One of my earliest memories of Elon Musk dates back to an interview he did where he is quoted as saying that he planned to retire on Mars. I remember thinking at the time how bizarre it was that at times one hears seemingly brilliant people say really dumb things.
In the last 12 months, I've seen Elon in more and more headlines, and in the last 6 months or so, I've become quite captivated. I watched the "Revenge of the Electric Car", which I hadn't realized focused on Tesla, watched a Bloomberg documentary on him on Netflix, and more recently read the Ashlee Vance book on him. I have been especially mesmerized by the rocket landing attempts.
A few months ago I came to realize that Elon and his companies are like a super-concentrated formulation of the kinds of things that I find interesting and inspiring. Where to begin...
I think what I find most inspiring is that there are strong indications that he is being successful at making rocket re-usability a reality. When you see it happening, it's a kind of forehead slapping moment. Like duh, why haven't people been working hard on this for decades? When someone can provide the kind of leadership that turns an industry on its head -- and rocket science at that -- you have to sit up and take notice. It's inspiring.
The second aspect that I find inspiring is that he has succeeded at so many different things. Not just SpaceX, but Tesla as well. Not just those two, but SolarCity. And not just those three, but PayPal. It's mind boggling. When you see a pattern of success like that, there aren't really any modern comparisons. As even Elon points out, people tend to notice precedence and superlatives, and perhaps not coincidentally, Elon is the poster boy for both of those things in the tech world.
Of course, when people see patterns, they are tempted to extrapolate into the future. If he has done this much in 15 years, what might the next 15 years look like? Obviously no one knows, but if the pattern continues, it could make for an interesting ride.
There is a long laundry list of aspects of his approach and products that I admire, so here is somewhat of a rambling through them:
Best Car Ever
In a world that is increasingly "winner takes all", I am extremely impressed with a company that produces a vehicle that is rated by respected reviewers as "the best car ever" as well as "the safest car ever". If Tesla can achieve scale and bring prices down, who knows where that could lead. (again, the increasingly "winner takes all" nature of the world these days is important there)
Fastest Sedan Ever
Watching videos of the sheer terror or glee of people being accelerated from 0-60 mph in about 3 seconds is some great entertainment. As a guy, I can relate to the general feeling -- even if it's just the joy of a V6 engine. Comparatively, I remember the feeling of a 1998 V6 Honda Accord as being "wow" when you accelerated onto an expressway... and it apparently has a 0-60 time of almost 8 seconds compared to the 3.1 seconds of the Tesla P85D. While almost functionally useless, we run into the phenomenon of superlatives again. What is it about superlatives that captures our imaginations?
Cheap Space Prices
The US government is working on a super heavy lift vehicle and a space capsule right now with a price tag of something like $18 billion. I think some people are estimating that development + flight costs could total $40 billion. Kind of staggering. When you compare that to the development and flight costs of SpaceX hardware, it's mind boggling. Even compared to ULA, SpaceX's prices are hugely cheaper. In a world that has little patience with government waste and huge corporations that are bureaucratic, slow, and wasteful, the SpaceX prices are a huge breath of fresh air, and they set an example for what can be done with good vision and execution.
Long Term Thinking For The Win
Most people probably thought that SpaceX was unlikely to succeed at putting something into orbit. But not only did they do that, they are on the cusp of demonstrating rocket reusability. How did that happen? How can a company go from being an under dog to a savant over achiever? I think a big part of that is that the vision is long term. Not just long term, super-long-term. And when you think about it, of course long term thinking is best. The problem is that we sometimes associate long term thinking with failure, because it can be hard not getting bogged down in the complexity that long term thinking can incur. But Elon seems to be demonstrating that long term thinking (+ execution) is perhaps one of his greatest gifts. And if you really are brilliant at that, then watch out.
Part of what makes it fun to watch is that you know that in any given year, he is thinking about things 5 years, 10 years, 15 years on the horizon. And likewise, in any given year, details are released on something inspiring, and you realize that it has been 5 or 10 years in the making. (in terms of vision + planning + execution) Every time it happens, it's kind of exhilarating. Perhaps it's like watching a grand master chess player, and as the game progresses, you start to sense of much careful forethought has gone into moving the game state to where it is now, for this move.
