The following is an excerpt of Rocket Man: Elon Musk in His Own Words, edited by Jessica Easto and published by Agate Publishing.
Elon Musk wants to change the world.
If researching this book has taught me anything, it’s that Musk’s unapologetic, unbridled ambition unsettles (or enrages) people at least as much as it inspires them. And yet it would be difficult to argue on objective grounds that the depth and breadth of his work are not changing the world in important ways.
Musk knew from an early age that he wanted to leave his home in South Africa for the United States—in his words, “the greatest country that’s ever existed on earth”—in order to be in the best position to make a difference. In college, he decided the fields that were most likely to impact the future of humanity included the internet, space travel, and sustainable energy. Since then, he’s been working to improve them one by one.
When eBay purchased PayPal (Musk’s second internet company) in 2002, he walked away with a cool $180 million and promptly started pouring it into a seemingly insane venture: SpaceX, a private company that aims to “revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” Musk taught himself rocket science, became the company’s chief designer, and set out to take the first step toward making life multiplanetary: reducing the cost of space travel. In the 14 years since then, Musk and his SpaceX team have transformed the way rockets are manufactured, reduced the cost of launches by millions of dollars, earned lucrative contracts from both commercial and government entities, and achieved numerous space-travel milestones, including the ability to launch and land (and hopefully reuse) an orbital rocket booster stage. The company’s eyes are now set on Mars.
Meanwhile, in 2004, Musk joined the newly created Tesla Motors and made the company’s mission “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” by making fully electric cars that are practical, fun, fast, beautiful, and available to everyone. First came the Roadster, which proved that an electric luxury sports car with suitable range could exist. Next came Model S, a luxury sedan, and then Model X, an SUV, both of which have been designed with safety as a top priority (Model S is the highest-scoring of any vehicle ever tested). When Tesla announced the long-awaited mass-market Model 3 in March 2016, it received close to 400,000 reservations in only two weeks.
Along the way, Tesla has revolutionized the manufacture of one of the most complex commercial products on earth, continuously innovated and improved notoriously complicated battery technology, gone toe-to- toe with the automotive industry and Big Oil, and invented and built practical systems for electric charging and power storage via Tesla Energy—which Musk hopes to build upon with the acquisition of SolarCity, a solar panel and installation company he’s backed and advised since its creation in 2006. Between SolarCity, Tesla Energy, and Tesla Motors, Musk believes he has created a complete solution for all elements of sustainable energy: creation, storage, and transportation.
Musk is a maverick and a visionary, one with the rare ability to identify and navigate problems of almost incomprehensible scale and complexity—despite high barriers of entry and the risk of almost certain failure. Deeply involved with every aspect of his companies, he is primarily an engineer by desire and an entrepreneur and businessman by necessity. In the words of Bill Gates, “There’s no shortage of people with a vision for the future. What makes Elon exceptional is his ability to make his come true.”
Despite all of this, critics insist that Musk’s companies are not successful: they don’t make money; they don’t meet their deadlines; their products are unsafe, untested, or unreliable; their ambitions are fundamentally flawed; and their CEO is a crazy, callous egomaniac who will not stop until he crushes his companies under the weight of his own hubris. I’ll let Musk defend himself against these claims in his own words, but for now, it’s worth noting that while scrutiny is certainly merited, the media’s fixation on Musk’s failures is often baffling, especially in light of his long list of accomplishments.
The truth is that even if all of his ventures folded today, Musk’s efforts have already accelerated humanity’s progress toward sustainable energy and multiplanetary civilization. He’s exceeded expectations so many times that it’s easy to forget the world in which he started, one with zero viable electric vehicle programs and outdated domestic launch vehicles that could no longer transport humans to space. With the sale of hundreds of thousands of Tesla Model 3s looming, other automotive companies are starting to take their own electric vehicle programs more seriously, most notably Chevrolet with its Chevy Bolt and Audi with its e-tron quattro. No aerospace company is closer to orbital rocket reusability than SpaceX—or to cost-effective rocket development, for that matter. A top executive at United Launch Alliance—Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s space technology partnership and SpaceX’s main US competitor—resigned in 2016 after admitting that ULA couldn’t compete with SpaceX’s launch costs.
