Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson - Summary and Notes- 140 mins
Summary / Top Takeaways
At a very basic level, this is how Elon approaches building very successful products/companies – 1) start with a very grandiose vision. 2) deploy the idiot index (ratio of the total cost of a component to the cost of its raw materials.). 3) if idiot index is high, question every requirement. 4) delete any part of the process you can. 5) simplify after deletion. 6) optimize cycle time and finally, 7) automate the process.
And while Elon’s product building is truly inspiring – his behavior is often questionable. That’s the juxtaposition of Elon. Walter ended this book with the perfect quote – “One can admire a person’s good traits and decry the bad ones. But it’s also important to understand how the strands are woven together, sometimes tightly. It can be hard to remove the dark ones without unraveling the whole cloth. As Shakespeare teaches us, all heroes have flaws, some tragic, some conquered, and those we cast as villains can be complex. Even the best people, he wrote, are “molded out of faults.” “
Favorite Quotes and Chapter Notes
I went through my notes and captured key quotes from all chapters below.
P.S. – Highly recommend Readwise if you want to get the most out of your reading.
Prologue: Muse of Fire
- Empathy did not come naturally, and he had neither the desire nor the instinct to be ingratiating. As a result, he was regularly picked on by bullies, who would come up and punch him in the face.“If you have never been punched in the nose, you have no idea how it affects you the rest of your life,” he says.
- “Adversity shaped me”
- “Someone once said that every man is trying to live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes,” Barack Obama wrote in his memoirs,“and I suppose that may explain my particular malady.”
- But the more I encountered it, the more I came to believe that his sense of mission was part of what drove him. While other entrepreneurs struggled to develop a worldview, he developed a cosmic view.
- He became one of those people who feels most alive when a hurricane is coming.“I was born for a storm, and a calm does not suit me,” Andrew Jackson once said. Likewise with Musk. He developed a siege mentality that included an attraction, sometimes a craving, for storm and drama, both at work and in the romantic relationships he struggled and failed to maintain. He thrived on crises, deadlines, and wild surges of work.
- When I was reporting on Steve Jobs, his partner Steve Wozniak said that the big question to ask was Did he have to be so mean? So rough and cruel? So drama-addicted? When I turned the question back to Woz at the end of my reporting, he said that if he had run Apple, he would have been kinder. He would have treated everyone there like family and not summarily fired people. Then he paused and added,“But if I had run Apple, we may never have made the Macintosh.”
Chapter 2: A Mind of His Own: Pretoria, the 1970s
- At first she and Errol were going to name him Nice, after the town in France where he was conceived. History may have been different, or at least amused, if the boy had to go through life with the name Nice Musk.
- Errol liked the name Elon because it was biblical, and he later claimed that he had been prescient. As a child, he says, he heard about a science fiction book by the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun called Project Mars, which describes a colony on the planet run by an executive known as“the Elon.”
- “Once he started going to school, he became so lonely and sad,” his mother says.“Kimbal and Tosca would make friends on the first day and bring them home, but Elon never brought friends home. He wanted to have friends, but he just didn’t know how.” As a result, he was lonely, very lonely, and that pain remained seared into his soul.“When I was a child, there’s one thing I said,” he recalled in an interview with Rolling Stone during a tumultuous period in his love life in 2017.“ ‘I never want to be alone.’ That’s what I would say. ‘I don’t want to be alone.’ ” One day when he was five, one of his cousins was having a birthday party, but Elon was punished for getting into a fight and told to stay home. He was a very determined kid, and he decided to walk on his own to his cousin’s house. The problem was that it was on the other side of Pretoria, a walk of almost two hours. Plus, he was too young to read the road signs.“I kind of knew what the route looked like because I had seen it from a car, and I was determined to get there, so I just started walking,” he says. He managed to arrive just as the party was ending. When his mother saw him coming down the road, she freaked out. Fearing he would be punished again, he climbed a maple tree and refused to come down. Kimbal remembers standing beneath the tree and staring at his older brother in awe.“He has this fierce determination that blows your mind and was sometimes frightening, and still is.”
- “It was insane to leave me and my brother alone in a park at that age,” he says,“but my parents weren’t overprotective like parents are today.”
- Often she would have to travel on a modeling job or to give a nutrition lecture, leaving the kids at home.“I never felt guilty about working full-time, because I didn’t have a choice,” she says.“My children had to be responsible for themselves.” The freedom taught them to be self-reliant. When they faced a problem, she had a stock response:“You’ll figure it out.” As Kimbal recalls,“Mom wasn’t soft and cuddly, and she was always working, but that was a gift for us.”
Chapter 3: Life with Father: Pretoria, the 1980s
- “He left us in the hotel, which was pretty grungy, and just gave us fifty bucks or something, and we didn’t see him for two days.” They watched Samurai movies and cartoons on the hotel TV. Leaving Tosca behind, Elon and Kimbal wandered the streets, going into electronics stores where they could play video games for free.“Nowadays someone would call the child-protection service if someone did what our dad did,” Musk says,“but for us back then it was a wondrous experience.”
- “We didn’t try to hide from the violence, we became survivors of it,” says Kimbal.“It taught us to not be afraid but also to not do crazy things.”
- “I wasn’t really going to put a lot of effort into things I thought were meaningless,” he says.“I would rather be reading or playing video games.” He got an A in the physics part of his senior certificate exams, but somewhat surprisingly, only a B in the math part.
- Reading remained Musk’s psychological retreat. Sometimes he would immerse himself in books all afternoon and most of the night, nine hours at a stretch. When the family went to someone’s house, he would disappear into their host’s library. When they went into town, he would wander off and later be found at a bookstore, sitting on the floor, in his own world. He was also deeply into comics. The single-minded passion of the superheroes impressed him.“They’re always trying to save the world, with their underpants on the outside or these skin-tight iron suits, which is really pretty strange when you think about it,” he says.“But they are trying to save the world.” Musk read both sets of his father’s encyclopedias and became, to his doting mother and sister, a“genius boy.” To other kids, however, he was an annoying nerd.“Look at the moon, it must be a million miles away,” a cousin once exclaimed. Replied Elon,“No, it’s like 239,000 miles, depending on the orbit.”
- One book that he found in his father’s office described great inventions that would be made in the future.“I would come back from school and go to a side room in my father’s office and read it over and over,” he says. Among the ideas was a rocket propelled by an ion thruster, which would use particles rather than gas for thrust. Late one night at the control room of his rocket base in south Texas, Musk described the book at length to me, including how an ion thruster would work in a vacuum.“That book is what first made me think about going to other planets,”
Chapter 4: The Seeker: Pretoria, the 1980s
- “I began trying to figure out what the meaning of life and the universe was,” he says.“And I got real depressed about it, like maybe life may have no meaning.” Like a good bookworm, he addressed these questions through reading. At first, he made the typical mistake of angsty adolescents and read existential philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Schopenhauer. This had the effect of turning confusion into despair.“I do not recommend reading Nietzsche as a teenager,” he says. Fortunately, he was saved by science fiction, that wellspring of wisdom for game-playing kids with intellects on hyperdrive. He plowed through the entire sci-fi section in his school and local libraries, then pushed the librarians to order more.
- One of his favorites was Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, a novel about a lunar penal colony. It is managed by a supercomputer, nicknamed Mike, that is able to acquire self-awareness and a sense of humor. The computer sacrifices its life during a rebellion at the penal colony. The book explores an issue that would become central to Musk’s life: Will artificial intelligence develop in ways that benefit and protect humanity, or will machines develop intentions of their own and become a threat to humans?
- The science fiction book that most influenced his wonder years was Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The jaunty and wry tale helped shape Musk’s philosophy and added a dollop of droll humor to his serious mien.“The Hitchhiker’s Guide,” he says,“helped me out of my existential depression, and I soon realized it was amazingly funny in all sorts of subtle ways.”
- The computer came with a course in how to program in BASIC that involved sixty hours of lessons.“I did it in three days, barely sleeping,”
- At age thirteen, he was able to create a video game, which he named Blastar, using 123 lines of BASIC and some simple assembly language to get the graphics to work.
- “If you’re playing with Elon, you play pretty much nonstop until finally you have to eat,” Peter Rive says. On one trip to Durban, Elon figured out how to hack the games in a mall. He was able to hotwire the system so that they could play for hours without using any coins.
Chapter 5: Escape Velocity: Leaving South Africa, 1989
- At age seventeen, after seven years of living with his father, Elon realized that he would have to escape. Life with him had become increasingly unnerving. There were times when Errol would be jovial and fun, but occasionally he would become dark, verbally abusive, and possessed by fantasies and conspiracies.“His mood could change on a dime,” Tosca says.“Everything could be super, then within a second he would be vicious and spewing abuse.” It was almost as if he had a split personality.“One minute he would be super friendly,” Kimbal says,“and the next he would be screaming at you, lecturing you for hours—literally two or three hours while he forced you to just stand there—calling you worthless, pathetic, making scarring and evil comments, not allowing you to leave.”
- Peter Rive says.“Sometimes Errol would be like, ‘I just got us some new motorbikes so let’s jump on them.’ At other times he would be angry and threatening and, oh fuck, make you clean the toilets with a toothbrush.” When Peter tells me this, he pauses for a moment and then, a bit hesitantly, notes that Elon sometimes has similar mood swings.“When Elon’s in a good mood, it’s like the coolest, funnest thing in the world. And when he’s in a bad mood, he goes really dark, and you’re just walking on eggshells.”
Chapter 6: Canada: 1989
- A myth has grown that Musk, because his father was on-and-off successful, arrived in North America in 1989 with a lot of money, perhaps pockets filled with emeralds. Errol at times encouraged that perception. But in fact, what Errol got from the Zambian emerald mine had become worthless years earlier. When Elon left South Africa, his father gave him $2,000 in traveler’s checks and his mother provided him with another $2,000 by cashing out a stock account she had opened with the money she won in a beauty contest as a teenager. Otherwise, what he mainly had with him when he arrived in Montreal was a list of his mother’s relatives he had never met.
- After a week, he bought a $100 Greyhound Discovery Pass that allowed him to travel by bus anywhere in Canada for six months. He had a second cousin his age, Mark Teulon, who lived on a farm in Saskatchewan province not far from Moose Jaw, where his grandparents had lived, so he headed there. It was more than 1,700 miles from Montreal. The bus, which stopped at every hamlet, took days to wander across Canada. At one stop, he got off to find lunch and, just as the bus was leaving, ran to jump back on. Unfortunately, the driver had taken off his suitcase with his traveler’s checks and clothes. All he had now was the knapsack of books he carried everywhere. The difficulty of getting traveler’s checks replaced(it took weeks) was an early taste of how the financial payments system needed disruption.
- When he got to the town near his cousin’s farm, he used some of the change he had in his pocket to call.“Hey, it’s Elon, your cousin from South Africa,” he said.“I’m at the bus station.” The cousin showed up with his father, took him to a Sizzler steak house, and invited him to stay at their wheat farm, where he was put to work cleaning grain bins and helping to raise a barn. There he celebrated his eighteenth birthday with a cake they baked with“Happy Birthday Elon” written in chocolate icing.
- At first they all lived in a one-bedroom apartment, with Tosca and her mother sharing a bed while Elon slept on the couch. There was little money. Maye remembers crying when she spilled some milk because she didn’t have enough to buy any more.
- He had no friends or social life in Toronto, and he spent most of his time reading or working on the computer. Tosca, on the contrary, was a saucy teenager, eager to go out.“I’m coming with you,” Elon would declare, not wanting to be lonely.“No you’re not,” she would reply. But when he insisted, she ordered,“You have to stay ten feet away from me at all times.” He did. He would walk behind her and her friends, carrying a book to read whenever they went into a club or party.
Chapter 7: Queen’s: Kingston, Ontario, 1990–1991
- Strategy games—those played on a board and then those for computers—would become central to Musk’s life. From The Ancient Art of War, which he played as a teen in South Africa, to his addiction to The Battle of Polytopia three decades later, he relished the complex planning and competitive management of resources that are required to prevail. Immersing himself in these games for hours became the way he relaxed, escaped stress, and honed his tactical skills and strategic thinking for business.
- One class at Queen’s used a strategy game in which teams competed in a simulation of growing a business. The players could decide the prices of their products, the amount spent on advertising, what profits to plow back into research, and other variables. Musk figured out how to reverse-engineer the logic that controlled the simulation, so he was able to win every time.
- When Kimbal moved to Canada and joined Elon as a student at Queen’s, the brothers developed a routine. They would read the newspaper and pick out the person they found most interesting. Elon was not one of those eager-beaver types who liked to attract and charm mentors, so the more gregarious Kimbal took the lead in cold-calling the person.“If we were able to get through on the phone, they usually would have lunch with us,” he says. One they picked was Peter Nicholson, the executive in charge of strategic planning at Scotiabank. Nicholson was an engineer with a master’s degree in physics and a PhD in math. When Kimbal got through to him, he agreed to have lunch with the boys. Their mother took them shopping at Eaton’s department store, where the purchase of a $99 suit got you a free shirt and tie. At lunch they discussed philosophy and physics and the nature of the universe. Nicholson offered them summer jobs, inviting Elon to work directly with him on his three-person strategic planning team.
- When Elon went with Nicholson’s daughter, Christie, to a party one evening, his first question was“Do you ever think about electric cars?” As he later admitted, it was not the world’s best come-on line.
- “He came away with an impression that the bank was a lot dumber than in fact it was,” Nicholson says.“But that was a good thing, because it gave him a healthy disrespect for the financial industry and the audacity to eventually start what became PayPal.”
Chapter 8: Penn: Philadelphia, 1992–1994
- He decided to major in physics because, like his father, he was drawn to engineering. The essence of being an engineer, he felt, was to address any problem by drilling down to the most fundamental tenets of physics. He also decided to pursue a joint degree in business.“I was concerned that if I didn’t study business, I would be forced to work for someone who did,” he says.“My goal was to engineer products by having a feel for the physics and never have to work for a boss with a business degree.”
- His closest friend in this crowd was Robin Ren, who had won a Physics Olympiad in his native China before coming to Penn.“He was the only person better than me at physics,” Musk says. They became partners in the physics lab, where they studied how the properties of various materials change at extreme temperatures. At the end of one set of experiments, Musk took erasers from the ends of pencils, dropped them into a jar of super-cold liquid, then smashed them on the floor. He developed an interest in knowing, and being able to visualize, the properties of materials and alloys at different temperatures. Ren recalls that Musk focused on the three areas that would shape his career. Whether he was calibrating the force of gravity or analyzing the properties of materials, he would discuss with Ren how the laws of physics applied to building rockets.“He kept talking about making a rocket that could go to Mars,” Ren recalls.“Of course, I didn’t pay much attention, because I thought he was fantasizing.” Musk also focused on electric cars. He and Ren would grab lunch from one of the food trucks and sit on the campus lawn, where Musk would read academic papers on batteries. California had just passed a requirement mandating that 10 percent of vehicles by 2003 had to be electric.“I want to go make that happen,” Musk said.
