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Sci-Fi Helped Inspire Elon Musk to Save the World

Tech journalist Ashlee Vance once thought of South African-born entrepreneur Elon Musk as a guy who talked big but failed to deliver. It was an opinion shared by many in Silicon Valley. But in recent years Musk has scored some big successes, including building the first private rocket to dock with the ISS, releasing the first all-electric sportscar, and co-founding one of the country’s largest solar energy companies.

That made Vance change his mind, and inspired him to write the new book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, which is based on more than two hundred interviews with Musk’s friends and associates, as well as dozens of hours of conversations with Musk himself. One thing that stands out in the book is how heavily Musk’s outlook was shaped by his childhood reading.

“The science fiction stuff was what really grabbed him,” Vance says in Episode 154 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, “and he won Dungeons & Dragons tournaments, and all this stuff seems to have been—it was definitely fun for him, and entertaining—but it seems to have been a calling as well. I think from a really early age he was locked in to space as this thing he had to do.”

As a teenager Musk surveyed a wide range of religious and philosophical texts, but ultimately found the most inspiration in a humorous science fiction novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

“He always points to Hitchhiker’s Guide as his guiding principle for deciding that you should find out what the big questions are, and once you do, that’s what you go tackle,” says Vance.

Musk also credits superhero comics with inspiring him to save the world, which is fitting since many in the press have dubbed him a “real-life Iron Man.” It’s a label Vance once found absurd—he says Musk’s personality is more “engineer” than “playboy”—but that as Musk continues to grow in confidence and prestige, the Iron Man comparison seems more apt.

“It’s a caricature,” says Vance, “but I feel like he’s kind of growing into it more and more over time.”

So which of today’s young science fiction fans will be the next Elon Musk? Vance notes that Musk possesses unique gifts that make him a hard act to follow—in terms of intellect, memory, and stamina—but that everyone can take a lesson from the way Musk sets clear goals and pursues them with dogged determination.

“I don’t think any of us can be like Elon totally,” says Vance, “but you can apply some of it in your life.”

Listen to our complete interview with Ashlee Vance in Episode 154 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Ashlee Vance on Gwynne Shotwell:

“She’s the president of SpaceX, and she’s this longtime aerospace industry veteran who basically quit her pretty cushy job and risked everything to go work at SpaceX, because she joined in 2002 or 2003, the first year. And there was no reason to believe that SpaceX would ever accomplish what it actually set out to do. Essentially she runs the day-to-day operations of SpaceX, and is dealing with Elon all the time, which is no easy feat at all. I mean, he can be hard on rank-and-file employees, so you can imagine being the president of SpaceX, the intensity with which you’re dealing with him and the topics on which you’re dealing with him. And she sticks through it all, because this is as big a dream and quest for her as it is for Elon.”

Ashlee Vance on Elon Musk and celebrity:

“One thing I kind of like is that [Elon] is different than the other tech CEOs, who are mostly Silicon Valley-based and who are kind of stereotypically in nerd-land and happy there. Elon likes Hollywood. He’s different. He likes hanging out with movie stars, and he’s always at the Super Bowl or the Kentucky Derby or the Mayweather fight, kind of where the action is. … There’s a part in the book where I interview Robert Downey Jr., and he actually went to the SpaceX factory and got a tour of it with Elon before the first Iron Man came out, and then he made sure there was a Tesla roadster right by Tony Stark’s workbench. And in Robert Downey Jr.’s mind he felt like Elon and Tony Stark were friends, and so he did kind of inject some of that into the character.”

Ashlee Vance on Elon Musk’s personality:

“A lot of his employees think that he’s somewhere on the [autism] spectrum, and I heard that a lot, over and over again. I don’t think that’s the case. And I did go to lots of psychologists and experts in this field and had really detailed, long conversations with them about Elon, and there’s a clinical term, they’re called ‘profoundly gifted.’ And this isn’t just some random label—I mean, it is a clinical term—and it’s for kids who have extraordinarily high IQs, but they also have a different perspective on life. From a very early age they have an empathy for humanity, they see flaws in the way people do things, and from a very early age have identified the one or two flaws that they want to fix, and it’s hard for them to let go of that. And to me, this is Elon. He’s forever been consumed by the idea that he can fix some of the mistakes people have made, and he feels a deep empathy for humanity. He doesn’t let himself feel this interpersonal empathy that the rest of us do.”

Ashlee Vance on killer robots:

“We sat down and I said, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ And [Elon] said, ‘I’m afraid Larry Page is going to kill us all.’ And not in a funny way, in a really depressed way. I mean, they have the craziest relationship of anyone in Silicon Valley, because they’re friends, and Elon stays at Larry’s house when he’s in Silicon Valley, and he obviously thinks Larry is a well-meaning, good person, but he also thinks that Larry is possibly also building the end of mankind. And Elon invests in all these artificial intelligence companies—he says to keep an eye on how they’re going—and one that he was invested in was DeepMind, which had some very powerful AI that Google acquired. And so I think it’s just starting to freak Elon out. … And Talulah Riley, his most recent wife, would tell me that she and Elon talk about this late into the night and freak out about it together, and so this is his very real fear.”

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