Book Review: Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

elon musk ashlee vance

Elon Musk is a biography of one of the most interesting people alive today. Elon Musk, for the 1% of people who do not know him, is the cofounder of PayPal, Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX–all companies which in one way or another have dramatically reshaped the world.

The book opens by talking about Elon’s family history and his tough childhood in South Africa. He’s soon in Canada, then America, where the Elon Musk that has become famous begins to emerge. The book details Elon’s work at Zip2, a mapping startup which was sold during the dotcom boom. It then goes to his time at X.com, which merged with PayPal before being sold to Ebay. These chapters are interesting but I wish there were more about the strategic positioning of PayPal before the merger with X.com. The book notes that PayPal was popular on Ebay but was running out of money, while X.com had enough money but lacked PayPal’s viral success. A brief explanation how PayPal arguably one-upped X.com would be valuable.

This book is well worth reading and I recommend it.

The book gets even more interesting when discussing Tesla and SpaceX. Both companies had audacious goals and came very close to bankruptcy, and the behind-the-scenes stories revealing this are fascinating. Most of the focus is on Elon’s companies, but there is enough about his personal life to keep the story interesting and reveal some aspects of his personality. Still, the real action is on the business side and that is where this book shines.

The scenes on the tropical Kwajalein Atoll where SpaceX did its first rocket tests are fascinating, and the story about the deep divisions between Musk and the other co-founders of Tesla is also interesting. Ultimately what is most interesting is Elon himself, a man who seems to be consumed by his drive to create technology that others believe to be impossible. He is a man who is single-handedly pushing humanity forwards. Like Steve Jobs, some of this brilliance comes at the cost of frayed personal relationships with others, some of whom (intentionally or not) stood in his way, and others who simply couldn’t meet his demanding standards of excellence.

The book is highly engaging for the first 200 pages but loses some steam at chapter 9 where the tone of the book shifts towards talking about SpaceX and Tesla in a broader sense with fewer on-the-ground stories. As a writer myself my suspicion is that these were from an earlier draft of the book before he had more access to Elon, or perhaps the author felt he needed to zoom out a bit. Regardless of why this is the case, these chapters lack the enthusiasm and excitement that made the first 200 pages so deliciously readable. Still, finishing this part of the book is hardly a slog, and is still well worth reading.

My Verdict:

Ultimately, Elon Musk is an engaging portrait of a man whose life is still very much in progress. The main flaws in the book are a consequence of the fact that Ashlee wrote this during the middle of Musk’s life. Yet the strengths of the book, like the talks with Musk and conversations with the main players in his life, are also due to writing the biography now. Elon’s pace is so quick that the book feels outdated a year or two after its release, but once again, this is an inevitable consequence of writing about the most interesting man in the world, while he is still in his prime.

I have high hopes that Elon’s career will continue to break barriers and I suspect we will look back at this first edition of the book as a wholly incomplete tale of Elon’s life. I very much look forward to Ashlee’s revised take which will inevitably be published sometime in the 2030’s, if not later. In the meanwhile this book is well worth reading and I recommend it.

You can buy Elon Musk on Amazon. For insight on the future of book buying, check out our review of Amazon Books.

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