Chapter 9: Go West: Silicon Valley, 1994–1995
- In the evening he worked at a small Palo Alto company called Rocket Science, which made video games. When he showed up at their building one night and asked for a summer job, they gave him a problem they hadn’t been able to solve: how to coax a computer to multitask by reading graphics that were stored on a CD-ROM while simultaneously moving an avatar on the screen. He went on internet message boards to ask other hackers how to bypass the BIOS and joystick reader using DOS.“None of the senior engineers had been able to solve this problem, and I solved it in two weeks,” he says. They were impressed and wanted him to work full-time, but he needed to graduate in order to get a U.S. work visa. In addition, he came to a realization: he had a fanatic love of video games and the skills to make money creating them, but that was not the best way to spend his life.“I wanted to have more impact,” he says.
- “I figured I could spend several years at Stanford, get a PhD, and my conclusion on capacitors would be that they aren’t feasible,” he says.“Most PhDs are irrelevant. The number that actually move the needle is almost none.” He had conceived by then a life vision that he would repeat like a mantra.“I thought about the things that will truly affect humanity,” he says.“I came up with three: the internet, sustainable energy, and space travel.” In the summer of 1995, it became clear to him that the first of these, the internet, was not going to wait for him to finish graduate school. The web had just been opened up for commercial use, and that August the browser startup Netscape went public, soaring within a day to a market value of $2.9 billion.
- Just before the enrollment deadline for Stanford, Musk went to Toronto to get advice from Peter Nicholson of Scotiabank. Should he pursue the idea for the Virtual City Navigator, or should he start the PhD program? Nicholson, who had a PhD from Stanford, did not equivocate.“The internet revolution only comes once in a lifetime, so strike while the iron is hot,” he told Musk as they walked along the shore of Lake Ontario.“You will have lots of time to go to graduate school later if you’re still interested.” When Musk got back to Palo Alto, he told Ren he had made up his mind.“I need to put everything else on hold,” he said.“I need to catch the internet wave.” He actually hedged his bets. He officially enrolled at Stanford and then immediately requested a deferral.“I’ve written some software with the first internet maps and Yellow Pages directory,” he told Bill Nix, the material science professor.“I will probably fail, and if so I would like to come back.” Nix said it would not be a problem for Musk to defer his studies, but he predicted that he would never come back.
Chapter 10: Zip2: Palo Alto, 1995–1999
- Some of the best innovations come from combining two previous innovations. The idea that Elon and Kimbal had in early 1995, just as the web was starting to grow exponentially, was simple: put a searchable directory of businesses online and combine it with map software that would give users directions to them. Not everyone saw the potential. When Kimbal had a meeting at the Toronto Star, which published the Yellow Pages in that city, the president picked up a thick edition of the directory and threw it at him.“Do you honestly think you’re ever going to replace this?” he asked.
- The brothers rented a tiny office in Palo Alto that had room for two desks and futons. For the first six months, they slept in the office and showered at the YMCA. Kimbal, who would later become a chef and restaurateur, got an electric coil and cooked meals occasionally. But mainly they ate at Jack in the Box, because it was cheap, open twenty-four hours, and just a block away.“I can still tell you every single menu item,” Kimbal says.“It’s just seared into my brain.” Elon became a fan of the teriyaki bowl. After a few months, they rented an unfurnished apartment that stayed that way.“All it had was two mattresses and lots of Cocoa Puffs boxes,” says Tosca. Even after they moved in, Elon spent many nights in the office, crashing under his desk when he was exhausted from coding.“He had no pillow, he had no sleeping bag. I don’t know how he did it,” says Jim Ambras, an early employee.“Once in a while, if we had a customer meeting in the morning, I’d have to tell him to go home and shower.”
- “We would all be exhausted except Elon. He was always up late doing the coding.” When they got their first proposals from potential investors in early 1996, Maye took her boys to a nice restaurant to celebrate.“That’s the last time we’ll have to use my credit card,” she said when she paid the bill.
- The venture capitalists soon did what they often do: bring in adult supervision to take over from the young founders. It had happened to Steve Jobs at Apple and to Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google. Rich Sorkin, who had run business development for an audio equipment company, was made the CEO of Zip2. Elon was moved aside to chief technology officer. At first, he thought the change would suit him; he could focus on building the product. But he learned a lesson.“I never wanted to be a CEO,” he says,“but I learned that you could not truly be the chief technology or product officer unless you were the CEO.”
- Hardcore From the very beginning of his career, Musk was a demanding manager, contemptuous of the concept of work-life balance. At Zip2 and every subsequent company, he drove himself relentlessly all day and through much of the night, without vacations, and he expected others to do the same. His only indulgence was allowing breaks for intense video-game binges. The Zip2 team won second place in a national Quake competition. They would have come in first, he says, but one of them crashed his computer by pushing it too hard. When the other engineers went home, Musk would sometimes take the code they were working on and rewrite it. With his weak empathy gene, he didn’t realize or care that correcting someone publicly—or, as he put it,“fixing their fucking stupid code”—was not a path to endearment. He had never been a captain of a sports team or the leader of a gang of friends, and he lacked an instinct for camaraderie. Like Steve Jobs, he genuinely did not care if he offended or intimidated the people he worked with, as long as he drove them to accomplish feats they thought were impossible.“It’s not your job to make people on your team love you,” he said at a SpaceX executive session years later.“In fact, that’s counterproductive.”
- In January 1999, less than four years after Elon and Kimbal launched Zip2, Proudian called them into his office and told them that Compaq Computer, which was seeking to juice up its AltaVista search engine, had offered $307 million in cash. The brothers had split their 12 percent ownership stake 60–40, so Elon at age twenty-seven walked away with $22 million and Kimbal with $15 million. Elon was astonished when the check arrived at his apartment.“My bank account went from, like, $5,000 to $22,005,000,” he says.
- “Just three years ago I was showering at the Y and sleeping on the office floor, and now I’ve got a million-dollar car,” he said as he hopped around in the street while the car was unloaded from a truck.
Chapter 11: Justine: Palo Alto, the 1990s
- After dinner, everyone joined in a conga line, then Elon and Justine took the first dance. He put both arms on her waist. She put her arms around his neck. They smiled and kissed. Then, as they danced, he whispered to her a reminder:“I am the alpha in this relationship.”
Chapter 12: X.com: Palo Alto, 1999–2000
- When his cousin Peter Rive visited in early 1999, he found Musk poring over books about the banking system.“I’m trying to think about what to start next,” he explained. His experience at Scotiabank had convinced him that the industry was ripe for disruption. So in March 1999, he founded X.com with a friend from the bank, Harris Fricker. Musk now had the choice he had described to CNN: living like a multimillionaire or leaving his chips on the table to fund a new enterprise. The balance he struck was to invest $12 million in X.com, leaving about $4 million after taxes to spend on himself. His concept for X.com was grand. It would be a one-stop everything-store for all financial needs: banking, digital purchases, checking, credit cards, investments, and loans. Transactions would be handled instantly, with no waiting for payments to clear. His insight was that money is simply an entry into a database, and he wanted to devise a way that all transactions were securely recorded in real time.“If you fix all the reasons why a consumer would take money out of the system,” he says,“then it will be the place where all the money is, and that would make it a multitrillion-dollar company.” Some of his friends were skeptical that an online bank would inspire confidence if given a name that sounded like a porn site. But Musk loved the name X.com. Instead of being too clever, like Zip2, the name was simple, memorable, and easy to type. It also allowed him to have one of the coolest email addresses of the time: firstname.lastname@example.org.“X” would become his go-to letter for naming things, from companies to kids.
- At one point Musk responded with a very self-aware email.“I am by nature obsessive-compulsive,” he wrote Fricker.“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.”
- At twenty-eight, Musk had become a startup celebrity. In an article titled“Elon Musk Is Poised to Become Silicon Valley’s Next Big Thing,” Salon called him“today’s Silicon Valley It guy.”
- One of Musk’s management tactics, then as later, was to set an insane deadline and drive colleagues to meet it. He did that in the fall of 1999 by announcing, in what one engineer called“a dick move,” that X.com would launch to the public on Thanksgiving weekend. In the weeks leading up to that, Musk prowled the office each day, including Thanksgiving, in a nervous and nervous-making frenzy, and slept under his desk most nights.
- Musk developed viral marketing techniques, including bounties for users who signed up friends, and he had a vision of making X.com both a banking service and a social network. Like Steve Jobs, he had a passion for simplicity when it came to designing user interface screens.“I honed the user interface to get the fewest number of keystrokes to open an account,” he says. Originally there were long forms to fill out, including providing a social security number and home address.“Why do we need that?” Musk kept asking.“Delete!” One important little breakthrough was that customers didn’t need to have user names; their email address served that purpose. One driver of growth was a feature that they originally thought was no big deal: the ability to send money by email. That became wildly popular, especially on the auction site eBay, where users were looking for an easy way to pay strangers for purchases.
- As Musk monitored the names of new customers signing up, one caught his eye: Peter Thiel. He was one of the founders of a company named Confinity that had been located in the same building as X.com and was now just down the street. Both Thiel and his primary cofounder Max Levchin were as intense as Musk, but they were more disciplined.
- By the beginning of 2000, amid the first signs that the air might be coming out of the internet bubble, X.com and PayPal were engaged in a race to sign up new customers.“It was this crazy competition where we both had insane dollar bonuses to get customers to sign up and refer friends,” says Thiel. As Musk later put it,“It was a race to see who would run out of money last.” Musk was drawn to the fight with the intensity of a video-gamer. Thiel, on the contrary, liked to coolly calculate and mitigate risk. It soon became clear to both of them that the network effect—whichever company got bigger first would then grow even faster—meant that only one would survive. So it made sense to merge rather than turning the competition into a game of Mortal Kombat. Musk and his new CEO Bill Harris scheduled a meeting with Thiel and Levchin in the back room of Evvia, a Greek restaurant in Palo Alto. The two sides traded notes about how many users each had, with Musk engaging in some of his usual exaggerations. Thiel asked him how he envisioned potential merger terms.“We would own ninety percent of the merged company and you would own ten percent,” Musk replied. Levchin was not quite sure what to make of Musk. Was he serious? They had roughly equal user bases.“He had an extremely serious I’m-not-joking look on his face, but underneath there seemed to be an ironic streak,” Levchin says. As Musk later conceded,“We were playing a game.” After the PayPal team left the lunch, Levchin told Thiel,“This will never hunt, so let’s move on.” Thiel, however, was better at reading people.“This is just an opening,” he told Levchin.“You just have to be patient with a guy like Elon.”
- “So, what can this car do?” Thiel asked.“Watch this,” Musk replied, pulling into the fast lane and flooring the accelerator. The rear axle broke and the car spun around, hit an embankment, and flew in the air like a flying saucer. Parts of the body shredded. Thiel, a practicing libertarian, was not wearing a seatbelt, but he emerged unscathed. He was able to hitch a ride up to the Sequoia offices. Musk, also unhurt, stayed behind for a half-hour to have his car towed away, then joined the meeting without telling Harris what had happened. Later, Musk was able to laugh and say,“At least it showed Peter I was unafraid of risks.” Says Thiel,“Yeah, I realized he was a bit crazy.”
- A break came when Musk had a bonding experience with Thiel and Levchin at another lunch, this one at Il Fornaio, a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant in Palo Alto. They had waited a long time without being served, so Harris barged into the kitchen to see what dishes he could extract. Musk, Thiel, and Levchin looked at each other and exchanged glances.“Here was this extreme extrovert business-development type acting like he had an S on his chest, and the three of us are all very nerdy,” Levchin says.“We bonded over being the type of people who would never do what Bill did.”
- They agreed to a merger in which X.com would get 55 percent of the combined company, but Musk almost ruined things soon after by telling Levchin he was getting a steal. Infuriated, Levchin threatened to pull out. Harris drove to his home and helped him fold laundry as he calmed down. The terms were revised once again, to basically a 50-50 merger, but with X.com as the surviving corporate entity. In March 2000, the deal was consummated, and Musk, the largest stockholder, became the chairman. A few weeks later, he joined with Levchin to force Harris out and regain the role of CEO as well. Adult supervision was no longer welcome.
- The electronic payment systems of both companies were folded together and marketed under the brand name PayPal. That became the company’s primary offering, and it continued to grow rapidly. But it was not in Musk’s nature to make niche products. He wanted to remake entire industries. So he refocused on his original goal of creating a social network that would disrupt the whole banking industry.“We have to decide whether we are going to aim big,” he told his troops. Some believed Musk’s framing was flawed.“We had a vast amount of traction on eBay,” says Reid Hoffman, an early employee who later cofounded LinkedIn.“Max and Peter thought we should focus entirely on that and become a master merchant service.”
- Musk restructured the company so that there was not a separate engineering department. Instead, engineers would team up with product managers. It was a philosophy that he would carry through to Tesla, SpaceX, and then Twitter. Separating the design of a product from its engineering was a recipe for dysfunction. Designers had to feel the immediate pain if something they devised was hard to engineer. He also had a corollary that worked well for rockets but less so for Twitter: engineers rather than the product managers should lead the team.
- And yet, Levchin began to marvel at the counterexamples, such as when Musk astounded him by knowing things. At one point Levchin and his engineers were wrestling with a difficult problem involving the Oracle database they were using. Musk poked his head in the room and, even though his expertise was with Windows and not Oracle, immediately figured out the context of the conversation, gave a precise and technical answer, and walked out without waiting for confirmation. Levchin and his team went back to their Oracle manuals and looked up what Musk had described.“One by one, we all said, ‘Shit, he’s right,’ ” Levchin recalls.“Elon will say crazy stuff, but every once in a while, he’ll surprise you by knowing way more than you do about your own specialty. I think a huge part of the way he motivates people are these displays of sharpness, which people just don’t expect from him, because they mistake him for a bullshitter or goofball.”
Chapter 13: The Coup: PayPal, September 2000
- The lunch lasted three hours as Musk tried to persuade and cajole Hoffman.“I took all of my money and put it in this company,” he said.“I have the right to run it.” He also argued against the strategy of focusing just on electronic payments.“That should be only an opening act for creating a real digital bank.” He had read Clayton Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma, and tried to convince Hoffman that the staid banking industry could be disrupted. Hoffman disagreed.“I told him that I believed his vision of a superbank was toxic, because we needed to focus on our payment service on eBay,” he says. Musk then switched tacks: he tried to persuade Hoffman to become the CEO. Eager to end the lunch, Hoffman agreed to think about it, but quickly decided he wasn’t interested. He was a Thiel loyalist.
