Elon Musk, billionaire CEO of Tesla motors and SpaceX, when picked on as a child in South Africa where he was born, would retreat into J.R.R Tolkien fantasy to cope. When asked where he learned to build rockets, “I read books” was his reply. Books have always been an important source of inspiration to Elon Musk as a child, as a young adult and when helping him learn rocket science while launching SpaceX.
Listed here are some of the books that helped shape his character and made Elon Musk the success he is today.
- Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson: Elon Musk says he learned a lot from Einstein’s biography. The book tells the story of a genius who transformed the world with his intelligence and ambition. It “explores how an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk — a struggling father in a difficult marriage who couldn’t get a teaching job or a doctorate — became the mind-reader of the creator of the cosmos.” Elon Musk was definitely inspired by a genius who transformed the world through his intelligence and ambition the same way he is doing.
- Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel: “Peter Thiel has built multiple breakthrough companies, and Zero to One shows how” Musk once said in an interview. Back in the early 2000s, when Musk was running the payments startup X.com, he was in direct competition with PayPal, co-founded by Peter Thiel, a man who’s now a billionaire investor. So when Thiel came out with his book of startup philosophy, Elon Musk naturally endorsed it. The book is full of Thiel’s combative insights – like the idea that Silicon Valley’s obsession with disruption is totally misguided.
- Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants, by John D. Clark: Ignition! is an account of early rocket science that has a mix of technical details, descriptions of experiments with spectacular results, background info about the why and how, and about the politics involved. It is a very engaging and uplifting book because Clark captured a lot of the enthusiasm he had for rockets in it. Clark was an American chemist active in the development of rocket fuels back in the 1960s and 1970s, and the book is an account of the growth of the field and a primer of how the science works.
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: During his upbringing in South Africa, Elon Musk reported that he experienced tremendous loneliness that he aimed to overcome by reading science fiction and fantasy novels. Those books–notably “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien–shaped his vision for his future self. “The heroes of the books I read always felt a duty to save the world,” he told The New Yorker.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams: Elon Musk reported in an interview that he suffered a major existential crisis between the ages of 12 and 15. Then he came upon The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comedic interstellar romp by Douglas Adams. In the book, a supercomputer finds the “answer” to a meaningful life is the number 42 — but the question was never figured out. The book taught him that the hardest part was to properly phrase the question but that once this was done the answer was easy. “If you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part,” Musk said in an interview. “So, to the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask.”
- Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, by J.E. Gordon: Elon Musk is an entrepreneur, and like all successful people in the business of entrepreneurship, he is a proactive man with an autodidact mindset. This book, a popular take on structural engineering by J.E. Gordon, a British material scientist helped him get started when he was launching Space X to form the basics he needed to learn about rocket science. Elon Musk is a committed autodidact, devouring the subjects he needs to know about. “It is really, really good if you want a primer on structural design,” Musk said in an interview with KCRW.
- Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom: Nick Bostrom explains his view on what would happen if computational intelligence surpassed human intelligence. Given his leadership roles at SpaceX, SolarCity, and Tesla, Elon Musk has had a bird’s-eye view of the advance of technology. And he believes the dangers are real. “We need to be super careful with AI,” he tweeted, because it’s “potentially more dangerous than nukes.”
- The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein: This award-winning science-fiction novel, originally published in 1966, paints the picture of a dystopia not too far in the future. It’s exactly the kind of vivid fantasy world that would satisfy an active imagination like Musk’s. Musk said in an interview at MIT’s Aero/Astro Centennial that it is Heinlein’s best work. In the book, a group of people have been exiled from earth to the moon, where they have created a libertarian society. In the year 2076, a group of rebels including a supercomputer named Mike and a one-armed computer technician leads the lunar colony’s revolution against its earthbound rulers.