Elon Musk’s Reading List Holds the Keys to his Success, but Only if we Look Closely

Elon Musk iron man

From many of his interviews, including his Reddit AMA, it's clear that Elon Musk loves to learn. Something we have in common in addition to growing up elsewhere and being determined to work in the U.S. as a goal from a young age.

He studied the mechanics of engineering and design, including their applications; in my case it's the mechanics of development and behavior, including their expressions. When we look at the lives and work of others to deconstruct why they do what they do, and then figure out our “hows” to build on their work or create ours with proper “whys” and “whats.” It starts with asking better questions, this is how we increase our mileage.

“I read books,” he says:

“I learn what I need to learn to accomplish my objectives, and I think most people can do this, but they often self-limit. People are more capable than what they think. If you do something like read a lot of books and talk to a lot of people, you can learn almost anything.”


“And generally the sci-fi genre I found the most interesting and I also read a lot of the philosophers, and religious texts… and a lot of non fiction as well. I read the encyclopedia; in fact I remember just after school I was reading about ion engines and I found them super cool. And now we're launching satellites with ion engines.”

He was already thinking about how to make a real difference in the world during his formative years.


  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R. Tolkien — “The heroes of the books I read always felt a duty to save the world,” says Musk in an interview with The New Yorker#.
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov — the first of a series of tales set so far in the future that Earth is all but forgotten by humans who live throughout the galaxy. Winner of the prestigious Hugo Award, this series covers philosophy, man's origins, the laws of science, and whether or not man really can conquer space travel. 
  • The Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams — the protagonist, Arthur Dent, is grabbed from Earth moments before a cosmic construction team obliterates the planet to build a freeway. In the book a supercomputer finds the “answer” to a meaningful life is the number 42 — but the question was never figured out. In an interview with Alison van Diggelen at Fresh Dialogs Musk says, “If you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. So, to the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask.” Musk believes in the importance of solving the right problem.

What made the greats great

  • Benjamin Franklin: an American Life by Walter Isaacson — in a video interview with Foundation# Musk says, “I like biographies. I think they are really helpful. I like Franklin’s biography by Isaacson, it’s really good. He was an entrepreneur, he started of nothing, just like a runaway kid. It was interesting to see how he is creating his business, then go to science and politics. I could say he is one of the people I most admire. Franklin is pretty awesome. He did what needed to be done at the time it needed to be done.”
  • Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson — mentioned in the same video interview with Foundation, Musk says he learned a lot about Einstein. Discovering 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 is appealing. “If scientists are still doing his homework from a 100 years ago,” says Stephen Colbert. He must have been pretty smart.
  • Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness by Donald Barlett and James Steele — a well-researched and accurate account of the business dealings of Hughes who was portrayed in a recent movie, The Aviator, by Leonardo di Caprio. Musk mentioned the book in a video interview with CNN#. He says, “Definitely want to make sure I don't grow my fingernails too long and start peeing in jars.” The man pushed the boundaries of flying. 
  • Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson — the book brings to life the politics, mystery and intrigues that surrounded Tesla's life, along with a good understanding of electrical technology in general during the subject period. Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was born in Croatia, educated in Graz and Prague and was hired by Edison's branch in Paris. He was eventually transferred to the Edison Machine Works in New York but Tesla quit after a few months to work on his own. He was a self-made man. He sold his invention, of a motor that ran on AC, to George Westinghouse and collaborated with him on building the Niagara Falls AC hydroelectric power plant. Says Carlson, “Tesla's AC inventions were essential to making electricity a service that could be mass-produced and mass-distributed.”

What makes things work

  • Structures: on Why Things don't Fall Down by J.e. Gordon, former naval architect and professor at Reading University — covers the basics of structural engineering from cathedrals to clothing, and does so with a blend of historical references and dry British humor. Concepts of design are key to upholding or destroying powerful weapons, such as naval boats (like the H.M.S. Captain) and spaceships. A discussion on load-bearing is just as important as a chapter on compression. The book packs deep and valuable insights into the behavior and design of structures, including the natural structures designed by evolutionary processes.  
  • Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom — outlines three paths to superintelligence: 1./ AI technologies, such as machine learning, Bayesian networks, artificial neural networks, evolutionary programming, and so on; 2./ Whole Brain Emulation, we turn over our brain at death, banks of computer-controlled lasers are then used to reconstruct how each neuron is linked to other neurons (along with the microscopic structure of each neuron's synapses), then the data structure (of neural connectivity) gets downloaded onto a computer that controls a synthetic body; 3./ Neuromorphic, that is a combination of neural network modeling and brain emulation techniques with AI technologies to produce a hybrid form of artificial intelligence. The overarching theme is the issue of control. Musk has been quite verbal about the dangers of AI. To note that human natural” languages are very very different from artificially created technical languages, such a mathematical, logical or computer programming languages. Musk mentions the book in a tweet# and starts a long conversation thread.
  • Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway — an important story about the misuse of science. The authors name the scientists who have misled us —all with powerful connections in government and the media— including Robert Jastrow, Frederick Seitz, and S. Fred Singer. Seven compelling chapters detail seven issues (acid rain, the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke, the ozone hole, global warming, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the banning of DDT) in which this group aimed to sow seeds of public doubt on matters of settled science. The overarching theme of this book is the absence of reasoned action.

Long shots

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein — Musk recommends this book as one of his favorite sci-fi books during his interview with Design&Architecture show host Frances Anderton. “Robert Heinlein, obviously. I like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” he says. Heinlein writes about a prison rebellion – on the Moon. The Lunar colony is in a state of uprising against their Earth-bound overlords, led by a trio of unlikely dissidents: a technician, a female rabble-rouser, and a Professor. 
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein — in the same interview, Musk says he likes this book, hailed as one of Heinlein's best, “although it kind of goes off the rails at the end.” The basic plot is space explorers set out to discover Mars, and are lost for a generation. A second team is sent, discovers two of the original explorers' children living free, and the children are brought to Earth for questioning and legal wrangles about economics and planet ownership. 

For anyone interested in learning more about Elon Musk himself, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by award winning feature writer for Bloomberg Businessweek Ashlee Vance is recommended. In it, the author includes insights into Musk's personal relationships, his childhood, and detailed descriptions of space exploration.

The book opens with a quote, “Do you think I'm insane?” Given the challenges and odds, it's natural to wonder. Vance was also born in South Africa. 

Trying to capture even a fraction of what Elon Musk is reading about and learning is just an exercise in trying to keep up and not a substitute for looking to understand why he's doing what he's doing. As Tim Urban says in a four-article series about Musk at Wait but Why#:

The problem with Elon Fucking Musk, though, is that he happens to be involved in all of the following industries:

  • Automotive
  • Aerospace
  • Solar Energy
  • Energy Storage
  • Satellite
  • High-Speed Ground Transportation
  • And, um, Multi-Planetary Expansion

Zeus would have been less stressful.

But that is good stress when focused on the problem solving and opportunity seeking part of business. We do that more effectively when we learn “reasoning from first principles,” as Musk calls it. He says:

I think generally people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good.”

But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.

When we collect the evidence, or pieces of it, we create greater clarity about our selves and our goals. Reading and learning help with the evidence part, but we must do the work to distill information, analyze options, and in some cases broaden our field of vision to see better.

Learning continuously helps adjust our field of vision so we can match what we see with what is in reality.


[image above via Fresh Dialogues]