Tag: Elon Musk

Fiction that Influences and Inspires

Reading nonfiction is a fantastic way to expand your mind and give you an edge in this world. It’s especially useful when we have a specific idea or concept that we’d like to learn more about. However, it’s important not to over-look everything we can learn from fiction.

Fiction resonates with us because it shows us truths about the human condition through great storytelling and compelling narratives. Through an engaging story we can be introduced to big ideas that just don’t resonate the same way in nonfiction: the medium allows for freedom of thought through creativity.

With this short book list, we’d like to take a look at a handful of novels that have inspired some truly extraordinary thinkers, especially today's leaders in technology. Some of these you're probably already aware of. Some not. But they're all worth a look.


The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Considered one of Fitzgerald’s greatest works, the novel follows the story of the wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for Daisy Buchanan during the roaring 1920s. With its focus on wealth, excess, status and privilege some have called this a cautionary tale regarding the great American dream.  It's also just a hell of a yarn.

This is one of Bill and Melinda Gates favorite books. Mr. Gates says it's “the novel that I reread the most. Melinda and I love one line so much that we had it painted on a wall in our house: ‘His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.’”

It’s not only the Gateses who adore this book, the author Haruki Murakami has called it one of his favorites and Chuck Palahnuik has said it was a source of inspiration for Fight Club. “It showed me how to write a ‘hero’ story by using an apostle as the narrator. Really it’s the basis of the triangle of two men and one woman in my book, Fight Club. I read the book at least once a year and it continues to surprise me with layers of emotion.”

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The story paints a spiritual portrait of the quintessential English butler as his world changes from World War I era to the 1950s. The themes of professionalism and dignity versus authenticity are prevalent throughout the novel.

This is Jeff Bezos favorite book. “If you read The Remains of the Day, which is my favorite book of all time, you can’t help but come away and think, I just spent 10 hours living an alternate life and I learned something about life and about regret.”

Actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson has also cited this book as one of her favorites. “When I was growing up, my family, particularly my father, were very stoic. Part of me is very resentful of this British mentality that it's not good to express feelings of any kind – that it's not proper or brave.” She has said she appreciates the book for how it expressed the consequences of this type of discretion.

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The book that introduced us to the ever loved and ever hated Holden Caulfield. The unique narrative gives us a glimpse into the mind of a 16 year old boy and the events surrounding his expulsion from prep school.

Bill Gates has said, “I read this when I was 13. It’s my favorite book. It acknowledges that young people are a little confused, but can be smart, and see things that adults don’t.”

Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, also lists this as one of his favorite books.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

The second book centered around a teenager is A Wrinkle in Time, which brings us into Science Fiction. Some of the most innovative ideas of the last two centuries (trains, planes, robots) were considered science fiction at one point and made appearances in stories before they came about in real life. Science fiction is thus a window into our visions of the future, and tells us a great deal about what people of certain eras were both looking forward to and afraid of.

A Wrinkle in Time follows high schooler Meg Murry as she travels through space and time on a quest to save her father. The novel uses Meg’s extreme/out of this world situations as a way to explore the very real trials of teenagers.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has called A Wrinkle in Time her favorite book as a child.

I wanted to be Meg Murry, the admittedly geeky heroine of “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle. I loved how she worked with others to fight against an unjust system and how she fought to save her family against very long odds. I was also captivated by the concept of time travel. I keep asking Facebook’s engineers to build me a tesseract so I, too, could fold the fabric of time and space. But so far no one has even tried. Jeff Bezos also loved the book. “I remember in fourth grade we had this wonderful contest — there was some prize — whoever could read the most Newbery Award winners in a year. I didn't end up winning. I think I read like 30 Newbery Award winners that year, but somebody else read more. The standout there is the old classic that I think so many people have read and enjoyed, A Wrinkle in Time, and I just remember loving that book.”

Seveneves / Snow Crash / Cryptnomicon by Neal Stephenson

The sci-fi author Neal Stephenson comes up multiple times in the reading lists of some incredibly successful individuals. Above are three that seemed to come up the most.

