Last month, I interviewed Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley and asked him what he’s learned from Steve Jobs and whether, in his view, innovation is plateauing. We also discussed how he felt about critics like his hero Neil Armstrong who spoke out against SpaceX and the commercialization of space. His answers may surprise you.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation that starts @51:19. (Page down for more transcripts)
Alison van Diggelen: I’d like to move on to innovation and motivation.There’s been a lot of talk lately about that fact that innovation is leveling off, we’re not making dramatic increases or improvements in innovation, like we did when the plane was invented…do you agree with that?
Elon Musk: No I don’t agree with that. We’ve seen huge improvements in the Internet, and new things…In recent years: Twitter, Facebook being pretty huge…when people thought the Internet was done. Some of the things we’re doing like electric cars are a new thing. And I do think there are some pretty significant breakthroughs in genomics. We’re getting and better and better at decoding genomes and being able to write genetics. That’s going to be a huge, huge area. There’s likely to be breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence…and I suspect we will even see the flying car…
Alison van Diggelen: Is that going to be an Elon Musk production?
Elon Musk: No.
Alison van Diggelen: Are you going to let someone else do that?
Elon Musk: Yeah, Well, I think…someone else is doing that.
@1.00.30 On Steve Jobs
Alison van Diggelen: I’d now…let’s move on to focus on Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs was and is a wonderful Silicon Valley icon. Is he someone you’ve admired and what have you learned from Steve’s life and work?
Elon Musk: Well he’s certainly someone I’ve admired. Although I did try to talk to him once at a party and he was super rude to me… But I don’t think it was me, I think it was par for the course.
Alison van Diggelen: I don’t think you were the first.
Elon Musk: No not the first. No. I was actually there with… an old friend… Larry Page. I’ve known Larry since before he got venture funding for Google. He was the one who introduced me to Steve Jobs. It’s not like I was tugging on his coat (saying), ‘please talk to me.’ But obviously he was an incredible guy and made fantastic products. The guy had a certain magic about him that was really inspiring. I think that’s really great.
Alison van Diggelen: Is it that magic that you try to emulate?
Elon Musk: No, I think Steve Jobs was way cooler than I am.
Alison van Diggelen: So I’d like to get inside your head a little bit. When you come up with an idea, do you doodle it on a pad of paper, or do you get your iPad out and take notes? I mean, when you come up with something new, a new rocket design or whatever it is, how does that manifest itself? Could we see you being creative?
Elon Musk: It’s somewhat clichéd but it happens a lot in the shower. I don’t know what it is about showers. (audience whistles). I know, exactly. Get the camera. (laughter) Like, yeah. I just kind of stand there in the shower and ..
Alison van Diggelen: So you have long showers…create lots of ideas…
Elon Musk: I do actually (laughter). Long showers. It sounds wrong…
Alison van Diggelen: So there’s no iPad in the shower?
Elon Musk: …Not to mention the Burning Man epiphanies. Those are huge. And then there are some times late at night when I’ve been thinking about something and I can’t sleep then I’ll be up for several hours pacing around the house, thinking about things. Occasionally I might sketch something or send myself an email…(see FD)
Alison van Diggelen: So we have a question from the audience. Who inspires you or do you have a mentor?
Elon Musk: I don’t have a mentor, though I do try to get feedback from as many people as possible. I have friends and I ask them what I think of this that and the other thing. Larry Page is a good friend of mine…I value his advice a lot, and I have many other good friends, so I think it’s good to solicit feedback, particularly negative feedback actually. Obviously people don’t love the idea of giving you negative feedback, unless it’s on blogs…they do that.
Alison van Diggelen: How do you deal with negative feedback, because you get some tough criticism, especially with SpaceX, you had incumbents like Neil Armstrong even, speaking out and saying this is wrong, you know. We don’t want commercial companies in space, it’s not a place for commerce. So how did you deal with that and how with naysayers in general, because you’ve had a lot.
Elon Musk: Yeah, that was kind of troubling, cos growing up Neil Armstrong was kind of a hero. So it kind of sucks to…
Alison van Diggelen: Knife in the back…?
Elon Musk: Yeah, that’s a bit of a blow. I think he was somewhat manipulated by other interests. I don’t know if he knew quite what he was saying in those congressional hearings.
Want to continue reading the transcript? Here’s the final part of the interview:
December 19, 2013