Book Review: Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson (2023)
Walter Isaacson’s 2023 biography of Elon Musk is a masterful portrayal of one of the most innovative and controversial figures of our time. The pace of the book reminded me of the movie “Magnolia,” starting at a contemplative pace and gradually accelerating to capture the frenetic energy of Musk’s life and career. Unlike the movie, Musk’s story hasn’t (at least not yet) slowed down; it continues to build momentum right to the end (the book finishes in spring 2023), leaving readers and the world at large anticipating what comes next (some of which is already unfolding – x.ai, etc.) Here are key themes from the book that stood out for me from my Kindle highlights and other notes:
- Intense Focus and Problem-Solving Approach: The book opens up the world of Elon Musk’s mind, showing how his deep contemplation, often marked by minutes of silent staring at problems, is a cornerstone of his problem-solving prowess. I also found it interesting that his escape was often video games – intense, hours long sessions that would end with the possibility of making a possibly world-changing decision on something he was struggling with.
- Hands-On Management and Micromanaging: Musk’s leadership style reveals a tendency to micromanage that defies conventional wisdom. Musk’s at times super hands-on approach, getting as involved as a line worker on a factory floor, highlights his commitment to understanding and influencing every aspect of his ventures. He was willing to be wrong in those moments – and admit to it later. But his efforts sent signals. Nobody is above the fray. One single person can always make a difference, and it doesn’t require lots of complexity or even intellectual prowess to do so – case in point, moving Twitter server farm from Sacramento to Oregon.
- Adaptability in Leadership Roles: Musk’s ability to fluidly switch between various senior roles is a testament to his versatility as a leader but also lack of patience in letting others “figure out” the roles through trial and error when he had seen enough. This adaptability and willingness to take on unimaginable responsibilities struck me as almost super-human – but perhaps crucial to the success to date (or perhaps explain why they didn’t fail which looked so imminent so often) of companies like SpaceX and Tesla.
- Unconventional Risk-taking and Commitment: The book illustrates Musk’s unique approach to risk, redefining the concept of ‘going all in.’ His willingness to risk personal and financial security – literally all of it – for his ventures is surpassed by perhaps no-one and serves as a hallmark of his entrepreneurial spirit. The podcast “All-In” should consider changing their name as they broadcast from tony vacation spots around the world and laugh about the spoils of their ventures and investments. In that crowd, all-in belongs solely to Musk, for better or for worse.
- Disregard for Conventional Rules: Musk’s disregard for the status quo, whether in personal decisions or professional strategies, is a recurring theme. Challenging conventional rules – laughing at them, really – is often necessary for breakthrough innovations. He shoots himself in the foot – a lot. Maybe it goes with the territory. He leaves personal relationships in the dust without a second thought. So few of us could or would aspire to be like that. Leave that one to the few.
- Influence of Parental Legacy: A poignant aspect of the book is the exploration of Musk’s relationship with his father. This theme sheds light on how family dynamics can profoundly influence an individual’s life choices and professional path.
- Personal Struggles and Mental Health: Musk’s personal challenges include his mental health struggles, and I was relieved they weren’t withheld. People need to know this part, if they don’t already. The book doesn’t shy away from discussing periods of depression, mood swings, and the immense pressure that comes with his ambitious goals. These insights provide a more humanized view of Musk, countering the often larger-than-life perception of him. It highlights the personal costs of being a high-achieving individual and the mental resilience required to navigate such a path. Again, so few would choose this path – one really with no return.
- Political Perspectives and Societal Impact: Isaacson also touches on Musk’s political views and his potential inclination towards disruptive political figures. This theme explores the idea of societal disruption, reflecting Musk’s belief in the necessity of radical change. There’s a part of me that wonders if in 2024 he may end up siding with Trump, not because he agrees with Trump or likes him in any way, but because accepting the status quo would be possibly more dangerous in his eyes. Shaking things up might be ugly from 2024-2028 or whenever, but perhaps it rallies people in a radical way to get these United States back in line.
- Controversy Around the Biography: I think I heard Kara Swisher ask Scott Galloway on their Pivot podcast why Isaacson hasn’t apologized for writing this book. This discussion raises broader questions about how society views and judges innovative but unconventional figures. Personally, I’m grateful that Isaacson took this 2-year journey, though I can imagine he needs a break for a bit after it.