I finally began reading Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance a few days ago and should be done by the end of this weekend. I’ll confess that, that I got the book around the time it came out but never got down to reading it till now – despite reading way longer and more complex books since then – but I’m finally doing so as part of an effort to reduce the amount of unread material I have.
The book begins by chronicling Elon Musk tough upbringing under his demanding father in South Africa and how that toughness shaped him into who he is. It then goes on to chronicle his life and its achievements and challenges till date. His education and schooling during his formative years in South Africa stood out to me.
The problems Elon Musk tackles today in space transportation technology and renewable energy are problems he has been talking about since he was a kid. He always knew that coming to the United States would make his aspirations possible. In school, Elon Musk focused on everything (i.e. everything STEM related) which would make his aspirations possible and move him closer towards such while ignoring every other things. Elon Musk was a very bright student in school but not one of the exceptional students. The shy and socially awkward Musk never came off as someone who one day will be attempting to disrupt entrenched industries or someone who will be very wealthy.
This illustrates something key about innovation and technological progress. Many of those who bring such about never come from the mainstream or view the world like every one else does and usually have a randian-like singular focus. They are those who question conventional wisdom and discard concepts and theories which they feel are antiquated.
Elon Musk as a kid in the 1980’s was one of the few people in South Africa who were coding on a Commodore VIC-20 in BASIC programming language. Musk dad, though an engineer, dismissed such as a mere game which would never have any real world applications. Musk simply immersed himself into the system and by the mid 1980’s was gaining recognition for his coding abilities. This shows that Musk could see something which even an adult could simply not see. A key tool in all industries Musk has taken on till date are his coding abilities and knowledge of computer science. Parallels can be draw with a figure like Bill Gates who dropped out of college but as a kid in the late 1960’s to early-1970’s obsessively coded on an ASR-33 teletype which was state of the art for its day and one of the few of such in the United States at the time.
Though, Musk excelled at STEM courses in school while giving other courses the minimal effort required to pass, Musk was a literally and living book warm who self-educated voraciously and even ran out of books to read on some occasions. Which goes to show that though many of those who innovate and change society might not have been the most exceptional in formal school, they take their self learning and self education very seriously and gain the bulk of their knowledge and skills on their own.
In his magnum opus, Human Action, Ludwig Von Mises said:
Innovators and creative geniuses cannot be reared in schools. The are precisely the men who defy what the school has thought them.
Like him or not, Elon Musk for the most part defies everything learnt in formal school settings and has repeatedly thought himself different subjects along the way as he has taken on different entrenched industries. That is the hallmark of a genius!