In 2015, Musk cofounded OpenAI, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that artificial intelligence remains an open-source technology so that everyone has access to its benefits. Tesla’s patents are also open source, which makes them available to anyone who wishes to benefit from them and underscores Musk’s mission-driven, not money-driven, motives. Perhaps one of the more admirable (or inexplicable if you are on Wall Street) aspects of Musk’s character is that he seems unconcerned with financial gain. That might be an easy stance for a multibillionaire to take, but Musk came close to bankruptcy after pouring most of his personal funds into SpaceX and Tesla during a rough time for both companies in 2008. Instead, as you’ll see, he seems unambiguously dedicated to contributing solutions for the betterment of humankind and to ensuring that the future of humanity is a bright and inspiring one.
Below you will find a selection of Elon Musk quotes from various interviews, podcasts, social posts, blogs, and public appearances all of which can be found in Rocket Man.
“I do think it’s worth thinking about whether what you’re doing is going to result in disruptive change or not. If it’s just incremental, it’s unlikely to be something major. It’s got to be something that’s substantially better than what’s gone on before.” —SXSW Conference, March 9, 2013
“I don’t think everything needs to change the world, you know…. Just say: ‘Is what I’m doing as useful as it could be?’” —STVP Future Fest, October 7, 2015
“Fundamentally, if you don’t have a compelling product at a compelling price, you don’t have a great company.” —Inc. 5000 Conference, 2008
“If you go back a few hundred years, what we take for granted today would seem like magic—being able to talk to people over long distances, to transmit images, flying, accessing vast amounts of data like an oracle…. So engineering is, for all intents and purposes, magic, and who wouldn’t want to be a magician?” —Forbes, March 26, 2012
“Certainly, in the beginning, when I told people I was trying to create a rocket company, they thought I was crazy. That seemed like a very improbable thing. And I agreed with them—I think it was improbable. But sometimes the improbable happens.” —Living Legends of Aviation awards dinner, January 22, 2010
“What a lot of people don’t appreciate is that technology does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of really strong engineering talent is applied to the problem…. There are many examples in history where civilizations have reached a certain technology level and then have fallen well below that and then recovered only millennia later.” —International Astronautical Congress, September 27, 2016
“We don’t think too much about what competitors are doing because I think it’s important to be focused on making the best possible products. It’s maybe analogous to what they say about if you’re in a race: don’t worry about what the other runners are doing—just run.” —StartmeupHK Venture Forum, January 26, 2016
“We’re already a cyborg. You have a digital version of yourself or partial version of yourself online in the form of your e-mails and your social media and all the things that you do. And you have, basically, superpowers with your computer and your phone and the applications that are there. You have more power than the president of the United States had 20 years ago. You can answer any question; you can videoconference with anyone anywhere; you can send a message to millions of people instantly. You just do incredible things.” —Code Conference, June 1, 2016
“Our goal when we created Tesla a decade ago was the same as it is today: to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible. If we could have done that with our first product, we would have, but that was simply impossible to achieve for a startup company that had never built a car and that had one technology iteration and no economies of scale. Our first product was going to be expensive no matter what it looked like, so we decided to build a sports car, as that seemed like it had the best chance of being competitive with its gasoline alternatives.” —“The Mission of Tesla,” November 18, 2013
“The goal of SpaceX is to revolutionize space travel. The long-term goal is to establish Mars as a self-sustaining civilization as well as to just kind of have a more exciting future.” —hitRECord on TV, February 1, 2014
“I’m not saying we’ll do it [become multiplanetary], to be sure. The odds are we won’t succeed. But if something is important enough, then you should do it anyway.” —Smithsonian magazine, December 2012
“In terms of our competitiveness, it mostly comes down to our pace of innovation. Our pace of innovation is much, much faster than the big aerospace companies or the country-driven systems. This is generally true. If you look at innovation from large companies and from smaller companies, smaller companies are generally better at innovating than larger companies. It has to be that way from a Darwinian standpoint because smaller companies would just die if they didn’t try innovating.” —MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Centennial Symposium, October 24, 2014
“I’m a big believer in: don’t ask investors to invest their money if you’re not prepared to invest your money. I really believe in the opposite philosophy of other people’s money. It just doesn’t seem right to me that if you ask other people to invest that you shouldn’t also invest…. I’d rather lose my money than any of my friends’ money or investors’ money.” —2016 Tesla Annual Shareholders Meeting, May 31, 2016
This is an excerpt of Rocket Man: Elon Musk in His Own Words as published by Agate Publishing.Photos via Getty Images / Kevork Djansezian