- Although a street fighter, Musk had an unexpected ability to be realistic in defeat. When Jeremy Stoppelman, a Musk acolyte who would later be a founder of Yelp, asked whether he and others should resign in protest, Musk said no.“The company was my baby, and like the mother in the Book of Solomon, I was willing to give it up so it could survive,” Musk says.“I decided to work hard at repairing the relationship with Peter and Max.” The one remaining source of tension was Musk’s desire, as he put it in his email, to“do some PR.” He had been bitten by the celebrity bug, and he wanted to be a public face of the company.“I’m really the best spokesperson for the company,” he told Thiel during a tense meeting in Moritz’s office. When Thiel rejected the idea, Musk erupted.“I don’t want to have my honor impugned,” he shouted.“My honor is worth more than this company to me.” Thiel was baffled about why this was a matter of honor.“He was very dramatic,” Thiel recalls.“People don’t usually talk with such a superheroic, almost Homeric kind of vibe in Silicon Valley.” Musk remained the largest shareholder and a member of the board, but Thiel barred him from speaking for the company.
- What struck his colleagues at PayPal, in addition to his relentless and rough personal style, was his willingness, even desire, to take risks.“Entrepreneurs are actually not risk takers,” says Roelof Botha.“They’re risk mitigators. They don’t thrive on risk, they never seek to amplify it, instead they try to figure out the controllable variables and minimize their risk.” But not Musk.“He was into amplifying risk and burning the boats so we could never retreat from it.” To Botha, Musk’s McLaren crash was like a metaphor: floor it and see how fast it goes.
- That made Musk fundamentally different from Thiel, who always focused on limiting risks. He and Hoffman once planned to write a book on their experience at PayPal. The chapter on Musk was going to be titled“The Man Who Didn’t Understand the Meaning of the Word ‘Risk.’ ” Risk addiction can be useful when it comes to driving people to do what seems impossible.“He’s amazingly successful getting people to march across a desert,” Hoffman says.“He has a level of certainty that causes him to put all of his chips on the table.” That was more than just a metaphor. Many years later, Levchin was at a friend’s bachelor pad hanging out with Musk. Some people were playing a high-stakes game of Texas Hold ’Em. Although Musk was not a card player, he pulled up to the table.“There were all these nerds and sharpsters who were good at memorizing cards and calculating odds,” Levchin says.“Elon just proceeded to go all in on every hand and lose. Then he would buy more chips and double down. Eventually, after losing many hands, he went all in and won. Then he said, ‘Right, fine, I’m done.’ ” It would be a theme in his life: avoid taking chips off the table; keep risking them. That would turn out to be a good strategy.“Look at the two companies he went on to build, SpaceX and Tesla,” says Thiel.“Silicon Valley wisdom would be that these were both incredibly crazy bets. But if two crazy companies work that everyone thought couldn’t possibly work, then you say to yourself, ‘I think Elon understands something about risk that everybody else doesn’t.’ ”
- At the time of this conversation, Musk was in the midst of buying Twitter. As we walked in front of a high bay where his Starship rocket was being prepared for a test, he returned to the topic of what his grand vision for X.com had been.“That’s what Twitter could become,” he said.“If you combine a social network with a payments platform, you could create what I wanted X.com to be.”
- “He was actually only hours from death,” the executive wrote in an email to Thiel and Levchin.“His doctor had treated two cases of falciparum malaria prior to treating Elon—both patients died.” Thiel remembers that he had a morbid conversation with the HR director after learning that Musk had taken out, on behalf of the company, a key-man life insurance policy for $100 million.“If he had died,” Thiel says,“all of our financial problems were going to be solved.” It was typical of Musk’s outsized personality to take out such a large insurance policy.“We’re happy that he survived and that gradually everything tracked for the company, so we didn’t need the hundred million life insurance policy.”
Chapter 14: Mars: SpaceX, 2001
- When he got to his hotel that evening, Musk logged onto the NASA website to read about its plans for going to Mars.“I figured it had to be soon, because we went to the moon in 1969, so we must be about to go to Mars.” When he couldn’t find the schedule, he rummaged deeper on the site, until he realized that NASA had no plans for Mars. He was shocked.
- Musk now had a new mission, one that was loftier than launching an internet bank or digital Yellow Pages. He went to the Palo Alto public library to read about rocket engineering and started calling experts, asking to borrow their old engine manuals.
- Reid Hoffman, another PayPal veteran, had a similar reaction. After listening to Musk describe his plan to send rockets to Mars, Hoffman was puzzled.“How is this a business?” he asked. Later Hoffman would realize that Musk didn’t think that way.“What I didn’t appreciate is that Elon starts with a mission and later finds a way to backfill in order to make it work financially,” he says.“That’s what makes him a force of nature.”
- It’s useful to pause for a moment and note how wild it was for a thirty-year-old entrepreneur who had been ousted from two tech startups to decide to build rockets that could go to Mars. What drove him, other than an aversion to vacations and a childlike love of rockets, sci-fi, and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? To his bemused friends at the time, and consistently in conversations over the ensuing years, he gave three reasons.
- He found it surprising—and frightening—that technological progress was not inevitable. It could stop. It could even backslide. America had gone to the moon. But then came the grounding of the Shuttle missions and an end to progress.“Do we want to tell our children that going to the moon is the best we did, and then we gave up?” he asks. Ancient Egyptians learned how to build the pyramids, but then that knowledge was lost. The same happened to Rome, which built aqueducts and other wonders that were lost in the Dark Ages. Was that happening to America?“People are mistaken when they think that technology just automatically improves,” he would say in a TED Talk a few years later.“It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better.”
- Another motivation was that colonizing other planets would help ensure the survival of human civilization and consciousness in case something happened to our fragile planet.
- “We’ve got this delicate candle of consciousness flickering here, and it may be the only instance of consciousness, so it’s essential we preserve it,” Musk says.“If we are able to go to other planets, the probable lifespan of human consciousness is going to be far greater than if we are stuck on one planet that could get hit by an asteroid or destroy its civilization.”
- His third motivation was more inspirational. It came from his heritage in a family of adventurers and his decision as a teenager to move to a country that had bred into its essence the spirit of pioneers.“The United States is literally a distillation of the human spirit of exploration,” he says.“This is a land of adventurers.” That spirit needed to be rekindled in America, he felt, and the best way to do that would be to embark on a mission to colonize Mars.“To have a base on Mars would be incredibly difficult, and people will probably die along the way, just as happened in the settling of the United States. But it will be incredibly inspiring, and we must have inspiring things in the world.” Life cannot be merely about solving problems, he felt. It also had to be about pursuing great dreams.“That’s what can get us up in the morning.”
- Faring to other planets would be, Musk believed, one of the significant advances in the story of humanity.“There are only a handful of really big milestones: single-celled life, multicellular life, differentiation of plants and animals, life extending from the oceans to land, mammals, consciousness,” he says.“On that scale, the next important step is obvious: making life multiplanetary.” There was something exhilarating, and also a bit unnerving, about Musk’s ability to see his endeavors as having epoch-making significance. As Max Levchin drily puts it,“One of Elon’s greatest skills is the ability to pass off his vision as a mandate from heaven.”
- His first plan was to build a small rocket to send mice to Mars.“But I became worried that we would end up with a tragicomic video of mice slowly dying on a tiny spaceship.” That would not be good.“So then it came down to, ‘Let’s send a little greenhouse to Mars.’ ” The greenhouse would land on Mars and send back photographs of green plants growing on the red planet. The public would be so excited, the theory went, that it would clamor for more missions to Mars. The proposal was called Mars Oasis, and Musk estimated he could pull it off for less than $30 million.
Chapter 15: Rocket Man: SpaceX, 2002
- This time Musk focused on buying two Dnepr rockets, which were old missiles. The more he negotiated, the higher the price went. He finally thought he had a deal to pay $18 million for two Dneprs. But then they said no, it was $18 million for each.“I’m like, ‘Dude, that’s insane,’ ” he says. The Russians then suggested maybe it would be $21 million each.“They taunted him,” Cantrell recalls.“They said, ‘Oh, little boy, you don’t have the money?’ ” It was fortunate that the meetings went badly. It prodded Musk to think bigger. Rather than merely using a secondhand rocket to put a demonstration greenhouse on Mars, he would conceive a venture that was far more audacious, one of the most audacious of our times: privately building rockets that could launch satellites and then humans into orbit and eventually send them to Mars and beyond.“I was pretty mad, and when I get mad I try to reframe the problem.”
- First principles
- As he stewed about the absurd price the Russians wanted to charge, he employed some first-principles thinking, drilling down to the basic physics of the situation and building up from there. This led him to develop what he called an“idiot index,” which calculated how much more costly a finished product was than the cost of its basic materials. If a product had a high idiot index, its cost could be reduced significantly by devising more efficient manufacturing techniques. Rockets had an extremely high idiot index. Musk began calculating the cost of carbon fiber, metal, fuel, and other materials that went into them. The finished product, using the current manufacturing methods, cost at least fifty times more than that.
- So on the flight home, he pulled out his computer and started making spreadsheets that detailed all of the materials and costs for building a midsize rocket. Cantrell and Griffin, sitting in the row behind him, ordered drinks and laughed.“What the fuck do you think that idiot-savant is doing up there?” Griffin asked Cantrell. Musk turned around and gave them an answer.“Hey, guys,” he said, showing them the spreadsheet,“I think we can build this rocket ourselves.” When Cantrell looked at the numbers, he said to himself,“I’ll be damned—that’s why he’s been borrowing all my books.” Then he asked the flight attendant for another drink.
- The arguments about the risk served to strengthen Musk’s resolve. He liked risk.“If you’re trying to convince me this has a high probability of failure, I am already there,” he told Ressi.“The likeliest outcome is that I will lose all my money. But what’s the alternative? That there be no progress in space exploration? We’ve got to give this a shot, or we’re stuck on Earth forever.”
- Musk’s space adventure had begun as a nonprofit endeavor to inspire interest in a mission to Mars, but now he had the combination of motivations that would mark his career. He would do something audacious that was driven by a grand idea. But he also wanted it to be practical and profitable, so that it could sustain itself. That meant using the rockets to launch commercial and government satellites. He decided to start with a smaller rocket that would not be too costly.“We’re going to be doing dumb things, but let’s just not do dumb things on a large scale,” he told Cantrell. Instead of launching large payloads, as Lockheed and Boeing did, Musk would create a less expensive rocket for the smaller satellites that were being made possible by advances in microprocessors. He focused on one key metric: what it cost to get each pound of payload into orbit. That goal of maximizing boost for the buck would guide his obsession with increasing the thrust of the engines, reducing the mass of the rockets, and making them reusable.
- Musk incorporated Space Exploration Technologies in May 2002. At first he called the company by its initials, SET. A few months later, he highlighted his favorite letter by moving to a more memorable moniker, SpaceX. Its goal, he said in an early presentation, was to launch its first rocket by September 2003 and to send an unmanned mission to Mars by 2010. Thus continued the tradition he had established at PayPal: setting unrealistic timelines that transformed his wild notions from being completely insane to being merely very late.
Chapter 16: Fathers and Sons: Los Angeles, 2002
- When they finally made the decision to turn off the breathing machine, Elon felt his last heartbeat and Justine held him in her arms and felt his death rattle. Musk sobbed uncontrollably.“He cried like a wolf,” his mother says.“Cried like a wolf.”
- Years later, Kimbal wrestled with what yearnings were motivating his brother.“Watching his own son die, I think that that was what drove him to want his father near him,” he told me.
Chapter 17: Revving Up: SpaceX, 2002
- One thing that Mueller insisted on was that Musk put two years’ worth of compensation into escrow. He was not an internet millionaire, and he did not want to take the chance of being unpaid if the venture failed. Musk agreed. It did, however, cause him to consider Mueller an employee rather than a cofounder of SpaceX. It was a fight he had regarding PayPal and would have again involving Tesla. If you’re unwilling to invest in a company, he felt, you shouldn’t qualify as a founder.“You cannot ask for two years of salary in escrow and consider yourself a cofounder,” he says.“There’s got to be some combination of inspiration, perspiration, and risk to be a cofounder.”
- In laying out the factory, Musk followed his philosophy that the design, engineering, and manufacturing teams would all be clustered together.“The people on the assembly line should be able to immediately collar a designer or engineer and say, ‘Why the fuck did you make it this way?’ ” he explained to Mueller.“If your hand is on a stove and it gets hot, you pull it right off, but if it’s someone else’s hand on the stove, it will take you longer to do something.” As his team grew, Musk infused it with his tolerance for risk and reality-bending willfulness.“If you were negative or thought something couldn’t be done, you were not invited to the next meeting,” Mueller recalls.“He just wanted people who would make things happen.” It was a good way to drive people to do what they thought was impossible. But it was also a good way to become surrounded by people afraid to give you bad news or question a decision. Musk and the other young engineers would work late into the night and then fire up a multiplayer shooter game, such as Quake III Arena, on their desktop computers, conference together their cell phones, and plunge into death matches that could last until 3 a.m.
Chapter 18: Musk’s Rules for Rocket-Building: SpaceX, 2002–2003
- Question every cost
- His focus on cost, as well as his natural controlling instincts, led him to want to manufacture as many components as possible in-house, rather than buy them from suppliers, which was then the standard practice in the rocket and car industries. At one point SpaceX needed a valve, Mueller recalls, and the supplier said it would cost $250,000. Musk declared that insane and told Mueller they should make it themselves. They were able to do so in months at a fraction of the cost. Another supplier quoted a price of $120,000 for an actuator that would swivel the nozzle of the upper-stage engines. Musk declared it was not more complicated than a garage door opener, and he told one of his engineers to make it for $5,000. Jeremy Hollman, one of the young engineers working for Mueller, discovered that a valve that was used to mix liquids in a car wash system could be modified to work with rocket fuel.
- One reason was that rocket components were subject to hundreds of specifications and requirements mandated by the military and NASA. At big aerospace companies, engineers followed these religiously. Musk did the opposite: he made his engineers question all specifications. This would later become step one in a five-point checklist, dubbed“the algorithm,” that became his oft-repeated mantra when developing products. Whenever one of his engineers cited“a requirement” as a reason for doing something, Musk would grill them: Who made that requirement?
- All requirements should be treated as recommendations, he repeatedly instructed. The only immutable ones were those decreed by the laws of physics.
- Have a maniacal sense of urgency
- Mueller agreed and arbitrarily cut the schedule in half.“And guess what?” he says.“We ended up developing it in about the time that we had put in that original schedule.” Sometimes Musk’s insane schedules produced the impossible, sometimes they didn’t.“I learned never to tell him no,” Mueller says.“Just say you’re going to try, then later explain why if it doesn’t work out.”
- “A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle,” he repeatedly declared. The sense of urgency was good for its own sake. It made his engineers engage in first-principles thinking. But as Mueller points out, it was also corrosive.“If you set an aggressive schedule that people think they might be able to make, they will try to put out extra effort,” he says.“But if you give them a schedule that’s physically impossible, engineers aren’t stupid. You’ve demoralized them. It’s Elon’s biggest weakness.” Steve Jobs did something similar. His colleagues called it his reality-distortion field. He set unrealistic deadlines, and when people balked, he would stare at them without blinking and say,“Don’t be afraid, you can do it.” Although the practice demoralized people, they ended up accomplishing things that other companies couldn’t.“Even though we failed to meet most schedules or cost targets that Elon laid out, we still beat all of our peers,” Mueller admits.
