Megan McDonough is a weddings and obituary writer for The Washington Post.
By Ashlee Vance
Ecco. 382 pp. $28.99
While other teens focused on their immediate future, Elon Musk worried about the future of mankind. According to veteran tech journalist Ashlee Vance, even as a teenager Musk saw “man’s fate in the universe as a personal obligation.” “Maybe I read too many comics as a kid,” he told Vance. “In the comics, it always seems like they’re trying to save the world.”
Often compared to visionaries Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, the 44-year-old Musk has harnessed, expanded and revolutionized the fields of electric cars, space exploration and solar energy. Based on extensive research and interviews with Musk, his colleagues, friends and family, Vance’s authorized biography examines the life and career of one of today’s most interesting and innovative industrialists.
A bookish, South African-born sci-fi fan, Musk taught himself computer programming at 10 and sold his first product, a video game, at 12. Vance details Musk’s troubled childhood, in which he was subjected to emotional abuse by his father and physical abuse by his classmates. At 17, on his own with little money, Musk immigrated to Canada. He lived off the kindness of extended family and meager earnings from odd jobs (cleaning boilers and cutting wood), barely making ends meet. He attended college in Ontario and later in the United States.
After college, he went to Silicon Valley, where he developed and sold two dot-com businesses: Zip2, an Internet software supplier, and X.com, a financial services company that grew into PayPal. As a result, Musk became a millionaire in his late 20s. Instead of banking his profits, the wunderkind reinvested them in his next three entrepreneurial ventures: the first fully electric sports car, Tesla; alternative energy, SolarCity; and low-cost, private spacecraft, SpaceX (whose unmanned rocket, headed on a cargo mission to the space station, exploded June 28, shortly after liftoff).
Vance depicts Musk as ambitious, passionate, even obsessive. His relentless pursuit of his vision and his unrealistic expectations of others at times jeopardize his credibility, health and personal relationships. The author argues that Musk’s world-changing vision and uncompromising dedication both intimidate and inspire his staff. “Some employees love him,” Vance writes. “Others loathe him but remain oddly loyal out of respect for his drive and mission.”
Musk’s eclectic, futuristic ideas know no bounds; he is currently developing reusable rockets, a high-speed transit system and space Internet, with an ultimate goal of colonizing Mars. “He’s the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted,” Vance writes. “Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to . . . well . . . save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.”