May 24, 2015


What Fuels the Rocket Man? : A theory of Elon Musk. (Will Oremus, 5/22/15, Slate)

At 43, Musk has helmed at least three companies that could fairly be said to have upended their respective industries. PayPal did it to payments, Tesla to cars, and SpaceX to space travel. SolarCity, whose board he chairs, is among a handful of startups threatening to do the same to electric utilities. 

Forget Jobs: Vance places Musk in the pantheon of history's great industrialists, alongside Edison, Ford, and Rockefeller. Some critics have chided the veteran Businessweek columnist for his apparent hyperbole. Those critics are, of course, just the sort of people whose conventional wisdom Musk has made a career out of defying. The electric car was dead; against all odds, Musk's Tesla revived it--and built one of the great vehicles of all time in the process. The space race was over; Musk's SpaceX reignited it. The residential solar power industry was moribund; thanks in part to SolarCity, it's booming.

For all his achievements, however, Musk is not an uncomplicated figure--nor, by any account, an easy man to work for. Vance's lively book yields all manner of fascinating insights about Musk's companies, his vision, and his personal life. But what I hoped to glean from it was this: What could drive one man to tackle so many seemingly impossible problems, let alone solve them all? And: Is there a fatal flaw that might yet prove his undoing?

A close reading of Musk's life suggests the answer to both questions may be related. He tends to assume--not without reason--that he is smarter and more capable than just about everyone around him. So whatever others are doing--whether it's finance, cars, rockets, solar panels, or his own company's public relations--he naturally assumes he could do it better. From a precocious but harsh childhood in South Africa, meanwhile, he absorbed the lesson that the status quo is largely a product of layer upon layer of laziness and incompetence. That the reigning consensus holds a given task to be impossible presents no obstacle to Musk: It might just mean no one as ingenious and determined as he has seriously tackled it yet.

Posted by at May 24, 2015 6:05 AM

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