Elon Musk By Ashlee Vance Book Summary

Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future By Ashlee Vance

Tech journalist Ashlee Vance offers an unprecedented look into the life and mind of our generation’s most influential figure, Elon Musk. Peering back into childhood up to his latest ventures, this Snapshot covers the gamut of Musk’s development from unknown prodigy to international mogul and offers a taste of his untouchable vision in the process.

Elon Musk Book Summary

  • Want to know the real Elon Musk
  • Are fascinated by technology and where it’s going
  • Are a fan of Musk but know little about him
Elon Musk Book Cover


The word “genius” gets thrown around a lot these days, but seems tailor-made for Elon Musk. Although his name is associated with numerous projects, ideas, and trends, more than anything he would like to be known for SpaceX, a company whose ultimate goal is to see humans inhabiting other planets. It’s his testament to a persevering future and commitment to making it a reality. 

Being more ambitious than most people on the only planet we currently occupy, he lives a beat ahead of the rest of us, with one hand grasped firmly around possibilities beyond our ken. His tenacious and intrepid abilities have shaped him into a role model for any aspiring entrepreneur who wishes for success while making a global difference. 

For that reason, Vance sees him more as a 21st-century Thomas Edison than a Howard Hughes, with a little P. T. Barnum dashed in for good measure: a public figure who has achieved astronomical wealth by capitalizing on people’s need for wonder. He lives in his own world, yet makes it part of our own.

Off the Ground  

When Elon Musk entered the tech space with more passion and fortitude than anyone could have imagined, a certain malaise had beset the dot-com industry. Four years later, he sold his first company, Zip2, for $307 million, and used his $22 million profits from that deal to found what would become PayPal, which went on to be acquired by eBay in 2002 for a cool $1.5 billion. 

Rather than drown himself in the pool of Silicon Valley, he relocated to Los Angeles, founding SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity. In doing so, he suddenly became a competitor not only on an industrial level, but also on an international scale, taking on Lockheed Martin and Boeing but also Russia and China with his border line insane vision. By 2012, when SpaceX sent a supply capsule to the International Space Station and Tesla Motors released its Model S, even those who’d dismissed him as a utopian-minded dreamer found their cynicism hard to maintain. 

Then again, Musk had always been a provocateur. He first came to attention in 1984 when, at the mere age of 12, PC and Office Technology (a South African trade publication) published his original source code for a video game called Blastar. By his teens, he was already wanting to influence the fate of humanity for the better. He took not only great pleasure in, but also inspiration from, science fiction, and his ambitions of saving the world might very well have been inspired by the super heroes warring for peace across the pages of his comic books. Science fiction was always a touchstone for him; through it he learned that changing the world was impossible without first asking the right questions. 

While growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, from a young age he saw America as his ticket to realizing his dreams. After just five months of studying physics and engineering at the University of Pretoria, he left it all behind for North America in 1989. He enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, but put more effort into extracurricular networking than classwork. While there, he met Justine, who would later become his wife. Soon enough, his unique brand of enthusiasm, vision, and personality won him an increasingly charismatic reputation. After two years of this routine, a scholarship whisked him away to the University of Pennsylvania, where he thrived and met lifetime friend, and future Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Adeo Ressi. Unknown even to those closest to him, his master plan had begun. 

Getting his first company, Zip2, off the ground in Palo Alto, California, was the first of many challenges. The back-end software company, which connected newspapers to online city guides, allowed advertisers and users to communicate with each other via its proprietary platform, and Musk was determined to see it grow. After buying everything he needed with funds from an initial investment pool, he was almost broke before he started. 

He and his brother, co-founder Kimbal Musk, had only a couple of mattresses in their otherwise unfurnished apartment. His commitment was so unwavering that he would sometimes compare himself to a samurai — death had become more alluring than failure — and he could often be found sleeping on a beanbag in front of his office computer. It was the duty of whoever showed up first for work in the morning to kick him back into action. He also fell in with another co-founder, Greg Kouri, a Canadian businessman who threw a little water on Musk’s fire to keep him sane.

