Book Review: Elon Musk


Elon Musk book cover

Title: Elon Musk

Author(s): Walter Isaacson

Most people on Earth probably have heard about Elon Musk, and most will probably also think he is as eccentric as clever; at times looking so intelligent and creative, other times such a disrespectful public figure. Combined with a well known biographies writer, Walter Isaacson, this book made for an appealing reading.

I am as happy to have read it, as I am sad of the conclusions I take from it.

The TL;DR is that yes, the book mostly confirms what everyone thinks about Musk: An amazing visionary and strategist, that is pushing humanity ahead technologically in multiple fronts, but also a hypocritical, Steve Jobs-like distorted reality viewer, unsocial and terrible people manager, plus apparently a social media addict [1].

I learned a lot about his and Paypal years, about how Tesla came to be (he wasn't a founder, more of an activist investor), SpaceX (impressive story), OpenAI (the less surprising story, mostly what we already know), bits about The Boring Company and Neuralink (less successful adventures have less attention in the book), and of course the Twitter drama. All of them quite interesting, and very revealing of how he thinks and likes to manage, and directly control, everything.

I have no doubt he is intelligent, and he has really innovative approaches to managing companies, like being ruthless in questioning every procedure, every step and every requirement to try to optimize it, or the "idiot index" (despite the unfortunate name), by which if some piece's source materials costs way less than the sell price, it can be optimized. Or his radical approach of flattening organizations, so that technical managers must have hands-on experience, and engineers have to work very closely with design and product.

But then, you have the people management "procedures"... Making people work 24-7 just because he lives in a permanent state of paranoia that, in his mind, if he stops everything will fall apart (when things are calm he makes up something). This is very unhealthy, and along the book we'll find examples of how most of his lieutenants and close circle go-to persons are people who basically put work above everything else [2]. And then, despite of this extremely hardcore work attitude, still being so ruthless with people around him, for them to have "kind words" such as the following:

"He can be quick to personalize blame when something goes wrong"

"Elon is just not a very nice person and didn’t treat people well"

"He could be a bully and brutal"

We also get a (maybe too long) glimpse of his troubled infancy, which could be the source of his horrible social skills and dictatorial attitude. But to me, it feels he has not tried to solve them, so they are not an excuse for treating others so badly.

And, after reading how mr. Musk iterates at times so dangerously on his optimization procedures, I think that I will never use a "first version" of any product of his companies; he first removes too much, then brings back what was really needed, but that includes disregarding all safety measures, from space rocket components to handling computer servers, so I'll let others "test" and pick a v2 or v3 when things are more mature.

It is a very good book, way more surprising than Steve Jobs' biography, but at times it is not a pleasant reading because what it tells. Advancing humanity is good, but to me the how is as important as the why.

[1]: Unfiltered/Not thinking before writing on social media has been, and still is as of early 2024, problematic for both him and for the companies he manages.

[2]: The work-centered obsession reached absurd extremes, like having your family live with you inside Twitter offices, being in a constant 24-7 on-call during years, being frowned upon if taking any vacation...

Book Review: Elon Musk published @ . Author: