Walter Isaacson's Elon Musk

Walter Isaacson's Elon Musk

Within the first 50 pages, one thing becomes clear: Elon is a complicated guy. Emotional. Mercurial. Passionate. Inspiring. Petty. Kind of a jerk. The book has a lot of ground to cover, from his early childhood and initial ventures with Zip2 to recent forays into Twitter + SpaceX.

I'd already read a decent amount about Elon, in Ashlee Vance's biography of him, and Liftoff – Elon Musk and the early days of SpaceX (which I absolutely adored). Isaacson's book adds a bit more psychological angle, some additional insight into his tortured existence, and much more recent history. If you've read the other two, I'm not sure if there's a ton you'll learn, but the whole thing is chock full of interesting stories.

The role of abusive fathers / adversity – the book starts out with some wild anecdotes about Musks's childhood, getting punched in the face, taking tirades from his father, etc. A few other people have asked the question: does having an rough childhood make you more likely to do something great? At the very least, having overcome some level of adversity clearly has made him extremely tough.

Start with the Mission – Elon has a really interesting mode where he starts with the mission, and then figures out a path to achieve it. E.g. for SpaceX, start with the idea of becoming a multi-planetary species, and back into creating re-usable rockets. Originally there was no business plan, just something that he had to see in the world. It's basically the opposite of how we built Segment, but I think leads to a much more ambitious mission.

The algorithm – one recurring theme that comes up over and over again is the algorithm. this is Elon's discovered way of operating. A lot of it really resonated with me.

  1. remove the requirements
  2. delete the part
  3. simplify and optimize
  4. accelerate cycle time
  5. automate the manufacturing

Other good truisms...

  • always know who made the requirements and why. if you don't know why you're doing something, you shouldn't be doing it.
  • there should always be one person in charge of doing something.

It's easy to see why Musk sticks with these ideas... they work! Following requirements just for requirements sake doesn't allow you to do really find the essence of what's necessary and what's not. Removing extra complexity tends to simplify all parts of a product.

The hard part here is doing this. If you aren't re-adding 10% of the parts back later, you aren't being aggressive enough.

Challenging teams to achieve the impossible – there's something particularly inspiring about the way Elon challenges his teams. Some mixture of Fermi estimations, long hours, and pushing to deliver results as quickly as possible. This momentum builds.

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