Bill Gates has said that Stephenson’s novel Seveneves rekindled his love for sci-fci, a genre he thinks can be used as a vehicle to help people think about big ideas. With Seveneves in particular, he was struck by “the way the book pushes you to think big and long-term. If everyone learned that the world would end two days from now, there would be global panic, plus a big dose of hedonism. But what if it were ending two years from now? Would people keep going to work? Would kids go to school? If they did, what would you teach them?

The novel gives us an idea of what might happen if the world were ending and we were forced to escape to space. If that idea wasn’t interesting enough, the book also shoots forward 5,000 years and has the humans going back to what once was Earth.

Larry Page, co-founder of Google, has Stephenson’s Snow Crash in his list of favorite books.

That story takes place in a future America where our protagonist Hiro is a hacker/pizza delivery boy for the mafia in reality and a warrior prince in the Metaverse. Stephenson gives us a glimpse of a what a world would look like where much of our time and definition of self is explored in a shared virtual space and effortlessly weaves together concepts of religion, economics, politics, linguistics and computer science.

Meanwhile, Samuel Arbesman, the complexity scientist and author of The Half-Life of Facts (whom we interviewed recently), told us that Stephenson's Cryptnomicon is one of the best books he's ever read, saying:

The idea that there can be a book that weaves together an amazing plot as well as some really really profound ideas on philosophy and computer science and technology together, that was, I think one of the first times I had seen a book that had really done this. There were these unbelievably informational pieces. It’s also an unbelievable fun read. I’m a big fan of most of Stephenson’s work. I love his stuff, but I would say Cryptonomicon was one in particular that really demonstrated that you could do this kind of thing together.

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was another author who appeared on multiple lists, his Foundation Series in particular has influenced an extraordinary number of people. The novel centers on a group of academics (The Foundation) as they struggle to preserve civilization during the fall of the Galactic Empire.

In more than one interview, Elon Musk has expressed that he was greatly influenced by the Foundation Series. He said the books taught him, “The lessons of history would suggest that civilizations move in cycles. You can track that back quite far — the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China. We're obviously in a very upward cycle right now and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it's been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we'd be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”

The series also influenced the likes of George Lucas and Douglas Adams. Speaking of…

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The story chronicles earthling Arthur Dents’ amazing voyage through space after he escapes the destruction of Earth.

Elon Musk considers Douglas Adams one of the great modern philosophers. It was Adams that taught him that “The question is harder than the answer. When we ask questions they come along with our biases. You should really ask, ‘Is this the right question?’ And that’s hard to figure out.

It’s interesting to note that Musk happened upon the book at a time that he says he was going through and existential crisis (between the ages of 12 to 15). He first turned to Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer but found what he needed through Douglas instead. Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy also lists this as one of his favorite books.


This is in no way an exhaustive list of fiction that has influenced people whom we admire, but we hope that it has inspired you to find more places for those big ideas. Happy Reading!

If you enjoyed this post, check out a few other book recommendation lists we've put out recently:

Book Recommendations by the Legendary Washington Post CEO Don Graham – Among his answers are his favourite fiction and non-fiction books and the book that will stay with him forever.

A Short List of Books for Doing New Things – Andrew Ng thinks innovation and creativity can be learned — that they are pattern-recognition and combinatorial creativity exercises which can be performed by an intelligent and devoted practitioner with the right approach. He also encourages the creation of new things; new businesses, new technologies. And on that topic, Ng has a few book recommendations.

Hares, Tortoises, and the Trouble with Genius

“Geniuses are dangerous.”
— James March

The Trouble with Genius

How many organizations would deny that they want more creativity, more genius, and more divergent thinking among their constituents? The great genius leaders of the world are fawned over breathlessly and a great amount of lip service is given to innovation; given the choice between “mediocrity” and “innovation,” we all choose innovation hands-down.

So why do we act the opposite way?

Stanford's James March might have some insight. His book On Leadership (see our earlier notes here) is a collection of insights derived mostly from the study of great literature, from Don Quixote to Saint Joan to War & Peace. In March's estimation, we can learn more about human nature (of which leadership is merely a subset) from studying literature than we can from studying leadership literature.

