Notes from Elon Musk's Biography

For an extended period of time late last year, I was obsessed with Elon Musk. I consider him my modern day hero. I have mentioned him before in my essay How to Live Life

Through his story, I wanted to understand, what drives the high achievers to take incredible personal risks and have the drive and intelligence to see them through to the end. So, I picked up Musk's biography Elon Musk : How The Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future by Ashlee Vance. It offers a unique perspective inside one of the most brilliant minds of our generation. 

The following are my highlights from the book and my notes on the basis of all that I have read and watched about Musk. His story gives me inspiration and some important lessons. I hope you find it useful too.



(Lines from the book are in italics)


His most fundamental philosophy:

“When thinking, go down to the fundamentals of a problem, instead of deciphering it via analogy.”

This right here is to me Musk’s most endearing trait - his hyper rationality. By going down to the most basic entity of a problem, whether it is business or personal, we can find a better solution. I cannot stress this enough. Take this for example:

Acronyms Seriously Suck - Musk wrote a long email to his employees urging them not to use acronyms for common technical terms. This is to ensure that any new joinee doesn't have a problem in catching up with things. Because when people discuss things in acronyms, you don't want to be the one who looks dumb and asks to be explained the meaning. It seems trivial to mention this in a company-wide email but highlights his uncompromising rationality in even the most basic tasks.

Quotes from his employees:

You did what Musk asked or were prepared to burrow down into the properties of materials to explain why something could not be done. “He always said, ‘Take it down to the physics"
He would place this urgency that he expected the revenue in ten years to be ten million dollars a day and that every day we were slower to achieve our goals was a day of missing out on that money.
If you told him that you made a particular choice because ‘it was the standard way things had always been done,’ he’d kick you out of a meeting fast. He’d say, ‘I never want to hear that phrase again. What we have to do is fucking hard and half-assing things won’t be tolerated.’

And when he's building any component of his product, however big or small, he wants it to be the best:

“We have to decide what is the best sun visor in the world and then do better”


On building a culture:

Next is his quality of building a comradeship and responsibility among his people. These folks genuinely believe they are working on things that will alter the course of humanity (which they are). 

“Every person on that island was a fucking star, and they were always holding seminars on radios or the engine. It was such an invigorating place.”
Straubel was stalking the solar car crew, trying to talk them into building an electric car based on the lithium ion batteries. He would fly up to Palo Alto, spend the night sleeping in his plane, and then ride a bicycle to the Stanford campus to make his sales pitch while helping with their current projects.
An undergraduate, Berdichevsky volunteered to quit school, work for free, and sweep the floors at Tesla if that’s what it took to get a job.

At a time when Tesla was running out of money, and Musk had to lean on friends to try to make payroll from week to week, as he negotiated with investors, this is what happened: 

“A bunch of Tesla employees wrote checks to keep the company going,”

On his work ethic

His work ethic and ability to handle stress is second to none:

“Elon would come home at eleven and work some more. People didn’t always get the sacrifice he made in order to be where he was.” 
“He has the ability to work harder and endure more stress than anyone I’ve ever met”
"I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain.”

And he wasn't immune to feeling dejected like normal humans:

Musk had come to Russia filled with optimism about putting on a great show for mankind and was now leaving exasperated and disappointed by human nature.


On his commitment:

‘I will spend my last dollar on these companies. If we have to move into Justine’s parents’ basement, we’ll do it.’
“God is our witness, come hell or high water, I am going to do it"

On the kind of people he wants to work with:

One thing that Musk holds in the highest regard is resolve, and he respects people who continue on after being told no.
What Musk would not tolerate were excuses or the lack of a clear plan of attack.
Spotting engineers who have exhibited type A personality traits over the course of their lives.
The object is to find individuals who ooze passion, can work well as part of a team, and have real-world experience bending metal.
Where a typical manager may set the deadline for the employee, Musk guides his engineers into taking ownership of their own delivery dates. “He doesn’t say, ‘You have to do this by Friday at two P.M.,’” Brogan said. “He says, ‘I need the impossible done by Friday at two P.M. Can you do it?’ Then, when you say yes, you are not working hard because he told you to. You’re working hard for yourself. It’s a distinction you can feel. You have signed up to do your own work.”
People who await guidance or detailed instructions languish. The same goes for workers who crave feedback.

And of course he is super intelligent:

People who have spent significant time with Musk will attest to his abilities to absorb incredible quantities of information with near-flawless recall.

Musk expresses empathy at a different level:

His brand of empathy is unique. He seems to feel for the human species as a whole without always wanting to consider the wants and needs of individuals.


Musk's endeavors are grand - on the scale of humanity and probably beyond. His efforts in all the companies together surmount anything seen ever before. Granted that he may not have started Tesla or Solar City but without his drive to get things done, they may not have reached the state they did.

I leave you with this quote, which to me is his most powerful one:

"It seemed like one should try to make the world a better place because the inverse makes no sense.”

I hope you get a chance to read the book. It is deeply inspiring and finds a place in my list of Best Books I read in 2015.


  1. Notes from How to live on 24 hours a day
  2. The Dharma Bums Book Review
  3. Siddhartha Book Review

Want more such book reviews? Add in your email address below to get my newsletter. Mails go out at most once a fortnight.