- Learn by failing Musk took an iterative approach to design. Rockets and engines would be quickly prototyped, tested, blown up, revised, and tried again, until finally something worked. Move fast, blow things up, repeat.“It’s not how well you avoid problems,” Mueller says.“It’s how fast you figure out what the problem is and fix it.” For example, there was a set of military specifications on how many hours each new version of an engine needed to be test-fired under a long list of different conditions.“It was a tedious approach and very expensive,” Tim Buzza explains.“Elon told us just to build one engine and fire it up on the test stand; if it worked, put it on a rocket and fly it.” Because SpaceX was a private company, and because Musk was willing to flout rules, it could take the risks it wanted. Buzza and Mueller pushed their engines until they broke, and then said,“Okay, now we know what the limits are.”
- Mueller and his team would spend twelve-hour days testing engines at McGregor, grab dinner at Outback Steakhouse, then have a late-night conference call with Musk, who peppered them with technical questions. Often he would erupt with the controlled yet searing fury of an engine burn when an engineer did not know an answer. With his tolerance for risk, Musk pushed them to find makeshift solutions. Using machine tools that Mueller had brought to Texas, they would try to make fixes on the spot. One night lightning struck a test stand, knocking out the pressurization system for a fuel tank. That led to a bulge and rip in one of the tank’s membranes. In a normal aerospace company, that would have meant replacing the tanks, which would take months.“Nah, just fix it,” Musk said.“Go up there with some hammers and just pound it back out, weld it, and we’ll keep going.” Buzza thought that was nuts, but he had learned to follow the boss’s orders. So they went out to the test stand and pounded out the bulge. Musk jumped on his plane to make the three-hour flight to oversee things personally.“When he showed up, we began testing the tank with gas in it, and it held,” Buzza says.“Elon believes that every situation is salvageable. That taught us a lot. And it actually was fun.” It also saved SpaceX months in getting its initial rocket tested.
- Of course that didn’t always work. Musk tried a similar unconventional approach in late 2003 when cracks developed in the heat-diffusing material inside the thrust chambers of the engines.“First one, then two, then three of our first chambers cracked,” Mueller recalls.“It was a disaster.” When Musk got the bad news, he ordered Mueller to find a way to fix them.“We can’t throw them away,” he said.“There’s no way to fix them,” Mueller replied. It was the type of statement that infuriated Musk. He told Mueller to put the three chambers on his jet and fly with them to the SpaceX factory in Los Angeles. His idea was to apply a layer of epoxy glue that would seep into the cracks and cure the problem. When Mueller told him that the idea was crazy, they got into a shouting match. Finally, Mueller relented.“He’s the boss,” he told the team. When the chambers arrived at the factory, Musk was dressed in fine leather boots for a Christmas party he was planning to attend. He never got to the party. He spent all night helping to apply the epoxy and ruining his boots. The gamble failed. As soon as pressure was applied, the epoxy came unstuck. The chambers had to be redesigned, and the schedule for launch slipped four months. But Musk’s willingness to work all night at the factory pursuing the innovative idea inspired his engineers not to be afraid of trying offbeat fixes. A pattern was set: try new ideas and be willing to blow things up. The residents in the area got used to explosions.
Chapter 19: Mr. Musk Goes to Washington: SpaceX, 2002–2003
- To help him celebrate, Shotwell took Koenigsmann to their favorite neighborhood lunch place, a bright-yellow Austrian restaurant called Chef Hannes. Then she drove Koenigsmann a few blocks down the street to drop him off at SpaceX.“Come on in,” he told her.“You can meet Elon.”
- To drum up public awareness about SpaceX, Musk in December 2003 brought a Falcon 1 rocket to Washington for a public event outside of the National Air and Space Museum. SpaceX built a special trailer with a bright blue cradle to haul the seven-story rocket from Los Angeles, and Musk ordered a production crunch with a crazy deadline to get a prototype of the rocket ready for the trip. To many of the company’s engineers, this seemed like a mammoth distraction, but when the rocket was paraded up Independence Avenue with a police escort, it impressed Sean O’Keefe, the administrator of NASA. He dispatched one of his deputies, Liam Sarsfield, to California to assess the spunky startup.“SpaceX presents good products and solid potential,” Sarsfield reported back.“NASA investment in this venture is well warranted.”
- Sarsfield made the mistake of giving Musk an honest explanation. Kistler had been awarded the no-bid contract, he wrote, because its“financial arrangements are shaky” and NASA did not want it to go bankrupt. There would be other contracts for SpaceX to bid on, Sarsfield assured Musk. That infuriated Musk, who contended that NASA should be in the business of promoting innovation, not propping up companies. Musk met with officials at NASA headquarters in May 2004 and, ignoring the advice of Shotwell, decided to sue them over the Kistler contract.“Everyone told me that it might mean we would never be able to work with NASA,” Musk says.“But what they did was wrong and corrupt, so I sued.” He even threw Sarsfield, his strongest advocate within NASA, under the bus by including in the lawsuit his friendly email explaining that the contract was meant to be a lifeline for Kistler. SpaceX ended up winning the dispute, and NASA was ordered to open the project to competitive bidding. SpaceX was able to win a significant portion of it.“That was a huge upset—literally imagine, like, a ten-to-one odds underdog winning,” Musk told the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport.“It blew everyone’s mind.”
- On his trip to Washington, Musk testified before a Senate committee and pushed a different approach. The problem with a cost-plus system, he argued, was that it stymied innovation. If the project went over budget, the contractor would get paid more. There was little incentive for the cozy club of cost-plus contractors to take risks, be creative, work fast, or cut costs.“Boeing and Lockheed just want their cost-plus gravy trains,” he says.“You just can’t get to Mars with that system. They have an incentive never to finish. If you never finish a cost-plus contract, then you suckle on the tit of the government forever.” SpaceX pioneered an alternative in which private companies bid on performing a specific task or mission, such as launching government payloads into orbit. The company risked its own capital, and it would be paid only if and when it delivered on certain milestones. This outcomes-based, fixed-price contracting allowed the private company to control, within broad parameters, how its rockets were designed and built. There was a lot of money to be made if it built a cost-efficient rocket that succeeded, and a lot of money to be lost if it failed.“It rewards results rather than waste,” Musk says.
Chapter 20: Founders: Tesla, 2003–2004
- Musk was blown away by the tzero, even though it was a rough prototype without doors or a roof.“You have to turn this into a real product,” he told Gage.“That could really change the world.” But Gage wanted to start by building a cheaper, boxier, slower car. That made no sense to Musk. Any initial version of an electric car would be expensive to build, at least $70,000 apiece.“Nobody is going to pay anywhere near that for something that looks like crap,” he argued. The way to get a car company started was to build a high-priced car first and later move to a mass-market model.“Gage and Cocconi were sort of madcap inventors,” he laughs.“Common sense was not their strong suit.” For weeks Musk badgered them to build a fancy roadster.“Everyone thinks electric cars suck, but you can show that they don’t,” he implored. But Gage resisted.“Okay, if you guys don’t want to commercialize tzero, do you mind if I do?” Musk asked.
- Then he read about the tzero prototype made by Tom Gage and AC Propulsion. After seeing it, he told Gage he would invest $150,000 in the company if they would switch from lead-acid batteries to lithium-ion. The result was that Gage had a prototype tzero in September 2003 that could accelerate from zero to sixty in 3.6 seconds and had a range of three hundred miles. Eberhard tried to convince Gage and the others at AC Propulsion to start manufacturing the car, or at least build him one. But they didn’t.“They were smart people, but I soon realized that they were incapable of actually building cars,” Eberhard says.“That’s when I decided I had to start a car company of my own.” He made a deal to license the electric motors and drivetrain from AC Propulsion.
- He enlisted his friend Marc Tarpenning, a software engineer who had been his partner at Rocket eBook. They devised a plan to start with a high-end, open-body, two-seat roadster and later build cars for the mass market.“I wanted to make a sporty roadster that would absolutely change the way that people think about electric cars,” Eberhard said,“and then use it to build a brand.”
- What struck Tarpenning was that Musk focused on the importance of the mission rather than the potential of the business:“He clearly had already come to the conclusion that to have a sustainable future we had to electrify cars.”
Chapter 21: The Roadster: Tesla, 2004–2006
- One of the most important decisions that Elon Musk made about Tesla—the defining imprint that led to its success and its impact on the auto industry—was that it should make its own key components, rather than piecing together a car with hundreds of components from independent suppliers.
- One issue with startups, especially those with multiple founders and funders, is who should be in charge. Sometimes the alpha male wins, as when Steve Jobs marginalized Steve Wozniak and when Bill Gates did the same to Paul Allen. At other times it’s messier, especially when different players feel that they are the founder of a company. Both Eberhard and Musk considered themselves to be the main founder of Tesla. In Eberhard’s mind, he had come up with the idea, enlisted his friend Tarpenning, registered a company, chosen a name, and gone out and found funders.“Elon called himself the chief architect and all kinds of things, but he wasn’t,” Eberhard says.“He was just a board member and investor.” But in Musk’s mind, he was the one who put Eberhard together with Straubel and provided the funding needed to start the company.“When I met Eberhard and Wright and Tarpenning, they had no intellectual property, no employees, nothing. All they had was a shell corporation.”
- Alas, they were too much alike for the buddy movie to last. Both were hard-driving, high-strung, detail-oriented engineers who could be brutally dismissive of those they considered fools. The problems began when Eberhard had a falling-out with Ian Wright, who had been part of the founding team. Their disagreements became so intense that each tried to convince Musk to fire the other. It was a tacit acknowledgment by Eberhard that Musk had the ultimate say.“Martin and Ian were telling me why the other one is a demon and needs to be thrown out,” Musk says.“They are saying, ‘Elon, you must make a choice.’ ”
- At one of the review meetings, Musk’s face darkened, his stare turned cold, and he declared that the car looked cheap and ugly.“We couldn’t have a crappy-looking car and sell it for around a hundred thousand dollars,” he later said. Although his expertise was computer software, not industrial design, he began putting a lot of time into the aesthetics of the Roadster.“I had never designed a car before, so I was studying every great car and trying to understand what made it special,” he says.“I agonized over all the details. He would later proudly note that he was honored by the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena for his work on the Roadster.
- Over the years, Musk was able to use techniques learned at SpaceX and apply them to Tesla, and vice versa.
- No detail was too small to escape Musk’s meddling. The Roadster originally had ordinary door handles, the kind that click open a latch. Musk insisted on electric handles that would operate with a simple touch.“Somebody who’s buying a Tesla Roadster will buy it whether it has ordinary door latches or electric ones,” Eberhard argued.“It’s not going to add a single unit to our sales.” It was an argument he had made about most of Musk’s design changes. Musk prevailed, and electric door handles became a cool feature that helped define the magic of Tesla.
- First he approached Sequoia Capital, which had become king of the valley by being early backers of Atari, Apple, and Google. It was run by Michael Moritz, the wry and literate Welsh-born former journalist who had helped guide Musk and Thiel on the tumultuous ride of PayPal. Musk took him for a drive in a mocked-up Lotus prototype.“It was an absolutely bone-jarring ride with Elon at the wheel in this tiny car with no suspension that went from zero to sixty in less time than it takes to blink,” Moritz says.“How much more terrifying can that be?” After Moritz recovered, he called Musk and said he wasn’t going to invest.“I really admired that ride, but we’re not going to compete against Toyota,” he said.“It’s mission impossible.” Years later Moritz conceded,“I didn’t appreciate the strength of Elon’s determination.”
- Musk personally took over planning the event. He oversaw the guest list, chose the menu, and even approved the cost and design of the napkins. A smattering of celebrities showed up, including California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was taken on a test drive by Straubel.
- The event got glowing coverage.“This is not your father’s electric car,” the Washington Post raved.“The $100,000 vehicle, with its sports car looks, is more Ferrari than Prius—and more about testosterone than granola.” There was, however, one problem. Eberhard got almost all the credit.
- Musk also propelled himself toward celebrity by giving a tour of the SpaceX factory to the actor Robert Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau, who were making the superhero movie Iron Man. Musk became a model for the title character Tony Stark, a celebrity industrialist and engineer who is able to transform himself into an iron man with a mechanized suit of armor he designed.“My mind is not easily blown, but this place and this guy were amazing,” Downey later said.
- The prototype of the Roadster unveiled in 2006 accomplished the first step Musk had outlined: shattering the illusion that electric cars were destined to be boxy versions of a golf cart. Governor Schwarzenegger plunked down a $100,000 deposit for one, as did the actor George Clooney. Musk’s neighbor in Los Angeles, Joe Francis, who produced the Girls Gone Wild television series, sent an armored truck with his $100,000 deposit in cash. Steve Jobs, who loved cars, showed a picture of a Roadster to one of his board members, Mickey Drexler, then the CEO of J.Crew.“Creating engineering this good is the beautiful part,” Jobs said.
Chapter 22: Kwaj: SpaceX, 2005–2006
- Years later, Musk would admit that moving to Kwaj was a mistake. He should have waited for Vandenberg to become available. But that would have required patience, a virtue that he lacked.“I did not realize what a shitshow it would be dealing with the logistics and the salt air,” he says of Kwaj.“Every now and then you shoot yourself in the foot. If you had to pick a path that reduced the probability of success, it would be to launch from an inaccessible tropical island.” Then he laughs. Now that the scars have healed, he realizes that Kwaj was a memorable adventure. As his chief launch engineer Koenigsmann explains,“Those four years on Kwaj forged us, bonded us, and taught us to work as a team.”
- After a few months, some of the crew decided it was easier to sleep on Omelek rather than make the trip across the lagoon each morning and night. They outfitted the trailer with mattresses, a small refrigerator, and a grill on which a jovial goateed SpaceX engineer from Turkey named Bülent Altan perfected a way to cook ground-beef-and-yogurt goulash. The atmosphere was a cross between Gilligan’s Island and Survivor, but with a rocket pad. Each time a newbie stayed overnight, they were awarded a T-shirt imprinted with the mantra“Outsweat, Outdrink, Outlaunch.”
Chapter 23: Two Strikes: Kwaj, 2006–2007
- Hollman told Mueller he would stay at the company only if he never had to deal directly with Musk. He left SpaceX a year later. Musk says he doesn’t remember the event, but he adds that Hollman was not a great engineer. Mueller disagrees:“We lost a good guy.” As it turned out, Hollman was not at fault. When the fuel line was found, part of the B-nut was still attached, but it was corroded and had cracked in half. The sea air of Kwaj was to blame.
