Elon Musk is hailed as the new Steve Jobs. He has been immortalised in the movies thanks to the character Tony Stark/Iron Man being modelled on him. He created the first private company, SpaceX, to launch a satellite in space and the first to dock with the international space station. Oh, and his Tesla electric car company is the first major American car company to be established since Chrysler in 1925. So what makes him tick? I recently read Ashlee Vance’s biography of him, and 3 things stood out:
- He’s a massive reader, and has almost perfect memory recall. When he was growing up, he would often read for ten hours straight and he later taught himself rocket science in order to create SpaceX.
- He sets himself and others impossible targets…and achieves them. With SpaceX, having initially outsourced some of the production, he quickly switched to in-house production for almost everything. He once asked one of his engineers to build an actuator (a type of motor) that normally cost $120,000 for $5,000. After the shock of the request, the engineer took a year and made it for $3,900.
- He makes decisions quickly. One of his top engineers, Kevin Watson, who previously worked at NASA recalled “The entire ship could turn ninety degrees instantly. Lockheed Martin could never do anything like that.”
That was the good stuff, but Musk did seem to have some negative traits too. The engineer that made the much cheaper actuator only got a curt “OK” from Musk when he emailed him the good news. Moreover, Musk would often micro-manage, take the credit of others, and generally not show much empathy, which all took a toll on people that worked with him. Looks like genius has a dark side.