. The challenges with electric cars were many right from the consumer reluctance to buy electric cars because of lack of charging stations to manufacturing affordable batteries. Tesla however resolved both these challenges to bring the Roadster into mass production. Similar to the case of SpaceX, Tesla was also on the verge of a financial failure to the point when Elon Musk wanted to enter into an agreement with Google for partnership. But fortune smiled on Elon and he retained the company and eventually Tesla cars became a huge success. The success however, couldn’t be just attributed to mere luck but the hard work and perseverance of Elon Musk and the Tesla employees.


There is this cliched phrase that is used for big personalities “Love him, hate him, but you can’t ignore him”. Elon Musk rightly fits into this class. His absolutely brilliant management skills and will to put any number of insane hours to realize his vision is just magnificent. Biographies unlike autobiographies are not from the perspective of a single person. Having said that, if you end up the book with an awe for the protagonist means that you have read a good life. The biography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance is one book that I would strongly recommend.

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