- Nevertheless, he did not try to eliminate all possible risks. That would make SpaceX rockets as costly and late as those built by the government’s bloated cost-plus contractors. So he demanded a chart showing every component, the cost of its raw materials, the cost that SpaceX was paying suppliers for it, and the name of the engineer responsible for getting that cost down. At meetings he would sometimes show that he knew these numbers better than the engineers doing the presentation, which was not a pleasant experience. Review meetings could be brutal. But costs came down. All of this meant taking calculated risks. For example, Musk had been the one who approved the use of cheap and light aluminum for the B-nut that corroded and doomed the first Falcon 1 flight.
Chapter 25: Taking the Wheel: Tesla, 2007–2008
- There are certain people who occupy a demon’s corner of Musk’s headspace. They trigger him, turn him dark, and rouse a cold anger. His father is number one. But somewhat oddly, Martin Eberhard, who is hardly a household name, is second.“Getting involved with Eberhard was the worst mistake I ever made in my career,” Musk says.
- During their debates over Marks’s proposal to outsource assembly of the Tesla, Musk became increasingly angry, and he had no natural filter to restrain his responses.“That’s just the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said at a couple of meetings. That was a line that Steve Jobs used often. So did Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. Their brutal honesty could be unnerving, even offensive. It could constrict rather than encourage honest dialogue. But it was also effective, at times, in creating what Jobs called a team of A players who didn’t want to be around fuzzy thinkers.
- Marks concedes that Musk turned out to be right about the benefits of controlling all aspects of the manufacturing process. In a more conflicted way, he also wrestles with the core question about Musk: whether his bad behavior can be separated from the all-in drive that made him successful.“I’ve come to put him in the same category as Steve Jobs, which is that some people are just assholes, but they accomplish so much that I just have to sit back and say, ‘That seems to be a package.’ ” Does that, I ask, excuse Musk’s behavior?“Maybe if the price the world pays for this kind of accomplishment is a real asshole doing it, well, it’s probably a price worth paying. That’s how I’ve come to think about it, anyway.” Then, after a pause, he adds,“But I wouldn’t want to be that way.”
Chapter 28: Strike Three: Kwaj, August 3, 2008
- Musk had run out of money, Tesla was hemorrhaging cash, and SpaceX had crashed three rockets in a row. But he was not ready to give up. Instead, he would go for broke, literally.“SpaceX will not skip a beat in execution going forward,” he announced a few hours after the failure.“There should be absolutely zero question that SpaceX will prevail in reaching orbit. I will never give up, and I mean never.”
Chapter 29: On the Brink: Tesla and SpaceX, 2008
- As the situation got more desperate in the fall of 2008, Musk pleaded for money from friends and family to meet Tesla’s payroll. Kimbal had lost most of his money in the recession and, like his brother, was close to bankruptcy. He had been clinging to $375,000 in Apple stock, which he said he needed to cover loans he had taken from his bank.“I need you to put it into Tesla,” Elon said. Kimbal, ever supportive, sold the stock and did as Elon asked. He got an angry call from his banker at Colorado Capital warning that he was destroying his credit.“Sorry, but I have to do it,” Kimbal replied. When the banker called again a few weeks later, Kimbal braced for an argument. But the banker cut him short with the news that Colorado Capital itself had just gone under.“That’s how bad 2008 was,” Kimbal says.
- Talulah watched in horror as, night after night, Musk had mumbling conversations with himself, sometimes flailing his arms and screaming.“I kept thinking he was going to have a heart attack,” she says.“He was having night terrors and just screaming in his sleep and clawing at me. It was horrendous. I was really scared, and he was just desperate.” Sometimes he would go to the bathroom and start vomiting.“It would go to his gut, and he would be screaming and retching,” she says.“I would stand by the toilet and hold his head.” Musk’s tolerance for stress is high, but 2008 almost pushed him past his limits.“I was working every day, all day and night, in a situation that required me to pull a rabbit out of the hat, now do it again, now do it again,” he says. He gained a lot of weight, and then suddenly lost it all and more. His posture became hunched, and his toes stayed stiff when he walked. But he became energized and hyperfocused. The threat of the hangman’s noose concentrated his mind.
- There was one decision that everyone around Musk thought he would have to make. As 2008 careened toward a close, it seemed that he would have to choose between SpaceX and Tesla. If he focused his dwindling resources on one, he could be pretty sure it would survive. If he tried to split his resources, neither might. One day his high-spirited soulmate Mark Juncosa walked into his cubicle at SpaceX.“Dude, why don’t you fucking just give up on one of these two things?” he asked.“If SpaceX speaks to your heart, throw Tesla away.”“No,” Musk said,“that would be another notch in the signpost of ‘Electric cars don’t work,’ and we’d never get to sustainable energy.” Nor could he abandon SpaceX.“We might then never be a multiplanetary species.” The more people pressed him to choose, the more he resisted.“For me emotionally, this was like, you got two kids and you’re running out of food,” he says.“You can give half to each kid, in which case they might both die, or give all the food to one kid and increase the chance that at least one kid survives. I couldn’t bring myself to decide that one was going to die, so I decided I had to give my all to save both.”
Chapter 30: The Fourth Launch: Kwaj, August–September 2008
- Musk had budgeted for three launch attempts of the Falcon 1, and all had exploded before they could get to orbit. Facing personal bankruptcy and with Tesla in a financial crisis, it was hard to see how he was going to raise money for a fourth attempt. Then a surprising group came to the rescue: his fellow cofounders of PayPal, who had ejected him from the role of CEO eight years earlier. Musk had taken his ouster with unusual calm, and he stayed friendly with the coup leaders, including Peter Thiel and Max Levchin. The old PayPal mafia, as they called themselves, were a tight-knit crowd.
- “It was an interesting exercise in karma,” Musk says.“After I got assassinated by the PayPal coup leaders, like Caesar being stabbed in the Senate, I could have said ‘You guys, you suck.’ But I didn’t. If I’d done that, Founders Fund wouldn’t have come through in 2008 and SpaceX would be dead. I’m not into astrology or shit like that. But karma may be real.”
- Musk’s decision to reverse his orders about quality controls taught Buzza two things: Musk could pivot when situations changed, and he was willing to take more risk that anyone.“This is something that we had to learn, which was that Elon would make a statement, but then time would go on and he would realize, ‘Oh no, actually we can do it this other way,’ ” Buzza says.
- Falcon 1 had made history as the first privately built rocket to launch from the ground and reach orbit. Musk and his small crew of just five hundred employees(Boeing’s comparable division had fifty thousand) had designed the system from the ground up and done all the construction on its own. Little had been outsourced. And the funding had also been private, largely out of Musk’s pocket. SpaceX had contracts to perform missions for NASA and other clients, but they would get paid only if and when they succeeded. There were no subsidies or cost-plus contracts.
Chapter 32: The Model S: Tesla, 2009
- “Yes, let’s do it,” he said, hiring von Holzhausen on the spot. They would end up becoming a team, like Steve Jobs and Jony Ive, one of the few calming and nondramatic relationships Musk would have, professionally and personally.
- The person he put in charge of the battery was a recent Stanford graduate named Drew Baglino. More personable than the average engineer, with an easy laugh, Baglino would rise to the top ranks of Tesla over the years, but his career almost ended at his first meeting with Musk.“How many battery cells do we need to get to our range target?” Musk asked him. Baglino and the rest of the powertrain team had been analyzing that question for weeks.“We had run dozens of models, looking at how good the aerodynamics could be, how efficient we could get the drivetrain, and how energy dense we could make each of the cells,” he says. And the answer they came up with was that the battery pack would need about 8,400 cells.“No,” Musk replied.“Do it with 7,200 cells.” Baglino thought that was impossible, but he caught himself before blurting that out. He had heard the tales of Musk’s anger when challenged. Nevertheless, he found himself several times after that on the receiving end of Musk’s blowtorch.“He was really harsh,” Baglino recalls.“He likes to challenge the messenger, which isn’t always the best approach. He began attacking me.” Baglino told his boss, Tesla’s cofounder JB Straubel, how shaken he was:“I never want to be in another meeting with Elon.” Straubel, who had been through many such sessions, surprised him by declaring it had been a“great” meeting.“That’s the kind of feedback we need,” Straubel said.“You just have to learn how to deal with his demands. Figure out what his goal is, and keep giving him information. That’s how he gets the best outcomes.” In the case of the battery cells, Baglino ended up being surprised.“The crazy thing about his 7,200 target was we indeed ended up with 7,200 cells,” he says.“It was a gut calculus, but he nailed it.”
- It was an example of Musk’s policy that the designers sketching the shape of the car should work hand in glove with the engineers who were determining how the car would be built.“At other places I worked,” von Holzhausen says,“there was this throw-it-over-the-fence mentality, where a designer would have an idea and then send it to an engineer, who sat in a different building or in a different country.” Musk put the engineers and designers in the same room.“The vision was that we would create designers who thought like engineers and engineers who thought like designers,” von Holzhausen says. This followed the principle that Steve Jobs and Jony Ive had instilled at Apple: design is not just about aesthetics; true industrial design must connect the looks of a product to its engineering.“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer,” Jobs once explained.“Nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers.”
- There was another principle that came out of Apple’s design studio. When Jony Ive conceived the candy-colored, friendly iMac in 1998, he included a recessed handle. It was not very functional, because the iMac was a desktop computer that was not meant to be carried around. But it sent a signal of friendliness.“If there’s this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible,” Ive explained.“It’s approachable. It gives you permission to touch.” Likewise, von Holzhausen sketched a way to do door handles that were flush to the car and popped out and lit up like a happy handshake when the driver approached with a key. It did not add any great functionality. A regular extruding door handle would work just as well. But Musk immediately embraced the idea. It would send a chirpy signal of friendliness.“The handle senses your approach, lights up, pops out to greet you, and it’s magical,” he says. The engineers and production teams fought the idea. There was little space inside the door for the mechanisms, which would have to work thousands of times in various weather conditions. One of the engineers flung back at Musk one of his favorite words:“stupid.” But Musk persisted.“Stop fighting me on this,” he ordered. It ended up being a signature feature of the cars, one that sealed an emotional bond with the owner.
Chapter 33: Private Space: SpaceX, 2009–2010
- Decades of cost-plus contracts had made aerospace flabby. A valve in a rocket would cost thirty times more than a similar valve in a car, so Musk constantly pressed his team to source components from non-aerospace companies. The latches used by NASA in the Space Station cost $1,500 each. A SpaceX engineer was able to modify a latch used in a bathroom stall and create a locking mechanism that cost $30. When an engineer came to Musk’s cubicle and told him that the air-cooling system for the payload bay of the Falcon 9 would cost more than $3 million, he shouted over to Gwynne Shotwell in her adjacent cubicle to ask what an air-conditioning system for a house cost. About $6,000, she said. So the SpaceX team bought some commercial air-conditioning units and modified their pumps so they could work atop the rocket.
Chapter 34: Falcon 9 Liftoff: Cape Canaveral, 2010
- The rocket was able, as Musk predicted, to lift the Dragon capsule into orbit. It then performed its assigned maneuvers and fired its braking rockets so that it would return to Earth, parachuting gently down to the water just off the coast of California. As awesome as it was, Musk had a sobering realization. The Mercury program had accomplished similar feats fifty years earlier, before either he or Obama had been born. America was just catching up with its older self.
Chapter 36: Manufacturing: Tesla, 2010–2013
- By sending their factories abroad, American companies saved labor costs, but they lost the daily feel for ways to improve their products. Musk bucked this trend, largely because he wanted to have tight control of the manufacturing process. He believed that designing the factory to build a car—“the machine that builds the machine”—was as important as designing the car itself. Tesla’s design-manufacturing feedback loop gave it a competitive advantage, allowing it to innovate on a daily basis.
- When redesigning the factory, Musk put the cubicles for the engineers right on the edge of the assembly lines, so they would see the flashing lights and hear the complaints whenever one of their design elements caused a slowdown. Musk often corralled the engineers to walk up and down the lines with him. His own open desk was in the middle of it all, with no walls around him, and it had a pillow underneath so he could spend the night when he wanted.
- Von Holzhausen and his deputy Dave Morris, who accompanied him to Fremont, would sometimes walk the factory’s assembly lines until two in the morning. It was an interesting experience for a designer.“It taught me how all the things you create on the drawing board have an effect at the other end, on the assembly line,” von Holzhausen says. Musk joined them two or three nights a week. His focus was on root causes. What in the design was to blame for a production-line problem?
- The idea that Musk proposed in 2013 was audacious: build a gigantic battery factory in the U.S., with an output greater than all other battery factories in the world combined.“It was a completely wacky idea,” says JB Straubel, the battery wiz who was one of Tesla’s cofounders.“It seemed like science fiction crazy.” To Musk, it was a matter of first principles. The Model S was using about 10 percent of the world’s batteries. The new models that Tesla had on the drawing board—an SUV called the Model X and a mass-market sedan that would become the Model 3—would require ten times the number of batteries.“What began as a showstopper problem,” Straubel says,“became a really fun blue-sky wacky brainstorming opportunity to say, ‘Wow, this is actually a chance to do something unique.’ ”
Chapter 37: Musk and Bezos: SpaceX, 2013–2014
- Both Musk and Bezos had a vision for what would make space travel feasible: rockets that were reusable. Bezos’s focus was on creating the sensors and software to guide a rocket to a soft landing on Earth. But that was only part of the challenge. The greater difficulty was to put all of those features on a rocket that was still light enough, and whose engines had enough thrust, to make it into orbit. Musk focused obsessively on this physics problem. He liked to muse, half-jokingly, that we Earthlings live in a gamelike simulation created by clever overlords with a sense of humor. They made gravity on Mars and the moon weak enough that launching into orbit would be easy. But on Earth, the gravity seems perversely calibrated to make reaching orbit just barely possible.
- At almost every encounter, he maniacally hammered home the message:“A fully reusable rocket is the difference between being a single-planet civilization and being a multiplanet one.”
Chapter 38: The Falcon Hears the Falconer: SpaceX, 2014–2015
- “Elon kept hammering at us to eke out a tiny percent more efficiency by chilling down the fuel more and more,” says Mark Juncosa.“It was ingenious, but it was giving us a real pain in the ass.” A few times Juncosa pushed back, saying it would present challenges with valves and leaks, but Musk was unrelenting.“There is no first-principles reason this can’t work,” he said.“It’s extraordinarily difficult, I know, but you just have to muscle through.”
Chapter 40: Artificial Intelligence: OpenAI, 2012–2015
- In his modern London office is an original edition of Alan Turing’s seminal 1950 paper,“Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” which proposed an“imitation game” that would pit a human against a ChatGPT–like machine. If the responses of the two were indistinguishable, he wrote, then it would be reasonable to say that machines could“think.”
- A few weeks after his conversations with Hassabis, Musk described DeepMind to Google’s Larry Page. They had known each other for more than a decade, and Musk often stayed at Page’s Palo Alto house. The potential dangers of artificial intelligence became a topic that Musk would raise, almost obsessively, during their late-night conversations. Page was dismissive.
