Elon Musk: A Genius’s Life Story, in His Own Words

Elon Musk: A Genius’s Life Story, in His Own Words

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

According to the New York Times, the new Elon Musk biography by Ashlee Vance will “likely serve as the definitive account of a man whom so far we’ve seen mostly through caricature.

Yet the biography is already courting controversy. Today Musk said one passage about his attitude to employees and childbirth was “total BS and hurtful.” He added that Vance’s book was “not independently fact-checked” and should be taken “[with] a grain of salt.” 

So is there a definitive guide to Musk’s remarkable life? One that doesn’t need fact checked or taken with a grain of salt? You could start with a description of his life from the man himself.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Elon Musk for an in-depth exploration of his extraordinary life at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.  He took us on a journey from geeky loner kid in South Africa to his vision for SpaceX; and from his reluctant leadership of Tesla Motors to his ambition to die on Mars, just not on impact.

As far as I know, this is the first time Elon Musk has shared his whole life story, so candidly, even tearfully, in front of a live audience.

Watch the video or read the transcript, as Musk takes us on a journey from the suburban streets of South Africa to the tech mecca of Silicon Valley…and beyond. He tells us about his teenage “existential crisis” and his bookish quest for the meaning of life; how the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle both upset him and inspired his space transport startup SpaceX; and why he became the reluctant CEO of electric car company Tesla Motors.


Interview highlights and key turning points in his career:

The Rebellious Child:  Musk grew up in South Africa. At age 6, he desperately wanted to attend his cousin’s birthday party, but was grounded for some long-forgotten transgression. How did he get there? (This was probably the first of his many rule-breaking adventures.)

“It was clear across town, 10 or 12 miles away, further than I realized actually, but I just started walking…I think it took me about four hours…My mother freaked out.”

The Iron Man Inspiration: He was a huge fan of comics and read Iron Man comics. Did he ever imagine he’d be the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s movie character, Tony Stark?

“I did not. I would have said zero percent chance…I wasn’t all that much of a loner…at least not willingly. I was very very bookish.”

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: How did the novel fire his imagination?

“I was around 12 or 15…I had an existential crisis, and I was reading various books on trying to figure out the meaning of life and what does it all mean? …I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it highlighted an important point which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part.   To the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask. Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing.”

Why was Silicon Valley his mecca at age 17? 

“Whenever I read about cool technology, it would tend to be in the United States…I wanted to be where the cutting edge technology was and of course, Silicon Valley is where the heart of things is…it sounded like some mythical place.”

Why did his startup X.com (the precursor to PayPal) come close to dying in 2000?

“The growth in the company was pretty crazy…by the end of the first four or five weeks we had a hundred thousand customers and it wasn’t all good…we had some bugs in the software…Various financial regulatory agencies were trying to shut us down, Visa and Mastercard were trying to shut us down, eBay…the FTC…there were a lot of battles there. (But) we had a really talented group of people at PayPal…It worked out better than we expected.”

After making over $150M from PayPal, why not just buy an island and relax?

“The idea of lying on a beach as my main thing sounds horrible to me…I would go bonkers. I’d have to be on serious drugs…I’d be super duper bored…I like high intensity.”

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launcher that carried Dragon to orbit, 2012. Fresh Dialogues interview

On the seeds of SpaceX

“I always thought that we’d make much more progress in space…and it just didn’t happen…it was really disappointing, so I was really quite bothered by it. So when we went to the moon, we were supposed to have a base on the moon, we were supposed to send people to Mars and that stuff just didn’t happen. We went backwards. I thought, well maybe it’s a question of there not being enough intention or ‘will’ to do this. This was a wrong assumption. That’s the reason for the greenhouse idea…if there could be a small philanthropic mission to Mars…a small greenhouse with seeds and dehydrated nutrients, you’d have this great shot of a little greenhouse with little green plants on a red background. I thought that would get people excited…you have to imagine the money shot. I thought this would result in a bigger budget for NASA and then we could resume the journey…”

On negotiations with the Russian military to buy two ICBMs

“They just thought I was crazy…I had three quite interesting trips to Russia to try to negotiate purchase of two Russian ICBMs…minus the nukes…I slightly got the feeling that was on the table, which was very alarming. Those were very weird meetings with the Russian military…’remarkably capitalist’ was my impression (of the Russians).”