Cars + Computers = ?
As I've reflected on before, kids like me who grew up in the 80s saw computers, realized how much potential they had, and then saw cars, which were kind of "dumb" but also very cool, and wondered in the back of our heads what it would be like if you could combine the two. And better than any other effort, Tesla has achieved that. The Model S is essentially a computer on wheels. Everything from its millisecond response times to traction control and braking to its huge touch screen panel to its automated system for routing you from point A to B to make use of supercharger stations. (not yet to mention that it runs on electricity) And of course, the cherry on top: That Tesla has recently emerged as one of the leaders in the race to autonomous vehicles, showing off some really impressive capabilities this year. For guys like me, my eyes bulge at this stuff. Any time you take the wistful imagination of a once 15 year old and turn that into reality, it's a rather powerful experience.
I've always been a huge fan of automation, scripting, efficiency, etc, but this year especially I've been thinking about automation and its long term consequences. When I hear Elon speak, I get the sense that he's on the same page, and I think that bodes extremely well for the future of his companies. (I think it applies profoundly to all three of Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity)
To use one example, imagine a fully automated factory for producing high efficiency solar panels, paired with a fully automated solar panel installation robot/system, paired with an automated order placing system. While that's a ways off (especially the installation robot), it could be as little as 2-3 decades before it is a reality... and I'm curious what that would mean for the future of electricity generation.
This seems somewhat meaningless in a way, but there's something about the sparkling, clean, white and red Tesla factory that captures my imagination. I've toured a car factory before, and it was somewhat dark, somewhat dirty. It is something deeply psychological that I can't quite put my finger on, but perhaps there is a certain genius behind it.
The Machine That Makes The Machine
Elon often says that manufacturing is hard. I like how he says "it's the machine that makes the machine". He talks about the Gigafactory as a "product", as a "machine". I resonate strongly with that mentality. It may seem trivial, but there's something to it that feels important. Perhaps it's as simple as taking pride in or having passion in not just your product, but also how you make your product, which is also hugely important. He gets it.
When the Hyperloop was first revealed, I didn't pay much attention. Perhaps it was yet one more insane idea that, yawn, would never see the light of day. But as Elon's accomplishments have stacked up in the last couple of years, and as he has established a pattern of saying crazy things that wind up being true, suddenly the Hyperloop is something that my psyche has needed to reconsider.
I think the Hyperloop is important, in part, because it is the "outer most" node in Elon's idea sphere that he has put forth as a near-medium term possibility. It's so on the outside that he hasn't taken it on as his project to manage. So why is that important? It's important because if it is successful, it acts as a new data point for his ability to ideate something crazy (really crazy), not even manage it, and still have it manifest into reality. Which cycles back to our tendancy to extrapolate... at which point the Hyperloop works, we're left to wonder what his limits are for ideating things and having them turn into reality. (again, without him even needing to do the work) Taken to the extreme, you could imagine a genius who establishes such a track record that any time he spurts a hyperloop-like idea, there's a 90%+ chance that it is in fact a great idea that will be turned into reality. Perhaps we shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves, but you can see the entertainment value in that. Already, the mere mention of just about anything far-out by Elon Musk is an instant news story. How far will it go?
I'm not a fan of rich capitalists spending insane amounts of money of themselves. Ugh. For the most part, Elon's companies have not been about making people rich, but instead reinvesting all of the capital into furthering the companies visions. When that happens, it feels somewhat "ideal", that is if the vision and execution are excellent.
That said, Elon does live in a completely excessive house now, so he doesn't fit the ideal as well as he once did.
Something I loved was hearing about how during university he figured out he could live off of a dollar a day by eating hot dogs and oranges. This fits my personality so well -- figuring out how simply one can live for various reasons.
I'm obviously very inspired by Elon's successes and potential. Who knows where it all goes.
I have to say though, I'm still somewhat appalled by the thought of 80,000 people moving to Mars this century. That still sounds completely insane, and I'm sticking with that assessment even though Elon's track record is becoming increasingly impressive. We shall see where all of that goes...