- Human consciousness, Musk retorted, was a precious flicker of light in the universe, and we should not let it be extinguished. Page considered that sentimental nonsense. If consciousness could be replicated in a machine, why would that not be just as valuable? Perhaps we might even be able someday to upload our own consciousness into a machine. He accused Musk of being a“specist,” someone who was biased in favor of their own species.“Well, yes, I am pro-human,” Musk responded.“I fucking like humanity, dude.” Musk was therefore dismayed when he heard at the end of 2013 that Page and Google were planning to buy DeepMind. Musk and his friend Luke Nosek tried to put together financing to stop the deal.
- At a small dinner in Palo Alto, Altman and Musk decided to cofound a nonprofit artificial intelligence research lab, which they named OpenAI. It would make its software open-source and try to counter Google’s growing dominance of the field. Thiel and Hoffman joined Musk in putting up the money.“We wanted to have something like a Linux version of AI that was not controlled by any one person or corporation,” Musk says.“The goal was to increase the probability that AI would develop in a safe way that would be beneficial to humanity.” One question they discussed at dinner was what would be safer: a small number of AI systems that were controlled by big corporations or a large number of independent systems? They concluded that a large number of competing systems, providing checks and balances on each other, was better. Just as humans work collectively to stop evil actors, so too would a large collection of independent AI bots work to stop bad bots. For Musk, this was the reason to make OpenAI truly open, so that lots of people could build systems based on its source code.“I think the best defense against the misuse of AI is to empower as many people as possible to have AI,” he told Wired’s Steven Levy at the time.
- One goal that Musk and Altman discussed at length, which would become a hot topic in 2023 after OpenAI launched a chatbot called ChatGPT, was known as“AI alignment.” It aims to make sure that AI systems are aligned with human goals and values, just as Isaac Asimov set forth rules to prevent the robots in his novels from harming humanity. Think of the computer Hal that runs amok and battles its human creators in 2001: A Space Odyssey. What guardrails and kill switches can we humans put on AI systems so that they remain aligned with our interests, and who among us should get to determine what those interests are? One way to assure AI alignment, Musk felt, was to tie the bots closely to humans. They should be an extension of the will of individuals, rather than systems that could go rogue and develop their own goals and intentions. That would become one of the rationales for Neuralink, the company he would found to create chips that could connect human brains directly to computers.
- Musk’s determination to develop artificial intelligence capabilities at his own companies caused a break with OpenAI in 2018. He tried to convince Altman that OpenAI, which he thought was falling behind Google, should be folded into Tesla. The OpenAI team rejected that idea, and Altman stepped in as president of the lab, starting a for-profit arm that was able to raise equity funding. So Musk decided to forge ahead with building a rival AI team to work on Tesla Autopilot. Even as he was struggling with the production hell surges in Nevada and Fremont, he recruited Andrej Karpathy, a specialist in deep learning and computer vision, away from OpenAI.“We realized that Tesla was going to become an AI company and would be competing for the same talent as OpenAI,” Altman says.“It pissed some of our team off, but I fully understood what was happening.” Altman would turn the tables in 2023 by hiring Karpathy back after he became exhausted working for Musk.
Chapter 41: The Launch of Autopilot: Tesla, 2014–2016
- Google’s autopilot program, eventually named Waymo, used a laser-radar device known as LiDAR, an acronym for“light detection and ranging.” Musk resisted the use of LiDAR and other radar-like instruments, insisting that a self-driving system should use only visual data from cameras. It was a case of first principles: humans drove using only visual data; therefore machines should be able to. It was also an issue of cost. As always, Musk focused not just on the design of a product but also on how it would be manufactured in large numbers.“The problem with Google’s approach is that the sensor system is too expensive,” he said in 2013.“It’s better to have an optical system, basically cameras with software that is able to figure out what’s going on just by looking at things.”
- This sometimes led the Tesla team to do some Keystone Kops scrambling. There was a curve on Interstate 405 that always caused Musk trouble because the lane markings were faded. The Autopilot would swerve out of the lane and almost hit oncoming cars. Musk would come into the office furious.“Do something to program this right,” he kept demanding. This went on for months as the team tried to improve the Autopilot software. In desperation, Sam Teller and others came up with a simpler solution: ask the transportation department to repaint the lanes of that section of the highway. When they got no response, they came up with a more audacious plan. They decided to rent a line-painting machine of their own, go out at 3 a.m., shut the highway down for an hour, and redo the lanes. They had gone as far as tracking down a line-painting machine when someone finally got through to a person at the transportation department who was a Musk fan. He agreed to have the lines repainted if he and a few others at the department could get a tour of SpaceX. Teller gave them a tour, they posed for a picture, and the highway lines got repainted. After that, Musk’s Autopilot handled the curve well.
- On an earnings call with analysts that year, Musk admitted that the process had been harder than he expected back in 2016.“Ultimately, what it comes down to,” he said,“is that to solve Full Self-Driving, you actually have to solve real-world artificial intelligence.”
Chapter 42: Solar: Tesla Energy, 2004–2016
- Musk’s three Rive cousins—Lyndon, Peter, and Russ—were the sons of Maye Musk’s twin sister, and they had grown up with Elon and Kimbal, riding bikes and fighting and plotting ways to make money. Like Elon, they headed to America to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams as soon as they could leave South Africa. The whole clan, Peter says, followed the same maxim:“Risk is a type of fuel.”
- His instincts had always been just the opposite. He never put much effort into sales and marketing, and instead believed that if you made a great product, the sales would follow. Musk began hounding his cousins.“Are you a sales company or a product company?” he kept asking.
- After opening its Nevada battery factory, Tesla had begun making a refrigerator-size battery for the home, called the Powerwall. It could be connected to solar panels, such as those installed by SolarCity. The concept helped Musk avoid the mistake made by many corporate leaders of defining their business too narrowly.“Tesla is not just an automotive company,” he said when the Powerwall was announced in April 2015.“It’s an energy innovation company.”
- When Musk announced the deal in June 2016, he called it a“no-brainer” that was“legally and morally correct.” The acquisition fit with his original“master plan” for Tesla, which he had written in 2006:“The overarching purpose of Tesla Motors is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy.”
Chapter 45: Descent into the Dark: 2017
- Professionally and emotionally, the summer of 2017 through the fall of 2018 would be the most hellacious period of his life, even worse than the crises of 2008.“That was the time of most concentrated pain I’ve ever had,” he says.“Eighteen months of unrelenting insanity. It was mind-bogglingly painful.”
- After much frustration, Musk finally asked a basic question:“What the hell are these strips for?” He was trying to visualize why fiberglass pieces were needed between the battery and the floor pan. The engineering team told him that it had been specified by the noise reduction team to cut down on vibration. So he called the noise reduction team, which told him that the specification came from the engineering team to reduce the risk of fire.“It was like being in a Dilbert cartoon,” Musk says. So he ordered them to record the sound inside a car without the fiberglass and then with the fiberglass.“See if you can tell the difference,” he told them. They couldn’t.“Step one should be to question the requirements,” he says.“Make them less wrong and dumb, because all requirements are somewhat wrong and dumb. And then delete, delete, delete.”
- Although there was an esprit de corps among Musk’s posse, he could be cold and rough on others. At 10 p.m. one Saturday, he became angry about a robotic arm that installed a cooling tube into a battery. The robot’s alignment was off, which was holding up the process. A young manufacturing engineer named Gage Coffin was summoned. He was excited about the chance to meet Musk. He had been working for Tesla for two years and had spent the previous eleven months living out of a suitcase and working seven days a week at the factory. It was his first full-time job, and he loved it. When he arrived, Musk barked,“Hey, this doesn’t line up. Did you do this?” Coffin responded haltingly by asking Musk what he was referring to. The coding? The design? The tooling? Musk kept asking,“Did you fucking do this?” Coffin, flummoxed and frightened, kept fumbling to figure out the question. That made Musk even more combative.“You’re an idiot,” he said.“Get the hell out and don’t come back.” His project manager pulled him aside a few minutes later and told him that Musk had ordered him fired. He received his termination papers that Monday.“My manager was fired a week after me, and his manager the week after that,” Coffin says.“At least Elon knew their names.”
- “By trying to be nice to the people,” Musk says,“you’re actually not being nice to the dozens of other people who are doing their jobs well and will get hurt if I don’t fix the problem spots.”
- The experience became a lesson that would become part of Musk’s production algorithm. Always wait until the end of designing a process—after you have questioned all the requirements and deleted unnecessary parts—before you introduce automation.
Chapter 46: Fremont Factory Hell: Tesla, 2018
- Around that time, Musk made the opposite bet. The Tesla board granted him the boldest pay package in American history, one that would pay him nothing if the stock price did not rise dramatically but that had the potential to pay out $100 billion or more if the company achieved an extraordinarily aggressive set of targets, including a leap in the production numbers, revenue, and stock price. There was widespread skepticism that he could reach the targets.“Mr. Musk will be paid only if he reaches a series of jaw-dropping milestones based on the company’s market value and operations,” Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in the New York Times.“Otherwise, he will be paid nothing.” The payout would top out, Sorkin wrote, only“if Mr. Musk were somehow to increase the value of Tesla to $650 billion—a figure many experts would contend is laughably impossible.”
- Musk calculated that on a good day he made a hundred command decisions as he walked the floor.“At least twenty percent are going to be wrong, and we’re going to alter them later,” he said.“But if I don’t make decisions, we die.”
- The algorithm At any given production meeting, whether at Tesla or SpaceX, there is a nontrivial chance that Musk will intone, like a mantra, what he calls“the algorithm.” It was shaped by the lessons he learned during the production hell surges at the Nevada and Fremont factories. His executives sometimes move their lips and mouth the words, like they would chant the liturgy along with their priest.“I became a broken record on the algorithm,” Musk says.“But I think it’s helpful to say it to an annoying degree.” It had five commandments:
- Question every requirement. Each should come with the name of the person who made it. You should never accept that a requirement came from a department, such as from“the legal department” or“the safety department.” You need to know the name of the real person who made that requirement. Then you should question it, no matter how smart that person is. Requirements from smart people are the most dangerous, because people are less likely to question them. Always do so, even if the requirement came from me. Then make the requirements less dumb.
- Delete any part or process you can. You may have to add them back later. In fact, if you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you didn’t delete enough.
- Simplify and optimize. This should come after step two. A common mistake is to simplify and optimize a part or a process that should not exist.
- Accelerate cycle time. Every process can be speeded up. But only do this after you have followed the first three steps. In the Tesla factory, I mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that I later realized should have been deleted.
- Automate. That comes last. The big mistake in Nevada and at Fremont was that I began by trying to automate every step. We should have waited until all the requirements had been questioned, parts and processes deleted, and the bugs were shaken out.
- The algorithm was sometimes accompanied by a few corollaries, among them:
- All technical managers must have hands-on experience. For example, managers of software teams must spend at least 20% of their time coding. Solar roof managers must spend time on the roofs doing installations. Otherwise, they are like a cavalry leader who can’t ride a horse or a general who can’t use a sword.
- Comradery is dangerous. It makes it hard for people to challenge each other’s work. There is a tendency to not want to throw a colleague under the bus. That needs to be avoided.
- It’s OK to be wrong. Just don’t be confident and wrong.
- Never ask your troops to do something you’re not willing to do.
- Whenever there are problems to solve, don’t just meet with your managers. Do a skip level, where you meet with the level right below your managers.
- When hiring, look for people with the right attitude. Skills can be taught. Attitude changes require a brain transplant.
- A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle.
- The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.
Chapter 51: Cybertruck: Tesla, 2018–2019
- That led Musk to shift his focus to something more basic: What material should they use to build the truck’s body? By rethinking the materials and even the physics of the vehicle’s structure, it could open up the possibility of wildly new designs.“Originally we were thinking aluminum,” von Holzhausen says.“We also kicked around titanium, because durability was really important.” But around that time, Musk became enthralled by the possibility of making a rocket ship out of glistening stainless steel. That might also work for a pickup truck, he realized. A stainless steel body would not need painting and could bear some of the vehicle’s structural load. It was a truly out-of-the-box idea, a way to rethink what a vehicle could be. One Friday afternoon, after a few weeks of discussion, Musk came in and simply announced,“We are going to do this whole thing in stainless steel.” Charles Kuehmann was the VP for materials engineering at both Tesla and SpaceX. One of the advantages that Musk had was that his companies could share engineering knowledge. Kuehmann developed an ultra-hard stainless steel alloy that was“cold rolled” rather than requiring heat treatments, which Tesla patented. It was strong enough and cheap enough to use for both trucks and rockets.
- His son Saxon, who is autistic, had recently asked an offbeat question that resonated:“Why doesn’t the future look like the future?” Musk would quote Saxon’s question repeatedly. As he said to the design team that Friday,“I want the future to look like the future.”
- When the design of the truck was finished in August 2019, Musk told the team he wanted to reveal a working prototype publicly that November—in three months rather than the nine months it normally takes to make a running prototype.“We won’t be able to have one that we can actually drive by then,” von Holzhausen said. Musk replied,“Yes, we will.” His unrealistic deadlines usually do not pan out, but in some cases they do.“It forced the team to come together, work twenty-four-seven, and rally around that date,” von Holzhausen says. On November 21, 2019, the truck was driven onto a stage in the design studio for a presentation to the press and invited guests.
Chapter 52: Starlink: SpaceX, 2015–2018
- When Musk launched SpaceX back in 2002, he conceived it as an endeavor to get humanity to Mars. Every week, amid all the technical meetings on engine and rocket design, he held one very otherworldly meeting called“Mars Colonizer.” There he imagined what a Mars colony would look like and how it should be governed.“We tried to avoid ever skipping Mars Colonizer, because that was the most fun meeting for him and always put him in a good mood,”
- In late 2014, he turned his attention to what was a much bigger pot of gold: providing internet service to paying customers. SpaceX would make and launch its own communications satellites, in effect rebuilding the internet in outer space.“Internet revenue is about one trillion dollars a year,” he says.“If we can serve three percent, that’s $30 billion, which is more than NASA’s budget. That was the inspiration for Starlink, to fund getting to Mars.” He pauses, then adds for emphasis,“The lens of getting to Mars has motivated every SpaceX decision.”
- To pursue this mission, Musk announced in January 2015 the creation of a new division of SpaceX, based near Seattle, called Starlink. The plan was to send satellites into low-Earth orbit, about 340 miles high, so that the latency of the signals would not be as bad as systems that depended on geosynchronous satellites, which orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth. From their low altitude, Starlink’s beams cannot cover nearly as much ground, so many more are needed. Starlink’s goal was to eventually create a megaconstellation of forty thousand satellites.