Paying it Forward  

Selling Zip2 gave Musk the confidence he needed to shift gears into his next platform: an internet bank that would revolutionize the way money was exchanged online. Although the financial powers that be felt his vision was far too premature, citing security and other unresolved issues, he paid them no heed. He was, in fact, already working on it before the Zip2 buyout. What began as X.com set out to revolutionize banking by allowing users to send money directly to anyone in the world with nothing more than an email address. When Musk was ousted from the company, later rebranded as PayPal, he wasted no time wallowing in anger, instead pushing forward as the company’s advisor and biggest shareholder. When eBay offered to buy them, he insisted they hold out for more money, leading to the $1.5 billion they ended up accepting. With the $180 million of gross profit he earned from that deal, his innermost desires seemed achievable at last. 

This whole sequence of events earned Musk a negative reputation among journalists who downplayed his involvement in PayPal’s rise to prominence. Such slander was, of course, unfounded and ridiculous, and it didn’t take long for Musk’s genius to win the public over. By the same token, he wasn’t exactly your typical CEO. Then again, neither was Steve Jobs. In any event, no one could deny his prowess, willingness to take risks, and, perhaps above all, his uncanny attraction for talent. Founders of such ubiquitous platforms as YouTube, Yelp, and Palantir Technologies all got their start at PayPal. 

In the background of all this, Musk’s relationship with Justine was deepening. They married, but Justine soon found that, despite his affections, Musk treated her more like an accessory than an equal partner. When they finally took the honeymoon they’d postponed because of the X.com coup, Musk was struck by malaria and nearly died upon his return to the States. In characteristic fashion, he dusted himself off and got back to work as quickly as possible. 

were ready their usual testing site was no longer available within schedule. They found a small island serving as a military testing site in the Kwajalein Atoll (Republic of the Marshall Islands) and went to work. Their first launch in March of 2006 was a failure. Reminded of the fact that most rockets never flew the first time, and that leaving Earth’s atmosphere was no small task, Musk pulled up his bootstraps yet again. A second test launch on March 15, 2007, fared little better. 

Up and Away

Musk turned his attention to Los Angeles. There he encountered the Mars Society, a group of likeminded scientists who, among other things, looked forward to possibility of interplanetary colonization. Musk shared this dream, and took full advantage of the connection to make more of his own.

The aeronautics industry’s best and brightest were thrilled to welcome aboard someone of Musk’s passion and wealth. Meanwhile, his closest friends were hoping he would lose interest in this crazy scheme and invest in something more tangible and practical. Former business partners saw his actions as the fantasies of a man who had never quite grown out of his childhood obsessions. The difference in Musk’s case was that he had on his side the brilliant mind of Tom Mueller, a bona fide rocket builder whose knowhow made possible the founding of Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, in 2002.

Musk envisioned SpaceX becoming the first commercial airline of space. The prospect was a win-win, giving scientists easy access to extraplanetary data, and the military access to space, by the financial support of someone who cared and understood the parameters involved in either sphere. Amid this progress, however, his wife gave birth to a son who died at 10 weeks of sudden infant death syndrome. True to form, he hid the tragedy and moved on. It was the only way for him to survive.

As they prepared their first rocket engine for testing, announcing plans for not one but two rockets, challenges mounted, but Musk’s growing team was up to them, traveling between California and a testing site in Texas to fine-tune their technology. This grueling schedule took its toll on Musk’s engineers, although most of them had been chosen for their surplus of midnight oil to begin with and coped with an excitement superseded only by their boss’ indefatigable own. But even as their engine became workable, many smaller problems arose, and by the time they were ready their usual testing site was no longer available within schedule. They found a small island serving as a military testing site in the Kwajalein Atoll (Republic of the Marshall Islands) and went to work. Their first launch in March of 2006 was a failure. Reminded of the fact that most rockets never flew the first time, and that leaving Earth’s atmosphere was no small task, Musk pulled up his bootstraps yet again. A second test launch on March 15, 2007, fared little better.