Why he chose to create his own rocket company, SpaceX

“I came to the conclusion that my initial premise was wrong that in fact that there’s a great deal of will, there’s not such a shortage. But people don’t think there’s a way. And if people thought there was a way or something that wouldn’t break the federal budget, then people would support it. The United States is a distillation of the human spirit of exploration. People came here from other places…people need to believe that it’s possible, so I thought it’s a question of showing people that there’s a way…There wasn’t really a good reason for rockets to be so expensive. If one could make them reusable, like airplanes then the cost of rocketry (and space travel) would drop dramatically.”

Tesla Roadster, Fresh DialoguesHow did the vigils for the death of the EV 1 help inspire Tesla Motors?

“It’s crazy. When was the last time you heard about any company, customers holding a candlelight vigil for the demise of that product? Particularly a GM product? I mean, what bigger wake-up call do you need? Like hello, the customers are really upset about this…that kind of blew my mind.”

On being the reluctant CEO of Tesla Motors

“I tried really hard not to be the CEO of two startups at the same time…It’s not appealing and shouldn’t be appealing if anyone thinks that’s a good idea. It’s a terrible idea.”

On the idea for SolarCity

“Solar is the obvious primary means of sustainable energy generation…in fact, the earth is almost entirely solar powered today. The only reason we’re not a frozen ice-ball at 3 degrees Kelvin is because of the sun…”

Check back soon for more from Musk on:

where his inspiration strikes (hint: not just Burning Man)

how to build, motivate and retain an excellent team

time management advice

keeping it in the family

the likelihood of a SpaceX IPO this year

how the SolarCity IPO got done, “by the skin of its teeth”

why Musk wants to go to Mars before he’s ‘too old’

Here are transcripts of our conversation

Elon Musk: On South African Childhood, Iron Man and The Meaning of Life

Elon Musk: The Reluctant CEO of Tesla Motors

Elon Musk: On Obama, Climate Change and Government Regulations

Elon Musk: On Critics, Steve Jobs & Innovation

Elon Musk: On Team Building, Warren Buffett and Dying on Mars

Click here for more stories on Elon Musk and electric vehicles

More stories on clean energy



Heidi Roizen: Entrepreneurship, Mentors & Relationships

Heidi Roizen: Entrepreneurship, Mentors & Relationships

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Heidi Roizen has been on both sides of the entrepreneur funding divide, so her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is particularly potent. She’s an operating partner at venture capitalists DFJ, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Stanford University and a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Last month, I interviewed Roizen at the Commonwealth Club, Silicon Valley. That interview led to many more questions about what it takes to succeed, especially the need to build meaningful relationships. Here’s our deeper exploration:

van Diggelen: You teach entrepreneurship at Stanford University: What are the top 5 lessons for being a successful entrepreneur?

Roizen: When we study and meet with successful entrepreneurs, while each has a different path to success, they all exhibit similar mindsets.  For one, they seem to go through life looking at problems as things for which there can be a solution — i.e. they do not accept the status quo, no matter how ingrained.  Second, they are not afraid to iterate (or ‘fail’, i.e. learn from a mistake, course correct, and move on.)   They tend to be tenacious, that is, they view the failures along the way as necessary steps in getting to success — not as indicators that they should stop.  They tend to be very good at telling their stories, building a narrative about the problem, the solution, and what it takes to get there.  Finally, successful entrepreneurs tend to know the importance of finding and motivating awesome people to join them in their journey.

van Diggelen:  Talk about the importance of networks and the do’s and don’ts of finding and being a good mentor.

Heidi Roizen Roizen: Let me answer this by starting at the 100,000 foot level.  I’ve done a lot of reading about human happiness and I boil the answer down to having meaningful work and meaningful relationships.  I believe that if you can do meaningful work with others you build even more meaningful relationships.  I hate the word “network” as it almost has a negative connotation — none of us want to be cornered by a ‘networker’ at an industry cocktail party!  But, instead I think of ‘building a network’ as a lifelong process of forming relationships with people, finding ‘fellow travelers’ who may share a passion for the same problem that needs to be solved, a skillset that is complementary but appreciated, someone with good common sense to bounce ideas off of — whatever brings value and meaning to each of us in a human connection.  For me, those people and those relationships — new and old — help me to keep learning and keep finding new opportunities for work, for growth, for meaning. 

As for finding and being a mentor, my main piece of advice, for either the mentor or the mentee, is the relationship only works if there are shared values/ethics, and if there is something meaningful to work on together.  That is why I personally believe asking someone to simply ‘be my mentor’ is far less productive than finding for example someone to work for who you can also see as becoming your mentor.

van Diggelen: What do you mean by “living a relationship driven life” versus “a transaction driven life”? Can you give some examples?

