I had forgotten how much I enjoyed biographies. Biographies allows us to have an in depth conversation with anyone in the world across time, where we can have a peek in the pivotal moments of their lives. In some respects, a biography is better than a real life conversation because these lives have been painstakingly condensed and carefully synthesised via many drafts for our benefit. Through biographies, we can extract as much as we can of these people in the shortest span of time – all in a small and neat package of a book.

In ‘Reverse Role Models’, an insight mentioned is that we can learn something new from absolutely anyone that we talk to. We can learn about the things that they have done right and so emulate them, as well as what they have done wrong, being able to heed their mistakes. In response to this, I will be starting a series with the aim of condensing the lessons I’ve learnt from reading these biographies. I will try to let the book speak as much as it can via many quotations, where I will sprinkle my musings throughout.

[If you don’t want to be spoilt in the slightest, you are welcome to read the book before reading this post]

It is not that Musk is the real life embodiment of Tony Stark, the iconic man behind the Iron Man suit. But rather, it is that Tony Stark is the fictional embodiment Elon Musk, as Musk was actually the inspiration for the Marvel sensation (here’s a random cameo scene of Musk in Iron Man 2). In many spheres of life, Musk has many eccentricities. Not only did he name his latest baby son as the impossible to pronounce X Æ A-12, he was also dead serious about developing genetically engineered anime cat girls. It is these eccentricities however, which indicates how he sees the world in a radically different light, and so he is able to come up with revolutionary ideas that are changing the world as we speak. Interestingly, just 4 days ago from the time of this post, Musk had overtaken Jeff Bezos – the founder of Amazon – as richest person in the world.

Musk’s Twitter Account

Memes aside though, here are the lessons I’ve learnt from Elon Musk’s biography by Ashley Vance. Enjoy.

Difficult but Precocious Childhood

From a young age Elon was very bright, however he had quite a rough childhood in South Africa as he grew up amongst the political strife of post-apartheid. However, it was this rough childhood that was instrumental in his growth, having molded his motivations and work ethic. Being extremely bright from a young age, he had a voracious appetite for knowledge. (In the following quote, Kimbal is Musk’s brother, Maye is Musk’s mother)

“The most striking part of Elon’s character as a young boy was his compulsion to read. From a very young age, he seemed to have a book in his hands at all times. “It was not unusual for him to read 10 hours a day,” said Kimbal. “If it was the weekend, he could go through two books in a day.” The family went on numerous shopping excursions in which they realized mid-trip that Elon had gone missing. Maye or Kimbal would pop into the nearest bookstore and find Elon somewhere near the back sitting on the floor and reading in one of his trancelike states…”At one point, I ran out of books to read at the school library and the neighborhood library,” Musk said. “This is maybe the third or fourth grade. I tried to convince the librarian to order books for me. So then, I started to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. That was so helpful. You don’t know what you don’t know. You realise there are all these things out there.”

This voracious hunger for knowledge led him to be known as a ‘know it all’ as a child, because he boasted an incredible memory. Alongside this, he had a different approach to schooling too. He never sought after grades for the sake of grades. He sought learning for the sake of learning, where he realised from a young age of the power of knowledge that learning provides.

“There needs to be a reason for a grade. I’d rather play video games, write software, and read books than try and get an A if there’s no point in getting an A.” – Elon Musk

Despite showing much potential, Musk would evaluate his childhood as well as his father (referred to as ‘He’ in the quote) in this manner:

“It would certainly be accurate to say that I did not have a good childhood,” he [Musk] said. “It may sound good. It was not absent of good, but it was not a happy childhood. It was like misery. He’s good at making life miserable-that’s for sure. He can take any situation no matter how good it is and make it bad. He’s not a happy man.” – Elon Musk, (square brackets added)

In this way, Musk’s life emphasises the point of how instrumental one’s upbringing is in setting the trajectory of an individual. Although a tough childhood may have been traumatising, it had certainly increased his pain threshold and had built much grit in him. The pain early in life had put much of life into perspective, in which it has given him an early taste of reality about the world. His difficult childhood made me wonder about my own childhood. I was comparatively very bubble wrapped, in which life was more or less spoon-fed to me. Rather than inundating myself in books like Elon, I had spent my childhood playing many video games such as Pokémon – in which I did a whole lot of nothing. Only realising this now, I hope to make up for it as I try to emulate his insatiable hunger for learning.

“It bothers Musk a bit that his kids won’t suffer like he did. He feels that the suffering helped to make him who he is and gave him extra reserves of strength and will. “They might have a little adversity at school, but these days schools are so protective,” he said. “If you call someone a name, you get sent home. When I was going to school, if they punched you and there was no blood, it was like, ‘Whatever. Shake it off.’ Even if there was a little blood, but not a lot, it was fine. What do I do? Create artificial adversity? How do you do that? The biggest battle I have is restricting their video game time because they want to play all the time. The rule is they have to read more than they play video games. They also can’t play completely stupid video games. There’s one game they downloaded recently called Cookies or something. You literally tap a f**king cookie. It’s like a Psych 101 experiment. I made them delete the cookie game. They had to play Flappy Golf instead, which is like Flappy Bird, but at least there is some physics involved.” – Elon Musk (censoring added)

Having your kids read more than they play video games is definitely quite a fair rule. As I don’t play games, it would be an appropriate rule for me to read more than I browse social media.