- In the midst of the hellacious summer of 2018, Musk was having a Spidey sense that something was amiss at Starlink. Its satellites were too big, expensive, and difficult to manufacture. In order to reach a profitable scale, they would have to be made at one-tenth the cost and ten times faster. But the Starlink team did not seem to feel much urgency, a cardinal sin for Musk. So one Sunday night that June, without much warning, he flew to Seattle to fire the entire top Starlink team. He brought with him eight of his most senior SpaceX rocket engineers. None knew much about satellites, but they all knew how to solve engineering problems and apply Musk’s algorithm.
- The engineers had decreed that they be thermally isolated from one another. Juncosa kept asking why. When told that the antennas might overheat, Juncosa asked to see the test data.“By the time that I asked ‘Why?’ five times,” Juncosa says,“people were like, ‘Shit, maybe we should just make this one integrated component.’ ” By the end of the design process, Juncosa had turned a rat’s nest into what was now a simple flat satellite. It had the potential to be an order of magnitude cheaper. More than twice as many could be packed into the nose cone of a Falcon 9, doubling the number each flight could deploy.
- But Musk was still picking over each detail. When they were launched on a Falcon 9, there were connections holding each satellite down so that they could be released one at a time and not bump into each other.“Why not release them all at once?” he asked. That initially struck Juncosa and the other engineers as crazy. They were afraid of collisions. But Musk said the motion of the spaceship would cause them to separate naturally. If they did happen to bump, it would be very slow and harmless. So they got rid of the connectors, saving a little bit of cost, complexity, and mass.“Life got way easier because we culled those parts,” Juncosa says.“I was too chicken to propose that, but Elon made us try it.”
Chapter 53: Starship: SpaceX, 2018–2019
- But his goal was not merely to be a space entrepreneur. It was to get humanity to Mars. And that could not be done on a Falcon 9 or its beefed-up sibling, the Falcon Heavy. Falcons can fly only so high.“I could have made a lot of money, but I could not have made life multiplanetary,” he says.
- One question was how thick the Starship’s walls should be. Musk talked to some of the workers—those actually doing the welding rather than the company’s executives—and asked what they thought was safe.“One of Elon’s rules is ‘Go as close to the source as possible for information,’ ”
- On one visit in late 2019, he became frustrated at the slow pace. The crew had still not made even one dome that would fit perfectly on Starship. Standing in front of one of the tents, he issued a challenge: build a dome by dawn. That was not feasible, he was told, because they didn’t have the equipment to calibrate the precise size.“We are going to make a dome by dawn if it fucking kills us,” he insisted. Slice off the end of the rocket barrel, he ordered, and use that as your fitting tool. They did so, and he stayed up with the team of four engineers and welders until the dome was finished.“We didn’t actually have a dome by dawn,” admits one of the team, Jim Vo.“It took us until about nine a.m.”
Chapter 55: Giga Texas: Tesla, 2020–2021
- One day in late 2018, Musk was sitting at his desk at Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto playing with a small toy version of the Model S. It looked like a miniaturized copy of the real car, and when he took it apart he saw that it even had a suspension inside. But the entire underbody of the car had been die cast as one piece of metal. At a meeting of his team that day, Musk pulled out the toy and put it on the white conference room table.“Why can’t we do that?” he asked. One of the engineers pointed out the obvious, that an actual car underbody is much bigger. There were no casting machines to handle something that size. That answer didn’t satisfy Musk.“Go figure out how to do it,” he said.“Ask for a bigger casting machine. It’s not as if that would break the laws of physics.” Both he and his executives called the six major casting companies, five of whom dismissed the concept. But a company called Idra Presse in Italy, which specialized in high-pressure die-casting machines, agreed to take on the challenge of building very large machines that would be able to churn out the entire rear and front underbodies for the Model Y.“We did the world’s largest casting machine,” Afshar says.“It’s a six-thousand-ton one for the Model Y, and we will also use a nine-thousand-ton one for Cybertruck.” The machines inject bursts of molten aluminum into a cold casting mold, which can spit out in just eighty seconds an entire chassis that used to contain more than a hundred parts that had to be welded, riveted, or bonded together. The old process produced gaps, rattles, and leaks.“So it went from a horrible nightmare to something that is crazy cheap and easy and fast,” Musk says. The process reinforced Musk’s appreciation for the toy industry.“They have to produce things very quickly and cheaply without flaws, and manufacture them all by Christmas, or there will be sad faces.” He repeatedly pushed his teams to get ideas from toys, such as robots and Legos.
Chapter 57: Full Throttle: SpaceX, 2020
- Beginning with the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the United States experienced a lapse in ability, will, and imagination that was astonishing for a nation that, two generations earlier, had made nine missions to the moon. For almost a decade after the last Shuttle mission, the nation had not been able to send humans into space. It was forced to rely on Russian rockets to get its astronauts to the International Space Station. In 2020, SpaceX changed that. That May, a Falcon 9 rocket topped with a Crew Dragon capsule was ready to carry two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station—the first-ever launch of humans into orbit by a private company.
- After SpaceX’s launch of astronauts to the Space Station in May 2020, it had an impressive run of eleven unmanned successful satellite launches in five months. But Musk, as always, feared complacency. Unless he maintained a maniacal sense of urgency, he worried, SpaceX could end up flabby and slow, like Boeing. Following one of the launches that October, Musk paid a late-night visit to Pad 39A. There were only two people working. Sights like that triggered him. At all of his companies, as the employees at Twitter would discover, he expected everyone to work with an unrelenting intensity.“We have 783 employees working at the Cape,” he said in a cold rage to his launch VP there.“Why are there only two of them working now?” Musk gave him forty-eight hours to prepare a briefing on what everyone was supposed to be doing. When he didn’t get the answers he wanted, Musk decided to find out for himself. He went into hardcore, all-in mode. As he did at the Nevada and Fremont Tesla factories, and as he would later do at Twitter, he moved into the building, in this case the hangar at Cape Canaveral, and went to work around the clock.
- At a conference in Utah, he went to a party thrown by SpaceX and, after a couple of drinks, worked up the nerve to corner Gwynne Shotwell. He pulled a crumpled résumé out of his pocket and showed her a picture of the satellite hardware he had worked on.“I can make things happen,” he told her. Shotwell was amused.“Anyone who is brave enough to come up to me with a crumpled-up résumé might be a good candidate,” she said. She invited him to SpaceX for interviews. He was scheduled to see Musk, who was still interviewing every engineer hired, at 3 p.m. As usual, Musk got backed up, and Dontchev was told he would have to come back another day. Instead, Dontchev sat outside Musk’s cubicle for five hours. When he finally got in to see Musk at 8 p.m., Dontchev took the opportunity to unload about how his gung-ho approach wasn’t valued at Boeing. When hiring or promoting, Musk made a point of prioritizing attitude over résumé skills. And his definition of a good attitude was a desire to work maniacally hard. Musk hired Dontchev on the spot.
Chapter 58: Bezos vs. Musk, Round 2: SpaceX, 2021
- Bezos and Musk were alike in some respects. They both disrupted industries through passion, innovation, and force of will. They were both abrupt with employees, quick to call things stupid, and enraged by doubters and naysayers. And they both focused on envisioning the future rather than pursuing short-term profits. When asked if he even knew how to spell“profit,” Bezos answered,“P-r-o-p-h-e-t.” But when it came to drilling down on the engineering, they were different. Bezos was methodical. His motto was gradatim ferociter, or“Step by step, ferociously.” Musk’s instinct was to push and surge and drive people toward insane deadlines, even if it meant taking risks. Bezos was skeptical, indeed dismissive of Musk’s practice of spending hours at engineering meetings making technical suggestions and issuing abrupt orders. Former employees at SpaceX and Tesla told him, he says, that Musk rarely knew as much as he claimed and that his interventions were usually unhelpful or outright problematic. For his part, Musk felt that Bezos was a dilettante whose lack of focus on the engineering was one reason Blue Origin had made less progress than SpaceX. In an interview in late 2021, he grudgingly praised Bezos for having“reasonably good engineering aptitude,” but then added,“But he does not seem to be willing to spend mental energy getting into the details of engineering. The devil’s in the details.”
- Musk believed that innovation was driven by setting clear metrics, such as cost per ton lifted into orbit or average number of miles driven on Autopilot without human intervention. For Starlink, he surprised Juncosa by asking how many photons were collected by the solar arrays of the satellite versus how many they could usefully shoot down to Earth. It was a huge ratio—perhaps 10,000 to 1—and Juncosa had never considered it.“I certainly never thought of this as a metric,” he says.“It forced me to try some creative thinking about how we could improve efficiency.” This led SpaceX to develop a second version of Starlink, and it applied to get approval from the Federal Communications Commission. The application lowered the planned orbital altitude for future Starlinks, which would reduce the network’s latency.
- When Branson woke up just before 1 a.m. the morning of the launch, he went into the kitchen of the house he was using and found Musk standing there with Baby X.“Elon was so sweet to turn up with his new baby to our flight,” Branson says. Musk was barefoot and wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned“Five Decades of Apollo” that celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the moon mission. They sat down and talked for a couple of hours.“He doesn’t seem to sleep much,” Branson says.
Chapter 59: Starship Surge: SpaceX, July 2021
- By the time Musk got back from the launchpad to the Starbase main building, the video monitor by the front door had been reprogrammed. It read,“Ship+Rocket Stacked T –196h 44m 23s,” and was counting down the seconds. Balajadia explained that Musk does not let them round off into days or even hours. Every second counted.“We need to get to Mars before I die,” he said.“There’s no forcing function for getting us to Mars other than us, and sometimes that means me.”
- Ever since he flew back from Russia and calculated the costs of building his own rockets, Musk had deployed what he called the“idiot index.” That was the ratio of the total cost of a component to the cost of its raw materials. Something with a high idiot index—say, a component that cost $1,000 when the aluminum that composed it cost only $100—was likely to have a design that was too complex or a manufacturing process that was too inefficient. As Musk put it,“If the ratio is high, you’re an idiot.”
- “He’s willing to just throw his entire being at his mission, and that’s what he expects in return,” he says.“That has a good and bad side. You definitely realize that you’re a tool being used to achieve this larger objective, and that’s great. But sometimes, tools get worn down and he feels he can just replace that tool.” Indeed, as he showed when he bought Twitter, Musk does feel that way. He thinks that when people want to prioritize their comfort and leisure they should leave. That’s what Hughes did in May 2022.“Working for Elon is one of the most exciting things you can do, but it doesn’t allow time for a lot else in your life,” he says.“Sometimes that’s a great trade. If Raptor becomes the most affordable engine ever created and gets us to Mars, then it may be worth the collateral damage. That’s what I believed for more than eight years. But now, especially after the death of our baby, it’s time for me to focus on other things in life.”
Chapter 60: Solar Surge: Summer 2021
- “We need to get the engineers who designed this system to come out here and see how hard it is to install,” he said angrily. Then he erupted.“I want to see the engineers out here installing it themselves. Not just doing it for five minutes. Up on roofs for days, for fucking days!” He ordered that, in the future, everyone on an installation team, even the engineers and managers, had to spend time drilling and hammering and sweating with the other workers.
- The tiles were popping up and rotating. So the team began using two nails again. I asked if Musk would be angry, and I was assured that if they showed him the physical evidence he would change his mind. They turned out to be right. When Musk arrived at 9 p.m., they showed him why they needed a second nail, and he nodded. It was part of the algorithm: if you don’t end up having to restore 10 percent of the parts you deleted, then you didn’t delete enough.
Chapter 62: Inspiration4: SpaceX, September 2021
- As Musk processed the significance of the launch, he became philosophical in his Hitchhiker’s Guide fashion, ruminating on human endeavor.“Building mass-market electric cars was inevitable,” he said.“It would have happened without me. But becoming a space-faring civilization is not inevitable.” Fifty years earlier, America had sent men to the moon. But since then, there had been no progress. Just the reverse. The Space Shuttle could only do low-Earth orbit, and after it was retired, America couldn’t even do that anymore.“Technology does not automatically progress,” Musk said.“This flight was a great example of how progress requires human agency.”
Chapter 63: Raptor Shake-up: SpaceX, 2021
- “I’m convinced you could make a steel faceplate,” he said.“Please do it. I think I’ve been pretty clear: make it out of steel.” He admitted there was a reasonable chance that it would not work, but it was better to try and fail rather than analyze the issue for months.“If you make this thing fast, you can find out fast. And then you can fix it fast.” He eventually succeeded in converting most of the parts into stainless steel.
- There are two types of lieutenants Musk favors: the Red Bulls, such as Mark Juncosa, who are highly caffeinated and voluble as they purge-pulse ideas, and the Spocks, whose measured monotones give them an aura of Vulcan competence.
- Just after midnight one night in September 2021, Musk texted McKenzie,“Are you still up?” Not surprisingly, McKenzie responded,“Yeah, I’m still up, I’ll be in the office for at least a few more hours.” Musk called and said he was going to promote him. At 4:30 a.m., he sent out the email.“Jake McKenzie is reporting to me directly going forward,” he wrote.
Chapter 67: Money: 2021–2022
- But there’s something else I’ve found this year. It’s that fighting to survive keeps you going for quite a while. When you are no longer in a survive-or-die mode, it’s not that easy to get motivated every day. This was an essential insight that Musk had about himself. When things were most dire, he got energized. It was the siege mentality from his South African childhood. But when he was not in survival-or-die mode, he felt unsettled. What should have been the good times were unnerving for him. It prompted him to launch surges, stir up dramas, throw himself into battles he could have bypassed, and bite off new endeavors.
Chapter 69: Politics: 2020–2022
- One key to understanding Musk—his intensity, focus, competitiveness, die-hard attitudes, and love of strategy—is through his passion for video games. Hours of immersion became the way he let off(or built up) steam and honed his tactical skills and strategic thinking for business.
- “We called them Polytopia Life Lessons.” Among them:
- Empathy is not an asset.“He knows that I have an empathy gene, unlike him, and it has hurt me in business,” Kimbal says.“Polytopia taught me how he thinks when you remove empathy. When you’re playing a video game, there is no empathy, right?”
- Play life like a game.“I have this feeling,” Zilis once told Musk,“that as a kid you were playing one of these strategy games and your mom unplugged it, and you just didn’t notice, and you kept playing life as if it were that game.”
- Do not fear losing.“You will lose,” Musk says.“It will hurt the first fifty times. When you get used to losing, you will play each game with less emotion.” You will be more fearless, take more risks.
- Be proactive.“I’m a little bit Canadian pacifist and reactive,” Zilis says.“My gameplay was a hundred percent reactive to what everyone else was doing, as opposed to thinking through my best strategy.” She realized that, like many women, this mirrored the way she behaved at work. Both Musk and Mark Juncosa told her that she could never win unless she took charge of setting the strategy.
- Optimize every turn. In Polytopia, you get only thirty turns, so you need to optimize each one.“Like in Polytopia, you only get a set number of turns in life,” Musk says.“If we let a few of them slide, we will never get to Mars.”
