I never really got into biographies. I guess I was so focused on ideas that I never spent any time understanding the people who created them. This all changed last year when I started building a family tree of influences. Biographies seemed like an interesting way to learn more about the people I would never get a chance to meet.
In Elon Musk’s biography, Ashlee Vance did an excellent job at creating a balanced picture of Musk. When I first picked it up, I was a bit worried that the book might be chapter after chapter of fawning at an industrial scale. However it was much more even handed than that. Reading Vance’s biography felt more like I was the one sitting down to chat with Elon Musk over dinner. Was Musk somebody I could relate too? Would the dinner fill with interesting conversation, or would it be a car crash as our personalities clashed?
You could certainly understand why some people had come to despise Elon, while others had placed him on a pedestal. In the biography Musk came across as opinionated, ambitious and driven. Fall onto the wrong side of those attributes and you have the recipe for any one of the conflicts Musk has faced during his career. But, if your worldview is similar to the opinions of Elon Musk then you are more likely to admire his attributes and attitudes.
There were only two things I didn’t like about the Elon biography.
In a couple of places Ashlee devolves into Silicon Valley startup lingo. Like where early on in Elon’s companies they are occasionally referred to as ‘plays’. Like some sort of gridiron strategy for extracting value from the marketplace. This was probably just reflective of the venture capitalists Vance interviewed along the way, but the lingo and implication seemed at odds with the general ethos behind SpaceX and Tesla.
The most jarring part of the book came toward the end when Ashlee was drawing conclusions. Vance fell into a trap of armchair psychology when he tried to rationalise some of Elon’s behavior. Ashlee dove into Aspergers, Neuropsychology and existential depression over a couple of short pages. All the research and evidence about these topics was missing and I certainly didn’t feel qualified or educated enough to form an opinion. “Here is a man and his behaviour doesn’t always adhere to these social norms. You need to be careful not to dabble in armchair psychology, but it is probably because of X.”
Quibbles aside, the best elements were certainly the early days at Paypal, Tesla and SpaceX. As someone who works in technology, being able to live vicariously through these engineering pursuits was super fun. I
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance is available from Amazon. It gets 4 out of 5.
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