Book review: Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

elon musk by ashlee vanceI only really knew about Elon Musk as a pop-culture figure before so I was interested in reading this biography. I’ve learnt more about his work as an inventor and a manufacturer in the fields of solar power, electric cars and space travel and IT, though as always I’m wary of drawing too many conclusions when I’ve only read one book on a subject!

The book gives a comprehensive account of Musk’s life and his work to date (the book was first published in 2015), from the financial company that became Paypal to Tesla, Space X and SolarCity. You learn about his unconventional and talented family and an upbringing that was privileged in some ways and extremely difficult in others. It seems that from an early age he had an exceptional ability to absorb knowledge and to visualise and invent complex processes in his mind. He also has phenomenal energy and determination.

A couple of interesting points stood out. Firstly, that Musk does believe in making things. There’s a quote at the beginning of the book to the effect that the best brains of our generation are spending their days getting us to click ads. Musk wants to create something real and tangible and he has a sense of mission.

The other thing I found interesting is that his businesses develop and manufacture most of their products in-house. For a generation, conventional wisdom has been that it is more efficient to outsource to specialists. This has had disastrous consequences for our public services, where private companies reduce standards and working conditions, pocket profits and leave taxpayers with losses.

Musk has demonstrated that the opposite can be true – that doing work in-house means you keep control of quality, timing and product development. With complex supply chains, there is always someone else to blame when things go wrong (though equally, pay and conditions of his workers do not seem to be a priority for Musk).

Although the book does address criticisms of Musk, it is quite a positive account overall. This doesn’t chime with some of his behaviour, particularly in the light of his recent comments about the divers involved in the Thai cave rescue, which polarised opinion on him.

We seem unable to accept that people can be exceptionally talented in one area and flawed in another. Perhaps it’s time to retire that tired term ‘role model’ and understand people in their complexity.

I received a copy of Elon Musk from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Elon Musk on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

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