Elon Musk Summary (Walter Isaacson)

1-Sentence-Summary: Elon Musk is an intimate account of the life of the man who might be the 21st century’s most important innovator, engineer, and businessman, based on over two years of shadowing him through the ups and downs of his everyday life running Tesla, SpaceX, and four other world-changing companies.

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Elon Musk Summary Walter Isaacson

The movie Escape from Pretoria tells the true story of 3 anti-apartheid fighters escaping from a grueling South African prison in 1979. It’s an extremely intense movie, and that same nail-biting, danger-around-every-corner Pretoria is where Elon Musk, born in 1971, grew up.

His father repeatedly sent the young Musk to veldskool, a “toughen-up” camp. The premise? Give kids minimal food and supplies, then let them fight to see who’s “a survivor” — in some cases literally. “Every few years, one of the kids would die,” Elon recalls.

Early on, Elon got beaten up a lot everywhere, but by age 16, he had grown to 6 feet and could defend himself. His specialty? The nose-punch. As it turns out, that one really, really hurts. “If you have never been punched in the nose,” Elon says, “you have no idea how it affects you the rest of your life.”

When I read it, this line made me stop in my tracks. I realized: I have never been punched in the nose. Noticing this difference helped me understand Elon a little better. This, I believe, is the reason we read biographies.

If you want the hard facts of Elon Musk’s life, you can get those on Wikipedia or in our mini-bio of the man. But if you want to understand Elon Musk — why the man does what he does and thinks how he thinks — you must get to know his story. That’s what Elon Musk, Walter Isaacson‘s 2023 biography, is for.

Here are 3 lessons from the book to better understand one of the most interesting and successful humans of our time:

  1. Elon Musk suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, and we should remember this fact when judging him.
  2. Use Elon’s 5-step algorithm to accomplish “impossible” goals.
  3. It’s important but not guaranteed that life feels inspiring. This is a privilege we must fight for.

Let’s get to know the real Elon Musk!

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Lesson 1: Elon Musk has autism — a condition like any other, and one we should consider when judging his actions.

Elon Musk has 10 children with 3 different women. He’s been married and divorced 3 times — twice to and from the same woman. He once smoked a joint live on a podcast, crashed a million-dollar car, and posts more memes on X (formerly Twitter, which he bought for $44 billion) than anyone you know.

It’s easy to look at the drama and conclude “that guy is nuts!” But reality is more complicated.

Elon once admitted that he had Asperger’s on live TV: “Look, I know I say or post strange things, but that’s just how my brain works.” Asperger’s syndrome is a mild version of autism. The brain develops differently, making it hard for a person to normally respond to emotional and social cues from others.

Elon Musk’s autism can’t explain all of his antics, but many of them. When he zones out, fluctuates between highly emotional and stone-cold moods, completely forgets what people told him the day before, or fails to read the room, that’s likely Asperger’s at work.

Musician Grimes, the mother of 3 of his children, once succinctly put it like this: “If someone has depression or anxiety, we sympathize. But if they have Asperger’s we say he’s an asshole.”

When you don’t understand someone’s behavior, look for the invisible forces influencing them you might not see. Or, in Ian MacLaren’s words: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Lesson 2: Elon Musk’s 5-step algorithm is what helps him — and you — accomplish impossible goals.

Musk is known for “thinking from first principles.” In his own words: “Physics is the law, everything else is a recommendation.” In 2014, Tesla only sold 31,000 cars. Elon said they would produce 500,000 per year by 2020. The news called it “absurd.” The last car company to reach mass production like that was Chrysler — in 1980. But in 2020, Tesla sold 499,550 cars.

One thing that helps Elon achieve such “impossible” goals is what Isaacson calls “the algorithm” in the book. It’s meant for manufacturing hardware products but translates well to almost any area of life:

  1. Question every requirement. Hold folks accountable to why their requirements exist, and insist on requirements that actually make sense.
  2. Delete any part or process you can. “If you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them,” Elon says, “then you didn’t delete enough.”
  3. Simplify and optimize.
  4. Accelerate cycle time. “Every process can be sped up.”
  5. Automate.

Importantly, do the steps in order. Never simplify, optimize, accelerate, or automate a process that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Whether it is your job, your home life, or a hobby you hope can become a career: Think for yourself, question the consensus, and focus only on the truly necessary steps you must take.

Try applying Elon’s algorithm to all kinds of things, and watch yourself accomplishing what others think is impossible!

Lesson 3: Life must be about more than just solving problems. Find your inspiration, and fight for it!

So far, we’ve seen Elon’s emotional, vulnerable side, and his rational, calculated side. But there’s also a simply human side: Elon Musk wants to feel excited, have fun, and look forward to the future.

In a 2022 TED interview, he said: “Life cannot simply be about solving one miserable problem after another.” And in another: “You want to get up in the morning and be excited about the future. There have got to be things that get you excited. Like, you want to live. These things are very important.”

To Elon, one of the most inspiring things is making humans a multi-planetary, space-faring species. That’s why he started SpaceX, and that’s why he worked like hell to make rockets reusable and to reduce the cost of space travel.

Elon Musk may do seemingly odd things, but often, the intention behind them is an inspiring motive. The play may not work out, but it’s the idea of a better future that counts!

What kind of future makes you feel inspired? Think about it. Work for your right to wake up excited in the morning. A prosperous future is not guaranteed, but if we draw a clear picture of it together and then dedicate ourselves to it, tomorrow will indeed be just as beautiful — perhaps even better than — our dreams.

Elon Musk Walter Isaacson Review

I love all of Walter Isaacson’s books, and Elon Musk is no exception. It’s a long but worthwhile read detailing countless little episodes of Elon’s life in somewhat chronological order. If nothing else, I hope it will show you that Elon Musk, like every other human being, is a person of many colors. Full recommend!

Who would I recommend our Elon Musk summary to?

The 15-year-old Elon fan who wants to be an engineer, the 35-year-old Wall Street analyst who’s skeptic of Musk’s ambitions, and anyone who’s interested in science, space, cars, or the future.

Last Updated on March 8, 2024

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Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!