March discusses the nature of divergent thinking and “genius” in a way that seems to reflect true reality. We don't seek to cultivate genius, especially in a mature organization, because we're more afraid of the risks than appreciative of the benefits. A classic case of loss aversion. Tolerating genius means tolerating a certain amount of disruption; the upside of genius sounds pretty good until we start understanding its dark side:

Most original ideas are bad ones. Those that are good, moreover, are only seen as such after a long learning period; they rarely are impressive when first tried out. As a result, an organization is likely to discourage both experimentation with deviant ideas and the people who come up with them, thereby depriving itself, in the name of efficient operation, of its main source of innovation.


Geniuses are dangerous. Othello's instinctive action makes him commit an appalling crime, the fine sentiments of Pierre Bezukhov bring little comfort to the Russian peasants, and Don Quixote treats innocent people badly over and over again. A genius combines the characteristics that produce resounding failures (stubbornness, lack of discipline, ignorance), a few ingredients of success (elements of intelligence, a capacity to put mistakes behind him or her, unquenchable motivation), and exceptional good luck. Genius therefore only appears as a sub-product of a great tolerance for heresy and apparent craziness, which is often the result of particular circumstances (over-abundant resources, managerial ideology, promotional systems) rather than deliberate intention. “Intelligent” organizations will therefore try to create an environment that allows genius to flourish by accepting the risks of inefficiency or crushing failures…within the limits of the risks that they can afford to take.

We've bolded an important component: Exceptional good luck. The kind of genius that rarely surfaces but we desperately pursue needs great luck to make an impact. Truthfully, genius is always recognized in hindsight, with the benefit of positive results in mind. We “cherrypick” the good results of divergent thinkers, but forget that we use the results to decide who's a genius and who isn't. Thus, tolerating divergent, genius-level thinking requires an ability to tolerate failure, loss, and change if it's to be applied prospectively.

Sounds easy enough, in theory. But as Daniel Kahneman and Charlie Munger have so brilliantly pointed out, we become very risk averse when we possess anything, including success; we feel loss more acutely than gain, and we seek to keep the status quo intact. (And it's probably good that we do, on average.)

Compounding the problem, when we do recognize and promote genius, some of our exalting is likely to be based on false confidence, almost by definition:

Individuals who are frequently promoted because they have been successful will have confidence in their own abilities to beat the odds. Since in a selective, and therefore increasingly homogenous, management group the differences in performance that are observed are likely to be more often due to chance events than to any particular individual capacity, the confidence is likely to be misplaced. Thus, the process of selecting on performance results in exaggerated self-confidence and exaggerated risk-taking.

Let's use a current example: Elon Musk. Elon is (justifiably) recognized as a modern genius, leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Yet as Ashlee Vance makes clear in his biography, Musk teetered on the brink several times. It's a near miracle that his businesses have survived (and thrived) to where they're at today. The press would read much differently if SpaceX or Tesla had gone under — he might be considered a brilliant but fatally flawed eccentric rather than a genius. Luck played a fair part in that outcome (which is not to take away from Musk's incredible work).


Getting back to organizations, the failure to appropriately tolerate genius is also a problem of homeostasis: The tendency of systems to “stay in place” and avoid disruption of strongly formed past habits. Would an Elon Musk be able to rise in a homeostatic organization? It generally does not happen.

James March has a solution, though, and it's one we've heard echoed by other thinkers like Nassim Taleb and seems to be used fairly well in some modern technology organizations. As with most organizational solutions, it requires realigning incentives, which is the job of a strong and selfless leader.

An analogy of the hare and the tortoise illustrates the solution:

Although one particular hare (who runs fast but sleeps too long) has every chance or being beaten by one particular tortoise, an army of hares in competition with an army of tortoises will almost certainly result in one of the hares crossing the finish line first. The choices of an organization therefore depend on the respective importance that it attaches to its mean performance (in which case it should recruit tortoises) and the achievement of a few dazzling successes (an army of hares, which is inefficient as a whole, but contains some outstanding individuals.)