Intersection of Business Acumen and Engineering Ingenuity

There are some that claim that Musk’s success is a fluke, however it is quite hard to believe that Musk founded 5 successful businesses. Zip2 was his first startup which was at the dawn of the .com era. With the capital he received from the acquisition of Zip2, Musk revolutionised the banking industry by creating X.com. Being one of the first online banks, it had morphed into the worldwide transaction giant that is now known as PayPal. Using the capital in which PayPal was acquired, he then used to start-up SpaceX – as well as invest heavily in Tesla and SolarCity. Eventually Musk would become the owner of Tesla, and SolarCity was acquired by Tesla in 2016.

From his university years, he sought to solve the issues of climate change as well as make humanity a multiplanetary species – being rather far fetched goals. His aim was to build companies with this unified vision to solve these major problems. Tesla and SolarCity – through the technologies of electric cars and solar power would assist in solving climate change. SpaceX – for the human conquest to Mars.

It is rare to have a knack for coming up with profitable and sustainable business models, and it is rare to have the scientific intelligence of a rocket scientist. Musk is the intersection of the two – being a freak of nature. He is in his own league. It is interesting to note that these ideas aren’t necessarily novel. Electric cars were actually invented before the combustion engine. They were horrible and the idea was scrapped. Solar panels and space travel too, as at that point there were a couple of solar companies that were around, and the space industry was heavily regulated by the likes of Boeing and NASA. What made Elon different was his approach to business, being able to turn these ventures into flourishing companies that make a lot of profit.

“The way Elon talks about this is that you always need to start with the first principles of a problem. What are the physics of it? How much time will it take? How much will it cost? How much cheaper can I make it? There’s this level of engineering and physics that you need to make judgments about what’s possible and interesting. Elon is unusual in that he knows that, and he also knows business and organization and leadership and governmental issues.” – Larry Page, Google cofounder

Relentless Work Ethic

Without Musk’s work ethic, his businesses would certainly not have survived, as well as be so accomplished as it is today. Musk currently accommodates the roles of two CEO’s at SpaceX and Tesla, in which the remaining time that he has left is spent on SolarCity. Because of this, he works 80-90 hours a week (averaging 11.4-12.8 hours a day, 7 days a week). In some weeks he anecdotally worked more than 120 hours. This comes to a total of 17 hours a day, 7 days a week!

“Everything he does is fast,” Brogan said. “He pees fast. It’s like a fire hose—three seconds and out. He’s authentically in a hurry.”

Musk does seem to be like a terminator of sorts, being able to sustain such robotic efficiencies for long periods of time. His work ethic as well as efficiency does have a heavy cost however, where many of his human relationships have suffered as a result. One of his Tesla employees speaks of Musk in this manner:

“Elon’s worst trait by far, in my opinion, is a complete lack of loyalty or human connection,” said one former employee. “Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought. Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared; maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.”

Much of his cold efficiency is due to his aforementioned goals of which this quote demonstrates. It is this goal that has driven him to heights of perfection that no man would dare attempt, because the personal costs are so high.

For Musk, the call to ensure that mankind is a multiplanetary species partly stems from a life richly influenced by science fiction and technology. Equally it’s a moral imperative that dates back to his childhood. In some for, this has forever been his mandate. Each facet of Musk’s life might be an attempt to soothe a type of existential depression that seems to gnaw at his every fiber. He sees man as self-limiting and in peril and wants to fix the situation. The people who suggest bad ideas during meetings or make mistakes at work are getting in the way of all of this and slowing Musk down. He does not dislike them as people. It’s more that he feels pained by their mistakes, which have consigned man to peril that much longer. The perceived lack of emotion is a symptom of Musk sometimes feeling like he’s the only one who really grasps the urgency of his mission. He’s less sensitive and less tolerant than other people because the stakes are so high. Employees need to help solve problems to the absolute best of their ability or they need to get out of the way.”

Concluding Thoughts

“Musk, though, approaches everything from a Platonic perspective. As he sees it, all the design and technology choices should be directed toward the goal of making a car as close to perfect as possible. To the extent that rival automakers haven’t that’s what Musk is judging. It’s almost a binary experience for him. Either you’re trying to make something spectacular with no compromises or you’re not. And if you’re not, Musk considers you a failure. This position can look unreasonable or foolish to outsiders, but the philosophy works for Musk and constantly pushes him and those around him to their limits.”

Although Musk has achieved what no man has done before, he has sacrificed a gargantuan amount in order to manifest as the Tony Stark of Silicon Valley. Perfectionism is a double edged sword. One is that it allows a person to extend himself and stretch himself to achieve new heights, but in that it yields a serious toll on one’s physical and mental health. Musk may push other employees in seemingly unethical ways to achieve these standards, however he has these same standards on himself. Musk is a great example of how a life long vision can be executed with such laser like concentration, in which his once preposterous ideas have materialised into a global reality.

Good ideas are always crazy until they’re not.

Elon Musk