Monday, April 17, 2017

A Review: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

In his book about billionaire business man Elon Musk, author Ashlee Vance often compares Musk to Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) from the Marvel Comics universe.  To me, he seems much more like Delos D. Harriman, the protagonist of Robert Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon (1949).  Like Harriman, Musk is driven to take humanity into space and establish a permanent colony--not on the moon but on Mars. 

Growing up in South Africa, Musk was not only a computer nerd but a voracious reader of science fiction.  During a difficult childhood, this literature was formative for Musk, shaping his worldview and his values.

More of a physicist than a business man, Musk is a polymath who learns things quickly and has a vivid imagination.  He has used these skills to launch not only internet businesses like PayPal, but industrial companies such as SpaceX, a rocket builder; Tesla, an electric automobile manufacturer; and SolarCity, the manufacturer and installer of solar panels.  He is a risk taker who is willing to stake his fortune on the future.

While a genius in many ways, Musk has a problem with relationships.  Vance is honest about Musk’s tendency to be emotionally ignorant (as opposed to emotionally intelligent) and harsh in his relationships both with family and employees.  Musk has been fortunate in discovering people in all of his companies who are the “back office” leaders who hold things together when he overreaches.  To this point, he has been able to keep these people in place, probably because they believe more in the company than in their CEO.

Musk can be charming when he chooses to be, but Vance acknowledges that he is often not a very nice person.  The author credits this to Musk’s drive to save the planet (through ecologically friendly products) and free humanity from the bonds of earth through space colonization.  These are the most important things in Musk’s life, although he seems to love his children and want them to have good lives.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  (Matthew 6:21, NIV) I might paraphrase this to say, “What you value is what you give your life to.”  When I coach someone, I try to help that person get in touch with his or her values because this is what motivates a person to invest themselves in change.  If you know what is important to you, you can create goals that mean something to you.

Musk, in a somewhat perverse way, is an example of being highly motivated by one’s values.  The problem is that few of his values have to do with relationships.  As Charles Schulz’s Lucy said, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”  Musk wants to move humanity in a new direction both ecologically and geographically, but he does not have a lot of patience with people.

Musk is a good example of an innovator and a risk-taker.  He has a vision and he is following through with it.  One might question, however, if the relational cost is worth the achievement of the vision.

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