Friday, July 17, 2015

Elon Musk. Tesla, SpaceX, and the quest for a fantastic future, Ashlee Vance

Let me offer this thought: SpaceX is the coolest and most exciting company in the world at this moment in time.

Yes, Tesla is also extremely cool. And inspiring. But nothing can beat that feeling of power, wonder and deep inspiration that SpaceX will give you as soon as you understand what that company is actually doing.

As Vance says, "SpaceX IS Elon Musk".

So who is this man, this force of nature? How is it humanly possible to achieve what he has achieved in at 44 years of age? What else can he achieve in the future? Will he become the richest man on Earth? Or on Mars?

If you don't know, when he was little more than a kid, Elon Musk was given about $ 20.000 from his father, and he went on with his brother to found a little website called PayPal. When eBay finally bought PayPal, Musk racked in $ 350 million. He immediately reinvested half of that money in very high-risk ventures. Most of it was used to create SpaceX, and a smaller but still significant chunk went to make Musk Tesla's largest shareholder and, later on, CEO. 

Not only this book is written in a very passionate and engaging way. I also find that it is a very important book for anyone who is at least a little curious about our present and our future.

In fact, I believe Ashlee Vance’s portrait of Elon Musk is a necessary read for anyone, because of the disruptive effect that his companies are having on the automotive, the clean energy, and the space industries. If these companies are not changing the future, at the very least they are accelerating our pace towards it.

Vance starts out in a ballsy way, stating that he won't budge: he will write whatever he wants, however he wants it. As you get to the end of the book, it's pretty clear that this is not entirely the case, and that a lot has been left out. However, the information that is in the book is absolutely fascinating. It is the first biography I've ever read that I would categorize as a page-turner.

The "missing facts" that stand out the most are:

1) Childhood troubles. Musk keeps referring to a very painful and troubled childhood, but in the book all we get is some bullying and social awkwardness. Plus, a father who was "psychologically abusive". There are many unanswered questions there, and maybe Vance chose to be respectful and leave the answers out, or maybe he did not get those answers.

2) The miraculous last-minute save of both Tesla and SpaceX in 2008: not nearly enough details. Something crucial is missing. Whether it is a few private donors who poured in extra millions, or some other turn of fate. I don't know if Vance knows what is missing there, but something is.

From dialogues that Vance had with Musk himself and through the research work that included interviews to many friends, relatives and acquaintances, Elon Musk comes across as a normal human being with exceptional ambition, exceptional luck, exceptional physical energy, exceptional intelligence and exceptional confidence in his vision.

He is an inspiration for many, and beyond Elon Musk, his companies and his vision are a huge inspiration.

Musk's hyper-demanding personality, his apparent lack of empathy, and his egomaniac behavior are all elements that come across here and there in the book, but there is nothing there that paints him in an unbearably negative light. 

Robert Downey Jr is also featured in the book: it was during the production of the movie Iron Man that the actor went to visit SpaceX for a bit of  "artistic research", to see how a real-life Tony Stark would behave, and study his persona. It's largely thanks to the marketing around the movie that Elon Musk has become known as "the real life Tony Stark".

Now, for a second of reflection on what Elon Musk is doing with his companies. You have certainly noticed how the most popular fictional depictions of the future (I repeat: the most popular ones) in this day and age are pessimistic, dystopian, and full of self-hate like teenagers? Well, Elon Musk is offering us a window into a future that is the exact opposite of that. In line with Arthur C. Clarke's shining dreams, Musk's vision of the future is so bright that reminds me of the golden age of science fiction, when Clarke and Asimov were writing, when people had strong, beautiful, positive dreams about the future. 

I know it sounds like an advertisement for a soap bar, but yes: "with Musk, the future is bright again". 

... Mandarin Coriander Candle, Agave Nectar Bar Soap, Eucalyptus Bar Soap
With Elon Musk, the future is Fresh, Clean and Green

Finally, a comment about the concept of "being a nerd": in the first part of the book, the kid Elon Musk is called a "nerd" about a million times. Why is it that in America (and in South Africa, as it seems) a very smart kid who is into reading a lot instead of playing sports, invariably, is called a "nerd"? The fact that this word does not exist in many European language might tell us something. I think Isaac Asimov was onto something when he said "The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

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