On the Road Again  

When J. B. Straubel, an engineer with an idea for an electric car, caught Musk’s attention, the two became inseparable, if turbulent, allies as they set out to revolutionize an automotive industry that hadn’t been disrupted to such an extent since Chrysler in 1925. Enchanted by advancements in lithium ion battery technology, they teamed up with Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning to make the dream a reality. 

Eberhard’s visual mockup was the first step toward manufacture. They pitched Musk on the idea of investing in Tesla Motors, and he agreed. Straubel was called in to help and became an instant part of their master team. After figuring out a sufficient battery system, Tesla unveiled its flagship Roadster model in July 2006. Not long after, Eberhard was ousted from his position as CEO and left the company bitterly. 

Musk’s cultural importance was also coming into focus. Robert Downey Jr., for example, shadowed Musk for the Iron Man movies, although the degree to which Musk inspired Tony Stark was exaggerated by mainstream press (and by director Jon Favreau). Either way, Downey imagined Musk as someone with whom Stark would certainly have hung out — hence the Tesla Roadster in Stark’s office — and used that to fuel his performance. 

Meanwhile, Musk and his wife were enjoying the good life, or so it seemed, rubbing shoulders with celebrities and living in Bel Air with Quincy Jones as a neighbor. But despite having five children and plenty of capital, his marriage, like his mind, was buckling under the weight of his own ventures. He was losing money fast, and filed for divorce. On the relationship front, he would go on to marry, and divorce, actress Talulah Riley twice over.


On September 28, 2008, SpaceX completed its first successful launch, much to the world’s astonishment. Any excitement over this accomplishment was just as soon tempered by the company’s dire financial straits. And so, Musk focused his efforts on Tesla, leading to another milestone in 2012, when Tesla’s Model S sedan went out into the world. Given his habit of missing deadlines, no one expected it. Yet none of this was enough to soften his mainstream image, especially when Eberhard sued him for slander, libel, and breach of contract. 

Despite these and other setbacks, including well-publicized engine fires, the Model S sold well as an emblematic product for the company. Tesla had now become part of our culture. It was a lifestyle, not just an accessory, that survived only by Musk’s tenacity. 

In 2006, Musk became chairman of his cousins’ company SolarCity, which, also by 2012, had grown into the country’s largest solar panel installer. And in 2013 he revealed his concept for a new transportation system called the Hyperloop. Modeled on the tubes used to transport documents in banks and offices, he imagined the Hyperloop as a safer and more efficient alternative to trains. This, too, was misperceived as a pipe dream (no pun intended), but felt real soon enough when Musk released his detailed plans. We may not know the future of this or any other idea crystallizing in his hyperactive mind, but we do know that he won’t stop dreaming until the world wakes up from its own complacent slumber.


While Elon Musk has certainly encountered his fair share of criticism, Ashlee Vance’s unparalleled portrait paints him as an individual of profound empathy. 

As is often the way with geniuses, Musk’s concern for the human race sometimes feels off-putting to those accustomed to grand narratives of individuality. This is the sacrifice one has to make when thinking of people and technologies that have yet to exist. He lives partly in a reality removed from our own, and it’s all we can do to catch up. 

Whether we agree with his politics (such as they are) or his vision, we can take his passion as an example of how to enrich our own lives with meaning. Above all, he has shown us that life is meaningless without goals, and that some goals are greater than all of us put together.

About the Author

Ashlee Vance

An in demand writer on technology, Ashlee Vance cut his chops on The New York Times, for whom he served as a Silicon Valley insider, before moving on to Bloomberg Businessweek. Before his highly regarded work on Elon Musk, he wrote Geek Silicon Valley, a definitive history of America’s tech capital, in 2007. He also runs the “Hello World” video series hosted on Bloomberg, which follows trending tech leads around the globe.

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