Roizen: I’m a big believer in leading a relationship-driven life and I’ve blogged about it here.  In short, if you believe what I said above about meaningful relationships being the key to happiness (a big ask I know!)  then it makes sense that every transaction in which there are one or more others involved becomes an opportunity to build a relationship.  From my life experience, I run into the same people working in this industry over and over and over, so the quality of every transaction is important because it builds a relationship that transcends any individual transaction. 

In business school, we learned that a negotiation should be viewed as ‘an opportunity to find the maximal intersection of mutual need.’  I love this concept, instead of a transaction being ‘zero sum’, we can actually achieve a better result for both of us by putting our two heads together to solve both our problems.

van Diggelen: What’s been your hardest challenge as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it?

Roizen: Almost running out of money many times.  Microsoft entering our market.  Shipping a product with a lot of bugs.  Emotional disagreements with cofounders and key contributors.  In other words, there really is no hardest challenge in entrepreneurship, rather there are a whole series of ‘near-death’ experiences.  They key is to not let them become ‘death’ experiences!  There’s no overcoming, just pushing through, getting back up, learning from your mistakes, mending fences, and moving on.  And if you fail in the big picture and your company ends up going out of business, do it with empathy and honor and in Silicon Valley, you will usually get another at-bat.

van Diggelen: How do you see Silicon Valley changing in the next 5-10 years?

Roizen: I think what makes Silicon Valley so special will continue to fuel our next 5-10 and many more years.  I do think the valley is changing in a few ways.  For one, we are spreading our attention from ‘the next cool iPhone app’ to solving some of the world’s bigger problems, which I find very exciting and frankly more fulfilling.  We are seeing technology have a far greater impact on those diverse big problems — from health to food to energy.  I am really excited to see what the next 20 years brings about!

Explore more Inspiring Women at Fresh Dialogues

Kiva cofounder, Jessica Jackley: 3 Startup Tips for Entrepreneurs

Diane von Furstenberg: Why Fear is Not an Option

Cisco’s CTO Padmasree Warrior: 7 Secrets of Success

The Dream That Helped a 13-year-old Girl Survive The Holocaust

The Dream That Helped a 13-year-old Girl Survive The Holocaust

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Seventy years ago today, the prisoners of Auschwitz were liberated. Irene Weiss is one of those survivors. She was 13 years old when she was captured in Czechoslovakia, her long blond braids shaved off and her family killed in the gas chambers. Weiss sat down with me to share her inspirational story. Remarkably, it was her vivid daydreams that helped her stay alive. Listen to our conversation here:

“There will never be any hate or discrimination after this, because we will tell the world what happened: This is what a 13-year-old was daydreaming about,” she told me.

Irene shared some powerful descriptions of her time at Auschwitz. Here are some excerpts of our conversation.

On the sights and sounds:

“At night we could hear the steam engine, which makes a lot of hissing noise. We’d hear the whistle of the train arriving. Then we could hear the hum of human beings, a huge hum of sounds. And then I’d look up the road and see them coming: a huge column of women and children and elderly moving toward the gate of the gas chamber…. You could see flames, like the whole forest was burning…. The screams were blood curdling. I would stuff my fingers in my ears. I couldn’t stand it.”

On how she dealt with the pain:

“I cannot say to you that all I wanted to do is die. No! I pushed that out of my immediate grief. It was like a stone — you know, without feeling. It’s the way we deal with death…. We grieve and find a way to distance ourselves from the real, painful part of grief. You have to do that; otherwise you have to stop living, or you cry all the time … or commit suicide. Some did…. It was quite easy, by just touching the electrified fence.”

On never crying:

Holocaust survivor, Irene Weiss at 13 years oldWeiss has never let herself cry about her experiences, even to this day, despite having her beautiful braids of long, blond hair shaved off; being told by her fellow prisoners that the rest of her family had been killed (they just pointed to the chimneys); and finding a shawl belonging to her late aunt as she sorted through the mountains of prisoners’ belongings.

I asked her if she ever cries for joy, for example when she saw her children getting married.

“Well I do experience great joy from my children, endless joy,” she said. “Like all parents, it’s mixed with a little bit of fear that it should last and nothing should spoil it.”

One day soon there will be no more survivors who can tell us their story, which is all the more reason to listen closely and learn from brave women like Irene Weiss. What would it take to make her daydream a reality?

To find out more about Irene Weiss’ remarkable story, go to the Holocaust Museum site.

