The Believer

As a founder of PayPal, Elon Musk made $250 million in an Internet minute. But then he got bored. He wanted a bigger challenge. Much bigger. So he asked himself: What are the three largest, most important, most difficult challenges of our time? The answer: solar power, space travel, and electric cars. Then he tried to tackle all three at once.

By the time he’s 10, he’s reading eight to ten hours a day. Elon reads and Elon retains, and his retention armors him. When the negative injunctions, You can’t and You won’t, come at Elon the way they come at all children, tens of thousands of times and in every conceivable form, sometimes overt and hard, sometimes insidious and soft, he simply doesn’t hear them. Another couple of decades will pass before his biography fills in the specifics, but Elon Musk—the metamorphic intellect, the stuntman brazenness, the aura of immanence—is already there. The 24-year-old physics Ph.D. candidate at Stanford who drops the program after forty-eight hours to become a software programmer who sells his first venture, a media-software company called Zip2, for $307 million? There. The propulsive personality that, within weeks of that sale, starts, an online-banking company that morphs into PayPal before being sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion? There. The 30-year-old autodidact who then dispenses with digital ephemera in order to become a man, a rocket man, a rocket scientist, and creates Space Exploration Technologies, a company whose short-term purpose is to commercialize an endeavor—orbital rocketry—that has previously been the province of a handful of nations and huge aerospace concerns (Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, etc.) and whose long-term aim is, yup, a mission to Mars? There. The 32-year-old entrepreneur who decides it’s time to gin up some ambition already and wean America off the teat of foreign oil while combating global warming, and in 2004 makes himself the controlling shareholder and, eventually, CEO of Tesla Motors, manufacturer of the world’s first all-electric sports car? There. The 34-year-old penitent who realizes he’s just not doing his part, greenhouse-gas-wise, and becomes the chairman and controlling shareholder of SolarCity, turning the company into one of the nation’s biggest installers of solar panels? There.

The above reads as a chronology, which it is, but much of it is also a simultaneity: Elon Musk is currently helming three companies, all of them start-ups, each of them created to address an intractable global problem, two of them on the cutting edge of entirely different engineering technologies, and none of them in even remotely related industries. He is doing so as a businessman (he devised the business plan for SolarCity, which is run by his two cousins, and is the chief executive of the other two) and as a financier (having put more than $100 million of his own money into SpaceX and $55 million into Tesla), and that’s something.

But really, it’s nothing, because he’s not just the vision guy or the money guy or the marketing guy, although he’s all of those, too. He’s also designing the stuff. At each of his companies, he knows what the engineers—chemical, mechanical, electrical, structural—know and what the software programmers know, and he does what they do. When the brushed-aluminum pedal of the Tesla Roadster is floored, unleashing 650 amps and 14,000 rpm from the car’s 6,831 lithium-ion cells and launching it from zero to sixty miles per hour in 3.9 seconds, the engine roars like…a cell phone on vibrate mode—a phenomenon made possible not only by Elon Musk’s money but by his mind. Likewise, the “CTO” in his official SpaceX title is descriptive, not ceremonial: Elon Musk taught himself how to design and build rockets. “I’d never seen anything like it,” says Chris Thompson, explaining what persuaded him to leave a senior position at Boeing to oversee “structures” at SpaceX. “He was the quickest learner I’ve ever come across. You had this guy who knew everything from a business point of view, but who was also clearly capable of knowing everything from a technical point of view—and the place he was creating was a blank sheet of paper.” Musk says (as do the rocket scientists he works with) that after founding SpaceX, it took him “about two years to get up to speed.” How is such a thing possible?

Books. They did for Elon what they’d always done. They gave him what he needed—facts. And, less obvious but just as crucial, they took away what he didn’t: fear, or even any kind of hesitation.

Did you see what Elon did this fall? It was big. It almost, but not quite, made up for what he did in August, when one of his Falcon 1 rockets failed to make orbit and ended up dumping James Doohan’s ashes—Scotty’s ashes—in the Pacific Ocean. The achievement might have slipped under your radar, though, because it came at the very end of September, just before the bottom truly fell out. Most of us had already assumed the fetal position by then, thrust our eyes into the softs of our elbows, anything to avoid looking at our latest 401(k) statements. So know this: On September 28, Elon Musk did something that had never been done before, and which experts had repeatedly said could never be done: launched a privately funded rocket built from scratch into Earth orbit. Previously, only nine nations (and the European Space Agency) had independently done such a thing—each after decades of trial and error, dozens of failed launches, and billions (of dollars, rubles, francs…) invested. Musk’s Falcon 1 rocket, built for $100 million by a company with fewer than 150 employees, succeeded on only its fourth attempt.

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