- Double down.“Elon plays the game by always pushing the edge of what’s possible,” Zilis says.“And he’s always doubling down and putting everything back in the game to grow and grow. And it’s just like he’s just done his whole life.”
- Pick your battles. In Polytopia, you might find yourself surrounded by six or more tribes, all taking swipes at you. If you swipe back at all of them, you’re going to lose. Musk never fully mastered that lesson, and Zilis found herself coaching him on it.“Dude, like, everyone’s swiping at you right now, but if you swipe back at too many, you’ll run out of resources,” she told him. She called that approach“front minimization.” It was a lesson she also tried and failed to teach him about his behavior on Twitter.
- Unplug at times.“I had to stop playing because it was destroying my marriage,” Kimbal says. Shivon Zilis also deleted Polytopia from her phone. So did Grimes. And, for a while, Musk did so as well.“I had to take Polytopia off my phone because it was taking up too many brain cycles,” he says.“I started dreaming about Polytopia.” But the lesson about unplugging was another one that Musk never mastered. After a few months, he put the game back onto his phone and was playing again.
Chapter 71: Bill Gates: 2022
- The dispute reflected different mindsets. When I asked Gates why he had shorted Tesla, he explained that he had calculated that the supply of electric cars would get ahead of demand, causing prices to fall. I nodded but still had the same question: Why had he shorted the stock? Gates looked at me as if I had not understood what he just explained and then replied as if the answer was obvious: he thought that by shorting Tesla he could make money. That way of thinking was alien to Musk. He believed in the mission of moving the world to electric vehicles, and he put all of his available money toward that goal, even when it did not seem like a safe investment.“How can someone say they are passionate about fighting climate change and then do something that reduced the overall investment in the company doing the most?” he asked me a few days after Gates’s visit.“It’s pure hypocrisy. Why make money on the failure of a sustainable energy car company?” Grimes added her own interpretation:“I imagine it’s a little bit of a dick-measuring contest.”
Chapter 73: “I made an offer”: Twitter, April 2022
- But there were two other reasons, I think, that Musk wanted to own Twitter. The first was a simple one. It was fun, like an amusement park. It offered political smackdowns, intellectual gladiator matches, dopey memes, important public announcements, valuable marketing, bad puns, and unfiltered opinions. Are you not entertained? And second, I believe there was a psychological, personal yearning. Twitter was the ultimate playground. As a kid, he was beaten and bullied on the playground, never having been endowed with the emotional dexterity needed to thrive on that rugged terrain. It instilled a deep pain and sometimes caused him to react to slights far too emotionally, but it also is what girded him to be able to face the world and fight every battle fiercely. When he felt dinged up, cornered, bullied, either online or in person, it took him back to a place that was super painful, where he was dissed by his father and bullied by his classmates. But now he could own the playground.
Chapter 77: Optimus Prime: Tesla, 2021–2022
- Every week he went over the most recent timetables and expressed, often rather strongly, his dissatisfaction.“Pretend we are a startup about to run out of money,” he said at one of these sessions.“Faster. Faster! Please mark anytime a date has slipped. All bad news should be given loudly and often. Good news can be said quietly and once.”
Chapter 82: The Takeover: Twitter, Thursday, October 27, 2022
- A few minutes later, he made his first product tweak. Until then, when people went to the Twitter.com site on the web, the first screen they saw was one instructing them to log in. Musk felt they should instead land on the“Explore” page, which showed what was hot and trending at that moment. A message was sent to the person in charge of the Explore page, a young engineer named Tejas Dharamsi, who happened to be flying back from a family visit to India. He sent back a message saying he would make the fix when he got to the office on Monday. Do it right now, he was told. So using the Wi-Fi on the United flight, he got the change made that night.“We had worked on many possible new features for years, but no one ever made decisions about them,” he said later.“Suddenly, we had this guy making rapid decisions.”
Chapter 83: The Three Musketeers: Twitter, October 26–30, 2022
- While on the Riviera, James was staying at a youth hostel in Genoa when another kid spied him eating peanut butter from a jar using two fingers.“Dude, that’s disgusting,” the kid said, laughing. That was how James met Ross Nordeen, a skinny, floppy-haired computer wiz and wanderer from Wisconsin. After graduating from Michigan Tech, Ross became an itinerant code jockey, working remotely and indulging his wanderlust.“I would meet people and say, ‘Where should I go next?,’ which is how I ended up in Genoa.” In an example of the serendipity that happens to people who travel around, especially in rarefied places, Ross said he was applying for a job at SpaceX.“Oh, that’s my cousin’s company,” James replied. Ross had run out of cash, so James invited him to stay at a house he and a friend had rented near Antibes. Ross slept on a pad outside.
- Hearing his French accent, I realized he was the same Ben—Ben San Souci—who had asked Musk about content moderation at the coffee-bar visit. An engineer by demeanor, he wasn’t a natural networker, but he was suddenly being swept into the inner circle. It was a testament to the value of serendipity—and of showing up in person.
- Their conversation in Musk’s conference room, which also included tech-investor Scott Belsky, showed a real mind-meld.“I have an idea on the ads,” Beykpour suggested.“Ask people who subscribe what their interests are and offer to personalize their experience. You could make it a benefit of subscribing.”“Yeah, and advertisers would love that,” Musk said.“Also a down-vote button for tweets,” Beykpour said.“You need some negative user signal that can feed into rankings.”
- “Twitter now has twenty-five hundred software engineers,” Musk told them.“If each wrote only three lines of code per day, a ridiculously low bar, that should make three million lines a year, which is enough for a whole operating system. This is not happening. Something is deeply amiss. I feel like I’m in a comedy show here.”“Product managers who don’t know anything about coding keep ordering up features they don’t know how to create,” James said.“Like cavalry generals who don’t know how to ride a horse.” It was a line Musk himself often used.
Chapter 86: Blue Checks: Twitter, November 2–10, 2022
- Henry Kissinger once quoted an aide saying that the Watergate scandal had happened“because some damn fool went into the Oval Office and did what Nixon told him to do.” Those around Musk knew how to ride out his periods of demon mode. Roth later described the encounter in a conversation with Birchall.“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Birchall told him.“That happens with Elon. You need to just ignore it and don’t do what he says. Then later on, go back to him after he has processed the inputs.”
- Roth’s feelings toward Musk were complex. Most of their interactions had been good.“He was reasonable, funny, engaging, and would talk about his vision in a way that was a bit bullshit but mainly something you could totally be inspired by,” Roth says. But then there were the times when Musk showed an authoritarian, mean, dark streak.“He was the bad Elon, and that’s the one I couldn’t take.”“People want me to say I hate him, but it’s much more complicated, which, I suppose, is what makes him interesting. He’s a bit of an idealist, right? He has a set of grand visions, whether it’s multiplanetary humanity or renewable energy and even free speech. And he has constructed for himself a moral and ethical universe that is focused on the delivery of those big goals. I think that makes it hard to villainize him.”
Chapter 88: Hardcore: Twitter, November 18–30, 2022
- In some ways, Musk was like Steve Jobs, a brilliant but abrasive taskmaster with a reality-distortion field who could drive his employees crazy but also drive them to do things they thought were impossible. He could be confrontational, with both colleagues and competitors. Tim Cook, who took over Apple in 2011, was different. He was calm, coolly disciplined, and disarmingly polite. Although he could be steely when warranted, he avoided unnecessary confrontations. Whereas Jobs and Musk seemed drawn to drama, Cook had an instinct for
Chapter 89: Miracles: Neuralink, November 2022
- “If we don’t accelerate, we’re not going to achieve much in our lifetimes,” he warned.
- “My prime motivation with Neuralink,” he told the audience,“is to create a generalized input-output device that could interface with every aspect of your brain.” In other words, it would be the ultimate mind-meld of humans and machine, thus guarding against artificial intelligence machines running amok.“Even if AI is benevolent, how do we make sure that we get to go along with the ride?”
Chapter 90: The Twitter Files: Twitter, December 2022
- The Twitter Files highlighted an evolution of mainstream journalism over the past fifty years. During Watergate and Vietnam, journalists generally regarded the CIA, military, and government officials with suspicion, or at least a healthy skepticism. Many of them had gotten into the craft inspired by the Vietnam reporting of David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan and the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But beginning in the 1990s and accelerating after 9/11, established journalists felt increasingly comfortable sharing information and cooperating with top people in the government and intelligence communities. That mindset was replicated at social media companies, as shown by all the briefings Twitter and other tech companies received.“These companies seem not to have had much choice in being made key parts of a global surveillance and information control apparatus,” Taibbi wrote,“although evidence suggests their Quislingian executives were mostly all thrilled to be absorbed.” I think the second half of his sentence is more true than the first.
Chapter 93: AI for Cars: Tesla, 2022–2023
- Musk regularly walked through Tesla’s Palo Alto building, where the Autopilot engineers sat in an open workspace, and he would kneel down next to them for impromptu discussions. One day Shroff showed him the progress they were making. Musk was impressed, but he had a question: Was this whole new approach truly needed? Might it be a bit of overkill? One of his maxims was that you should never use a cruise missile to kill a fly; just use a flyswatter. Was using a neural network to plan paths an unnecessarily complicated way to deal with a few very unlikely edge cases? Shroff showed Musk instances where a neural network planner would work better than a rules-based approach. The demo had a road littered with trash cans, fallen traffic cones, and random debris. A car guided by the neural network planner was able to skitter around the obstacles, crossing the lane lines and breaking some rules as necessary.“Here’s what happens when we move from rules-based to network-path-based,” Shroff told him.“The car will never get into a collision if you turn this thing on, even in unstructured environments.” It was the type of leap into the future that excited Musk.
- Machine-learning systems generally need a goal or metric that guides them as they train themselves. Musk, who liked to manage by decreeing what metrics should be paramount, gave them their lodestar: the number of miles that cars with Tesla Full Self-Driving were able to travel without a human intervening.“I want the latest data on miles per intervention to be the starting slide at each of our meetings,” he decreed.“If we’re training AI, what do we optimize? The answer is higher miles between interventions.” He told them to make it like a video game where they could see their score every day.“Video games without a score are boring, so it will be motivating to watch each day as the miles per intervention increases.”
- During the discussion, Musk latched on to a key fact the team had discovered: the neural network did not work well until it had been trained on at least a million video clips, and it started getting really good after one-and-a-half million clips. This gave Tesla a huge advantage over other car and AI companies. It had a fleet of almost two million Teslas around the world collecting billions of video frames per day.“We are uniquely positioned to do this,” Elluswamy said at the meeting. The ability to collect and analyze vast flows of real-time data would be crucial to all forms of AI, from self-driving cars to Optimus robots to ChatGPT–like bots. And Musk now had two powerful gushers of real-time data, the video from self-driving cars and the billions of postings each week on Twitter. He told the Autopilot meeting that he had just made a major purchase of 10,000 more GPU data-processing chips for use at Twitter, and he announced that he would hold more frequent meetings on the potentially more powerful Dojo chips being designed at Tesla. He also ruefully admitted that his impulsive Christmastime caper of gutting Twitter’s Sacramento data center was a mistake.
Chapter 94: AI for Humans: X.AI, 2023
- The fuel for AI is data. The new chatbots were being trained on massive amounts of information, such as billions of pages on the internet and other documents. Google and Microsoft, with their search engines and cloud services and access to emails, had huge gushers of data to help train these systems. What could Musk bring to the party? One asset was the Twitter feed, which included more than a trillion tweets posted over the years, five hundred million added each day. It was humanity’s hive mind, the world’s most timely data set of real-life human conversations, news, interests, trends, arguments, and lingo. Plus it was a great training ground for a chatbot to test how real humans react to its responses. The value of this data feed was not something Musk considered when buying Twitter.“It was a side benefit, actually, that I realized only after the purchase,” he says.
- The amount of human intelligence, he noted, was leveling off, because people were not having enough children. Meanwhile, the amount of computer intelligence was going up exponentially, like Moore’s Law on steroids. At some point, biological brainpower would be dwarfed by digital brainpower. In addition, new AI machine-learning systems could ingest information on their own and teach themselves how to generate outputs, even upgrade their own code and capabilities. The term“singularity” was used by the mathematician John von Neumann and the sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge to describe the moment when artificial intelligence could forge ahead on its own at an uncontrollable pace and leave us mere humans behind.“That could happen sooner than we expected,” Musk said in an ominous, flat tone.
- “With AI coming, I’m sort of wondering whether it’s worth spending that much time thinking about Twitter. Sure, I could probably make it the biggest financial institution in the world. But I have only so many brain cycles and hours in the day. I mean, it’s not like I need to be richer or something.” I started to speak, but he knew what I was going to ask.“So what should my time be spent on?” he said.“Getting Starship launched. Getting to Mars is now far more pressing.” He paused again, then added,“Also, I need to focus on making AI safe. That’s why I’m starting an AI company.” X.AI
Chapter 95: The Starship Launch: SpaceX, April 2023
- “This is how civilizations decline. They quit taking risks. And when they quit taking risks, their arteries harden. Every year there are more referees and fewer doers.” That’s why America could no longer build things like high-speed rail or rockets that go to the moon.“When you’ve had success for too long, you lose the desire to take risks.”
- Like the decision to forgo slosh baffles on the early version of the Falcon 1, taking these risks turned out to be a mistake. It’s unlikely that NASA or Boeing, with their stay-safe approach, would have made those decisions. But Musk believed in a fail-fast approach to building rockets. Take risks. Learn by blowing things up. Revise. Repeat.“We don’t want to design to eliminate every risk,”
- The explosion of Starship was emblematic of Musk, a fitting metaphor for his compulsion to aim high, act impulsively, take wild risks, and accomplish amazing things—but also to blow things up and leave smoldering debris in his wake while cackling maniacally. His life had long been an admixture of historically transforming achievements along with wild flameouts, broken promises, and arrogant impulses. Both his accomplishments and his failures were epic. That made him revered by fanboys and reviled by critics, each side exhibiting the feverish fervor of the hyperpolarized Age of Twitter.
- Do the audaciousness and hubris that drive him to attempt epic feats excuse his bad behavior, his callousness, his recklessness? The times he’s an asshole? The answer is no, of course not. One can admire a person’s good traits and decry the bad ones. But it’s also important to understand how the strands are woven together, sometimes tightly. It can be hard to remove the dark ones without unraveling the whole cloth. As Shakespeare teaches us, all heroes have flaws, some tragic, some conquered, and those we cast as villains can be complex. Even the best people, he wrote, are“molded out of faults.”
- It was a pleasing concept: an impulse-control button that could defuse Musk’s tweets as well as all of his dark impulsive actions and demon-mode eruptions that leave rubble in his wake. But would a restrained Musk accomplish as much as a Musk unbound? Is being unfiltered and untethered integral to who he is? Could you get the rockets to orbit or the transition to electric vehicles without accepting all aspects of him, hinged and unhinged? Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training. They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.