Selected Passages from Isaacson's Elon Musk Biography
4 min read

Selected Passages from Isaacson's Elon Musk Biography

Elon needs no introduction.

Below are some passages that stood out to me as particularly memorable.

When Kimbal moved to Canada and joined Elon as a student at Queen's, the brothers developed a routine. They would read the newspaper and pick out the person they found most interesting. Elon was not one of those eager-beaver types who liked to attract and charm mentors, so the more gregarious Kimbal took the lead in cold-calling the person. “If we were able to get through on the phone, they usually would have lunch with us," he says.

Musk insisted on setting unrealistic deadlines even when they weren't necessary, such as when he ordered test stands to be erected in weeks for rocket engines that had not yet been built. “A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle,” he repeatedly declared.

The sense of urgency was good for its own sake. It made his engineers engage in first-principles thinking. But as Mueller points out, it was also corrosive. “If you set an aggressive schedule that people think they might be able to make, they will try to put out extra effort,” he says. “But if you give them a schedule that's physically impossible, engineers aren't stupid. You've demoralized them. It's Elon's biggest weakness."

Steve Jobs did something similar. His colleagues called it his realitydistortion field. He set unrealistic deadlines, and when people balked, he would stare at them without blinking and say, "Don't be afraid, you can do it." Although the practice demoralized people, they ended up accomplishing things that other companies couldn't.

“Even though we failed to meet most schedules or cost targets that Elon laid out, we still beat all of our peers," Mueller admits. “We developed the lowest-cost, most awesome rockets in history, and we would end up feeling pretty good about it, even if Dad wasn't always happy with us.”

"It was like getting hit by a brick on the side of the head, something I never saw coming," says Eberhard, who should have seen it coming.

Musk often skated close to the edge of legality. He kept Tesla afloat through the first half of 2008 by dipping into the deposits made by customers for Roadsters that had not yet been built. Some Tesla executives and board members felt that the deposits should have been kept in escrow rather than tapped for operating expense, but Musk insisted, "We either do this or we die."

That led to an improbably weird and potentially awkward situation worthy of a new-age French farce. When Zilis was in the Austin hospital with complications from her pregnancy, so too was the surrogate mother carrying the baby girl that Musk and Grimes had secretly conceived in vitro. Because the surrogate mother was having a troubled pregnancy, Grimes was staying with her. She was unaware that Zilis was in a nearby room, or that she was pregnant by Musk.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Musk decided to fly west that Thanksgiving weekend to deal with the simpler issues of rocket engineering.

Every week he went over the most recent timetables and expressed, often rather strongly, his dissatisfaction. "Pretend we are a startup about to run out of money," he said at one of these sessions. "Faster. Faster! Please mark anytime a date has slipped. All bad news should be given loudly and often. Good news can be said quietly and once.”

At any given production meeting, whether at Tesla or SpaceX, there is a nontrivial chance that Musk will intone, like a mantra, what he calls "the algorithm." It was shaped by the lessons he learned during the production hell surges at the Nevada and Fremont factories. His executives sometimes move their lips and mouth the words, like they would chant the liturgy along with their priest. "I became a broken record on the algorithm," Musk says. "But I think it's helpful to say it to an annoying degree." It had five commandments:

  1. Question every requirement. Each should come with the name of the person who made it. You should never accept that a requirement came from a department, such as from "the legal department" or "the safety department." You need to know the name of the real person who made that requirement. Then you should question it, no matter how smart that person is. Requirements from smart people are the most dangerous, because people are less likely to question them. Always do so, even if the requirement came from me. Then make the requirements less dumb.
  2. Delete any part or process you can. You may have to add them back later. In fact, if you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you didn't delete enough.
  3. Simplify and optimize. This should come after step two. A common mistake is to simplify and optimize a part or a process that should not exist.
  4. Accelerate cycle time. Every process can be speeded up. But only do this after you have followed the first three steps. In the Tesla factory, I mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that I later realized should have been deleted.
  5. Automate. That comes last. The big mistake in Nevada and at Fremont was that I began by trying to automate every step. We should have waited until all the requirements had been questioned, parts and and processes deleted, and the bugs were shaken out.

The algorithm was sometimes accompanied by a few corollaries, among them:

  • All technical managers must have hands-on experience. For example, managers of software teams must spend at least 20% of their time coding. Solar roof managers must spend time on the roofs doing installations. Otherwise, they are like a cavalry leader who can't ride a horse or a general who can't use a sword.
  • Camaraderie is dangerous. It makes it hard for people to challenge each other's work. There is a tendency to not want to throw a colleague under the bus. That needs to be avoided.
  • It's OK to be wrong. Just don't be confident and wrong.
  • Never ask your troops to do something you're not willing to do.
  • Whenever there are problems to solve, don't just meet with your managers. Do a skip level, where you meet with the level right below your managers.
  • When hiring, look for people with the right attitude. Skills can be taught. - Attitude changes require a brain transplant.
  • A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle.
  • The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics.

    Everything else is a recommendation.