This interview was part of the Let’s Never Forget Series honoring author Arnost Lustig.



Fear Is Not An Option

Fear Is Not An Option

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Diane von Furstenberg says that the greatest gift she’s ever been given was the lesson that fear is not an option.

With 2015 off to a fearful start in Paris and its impact reverberating globally, especially within Jewish communities, it’s a lesson worth exploring.

I sat down with von Furstenberg, Queen of the Wrap Dress and the DVF brand, and found a down-to-earth woman with a powerful story that resonates far beyond the world of fashion.

As a small child, von Furstenberg learned her lesson in a rather brutal way from her mother, a Holocaust survivor.

“She’d lock me in a closet and wait til I stopped being afraid,” says von Furstenberg.

Her mother experienced atrocities at Auschwitz and her challenging life shaped von Furstenberg’s to this day.

“Fear is not an option is everything: fear of flying, living, confronting the truth…fear of anything,” says von Furstenberg, who has made some courageous choices in her personal and business life, as chronicled in her new book “The Woman I Wanted To Be.”

She recounts the many periods of self doubt and challenges she faced as her career soared then flopped, rose again from the ashes, battled to stay relevant and then triumphed in China and globally, ensuring DVF a place in the design history books. She’s done it all: married (and divorced) a prince, been painted by Andy Warhol, made front page of Newsweek, survived cancer, faced bankruptcy and become a doting grandmother.

In a conversation with Maria Shriver the day before our interview, she urged women to be hard on themselves. I asked her what she meant by that. Although some journalists claim she’s impossible to interview, DVF answered my question directly.

“The most important relationship is the one you have with yourself,” says von Furstenberg. “See yourself for what you really are…for the good and the bad, whatever. Once you have accepted that, then you can also begin to like yourself.”

Along with Tina Brown and Sally Field, von Furstenberg is part of Vital Voices, a network that supports female community and business leaders around the world, both politically and financially.


The interview took place at The Foreign Cinema in San Francisco on November 20, 2014. Many thanks to Julian Guthrie and Martin Muller for the invitation.

Check out our archives of Fresh Dialogues interviews with inspiring women like Meryl Streep, Maureen Dowd and Belva Davis.

Mad Men’s Harry Hamlin on Tesla, Clean Energy

Mad Men’s Harry Hamlin on Tesla, Clean Energy

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

It’s amazing who you bump into at Silicon Valley conferences! Last week, it was Harry Hamlin of Mad Men fame. Turns out he’s a huge fan of Tesla Motors and Elon Musk. I put my Mad Men zeal aside and we talked internal combustion vs electric cars; the need for clean energy and why he thinks nuclear fusion, not wind and solar, is the answer. (Here’s a little primer on nuclear fusion if, like me, your physics is a wee bit rusty).


“I will never buy another internal combustion engine car,” says Harry Hamlin. The Mad Men star is completely enamoured by his Tesla Model S, and says it outperforms any car he’s ever driven, and he’s driven them all during his long and tumultuous acting career: from Aston Martin to Ferrari and Lamborghini to Porsche.

We discuss his vision for a clean energy future and he gives us  a lesson from Einstein on nuclear fusion. You may notice a big smile on my face when he launches into an explanation of E=MC Squared. It was one of the most surreal moments in my eventful interviewing career. Hamlin may be a pretty face, but he’s also quite the intellectual.

He eschewed questions about his investments in clean energy, however Michael Kanellos of Forbes has written about the secretive company, Tri-Alpha Energy, with which Hamlin is connected. Kanellos also points out, that although nuclear fusion offers a tantalizingly abundant source of clean power, it’s not that easy to produce at scale. Hamlin may find it easy to “drive green” but the green energy bit is still a work in progress.

In other news, Hamlin confirmed that Mad Men is “an ongoing project,” so I think we safely can conclude he survives this weekend’s series finale. He also told me about his upcoming independent movies:

“The Erotic Fire of the Unthinkable” – in which he plays “the anti-hero.” Hamlin claims it’s not as X-rated as his sounds.

“The Fourth Noble Truth” – This movie about Buddhism recently won a prize at the Sonoma Film Festival.

The interview was recorded at the World Energy Innovation Forum at The Tesla Factory on May 14, 2014.

Check back soon for my interview with the Forum Chairman and Host, Ira Ehrenpreis.

See and read about more celebrity interviews at Fresh Dialogues, including Meryl Streep, Martin Sheen and Neil deGrasse Tyson.