In a simple model, a tortoise advances with a constant speed of 1 mile/hour while a hare runs at 5 miles/hour, but in each given 5-minute period a hare has a 90 percent chance of sleeping rather than running. A tortoise will cover the mile of the test in one hour exactly and a hare will have only about an 11 percent chance of arriving faster (the probability that he will be awake for at least three of the 5-minute periods.) If there is a race between the tortoise and one hare, the probability that the hare will win is only 0.11. However, if there are 100 tortoises and 100 hares in the race, the probability that at least one hare will arrive before any tortoise (and thus the race will be won by a hare) is 1– ((0.89)^100), or greater than 0.9999.

The analogy holds up well in the business world. Any one young, aggressive “hare” is unlikely to beat the lumbering “tortoise” that reigns king, but put 100 hares out against 100 tortoises and the result is much different.

This means that any organization must conduct itself in such a way that hares have a chance to succeed internally. It means becoming open to divergence and allowing erratic genius to rise, while keeping the costs of failure manageable. It means having the courage to create an “army of hares” inside of your own organization rather than letting tortoises have their way, as they will if given the opportunity.

For a small young organization, the cost of failure isn't all that high, comparatively speaking — you can't fall far off a pancake. So hares tend to get a lot more leash. But for a large organization, the cost of failure tends to increase to such a pain point that it stops becoming tolerated! At this point, real innovation ceases.

But, if we have the will and ability to create small teams and projects with “hare-like” qualities, in ways that allow the “talent + luck” equation to surface truly better and different work, necessarily tolerating (and encouraging) failure and disruption, then we might have a shot at overcoming homeostasis in the same way that a specific combination of engineering and fuel allow rockets to overcome the equally strong force of gravity.


Still Interested? Check out our notes on James March's books On Leadership and The Ambiguities of Experience, and an interview March did on the topic of leadership.

Elon Musk on Regulators

The Federal Aviation Administration had a meeting with Elon Musk they won't forget. Musk met with them to discuss some approvals for the work one of his companies, SpaceX, was doing. The meeting reads like an episode of Dilbert. The FAA responded in the type of double-speak that only governments seem to master. So what did he do? He told one of the experts they were wrong.

“His manager sent me this long email about how he had been in the shuttle program and in charge of 20 launches or something like that and how dare I say that the other guy was wrong,” Musk says in Ashlee Vance's book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.

“Not only is he wrong,” Musk says, “let me rearticulate the reasons. We're trying to have a really big impact in the space industry. If the rules are such that you can't make progress, then you have to fight the rules.

And then he nails the fundamental problem with regulators.

There is a fundamental problem with regulators. If a regulator agrees to change a rule and something bad happens, they can easily lose their career. Whereas if they change a rule and something good happens, they don't even get a reward. So, it's very asymmetric. It's then very easy to understand why regulators resist changing the rules. It's because there's a big punishment on one side and no reward on the other. How would any rational person behave in such a scenario?

The asymmetry he's talking about is loss aversion. And it doesn't stop at regulators, it extends into other areas as well. The same principle applies to most CEOs, managers and leaders. If you want to predict behavior, take a close look at the incentives.

As Keynes said: “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”


Elon Musk on How to Tell if People Are Lying


Great tidbit from Elon Musk at the Ignition Conference on how having job applicants explain their thinking at multiple levels helps him figure out if they really worked on the problem.

If you just talk to the people on your team you can learn a tremendous amount. As you iterate through problems … when you struggle with a problem that's when you understand it. Once you've done that for (years), then you have a pretty good grasp of it. In fact, that's one of the ways, when I interview someone … is to ask them to tell me about the problems they worked on and how they solved them. And if someone was really the person that solved it, they will be able to answer at multiple levels — they will be able to go down to the brass tacks. And if they weren't, they'll get stuck. And then you can say, “oh this person was not really the person who solved it because anyone who struggles hard with a problem never forgets it.”

This connects for me a bit with the false record effect:

A group of managers of identical (moderate) ability will show considerable variation in their performance records in the short run. Some will be found at one end of the distribution and will be viewed as outstanding; others will be at the other end and will be viewed as ineffective. The longer a manager stays in a job, the less the probable difference between the observed record of performance and actual ability. Time on the job increased the expected sample of observations, reduced expected sampling error, and thus reduced the chance that the manager (of moderate ability) will either be promoted or exit.

It's also a good trick for the batesian mimicry problem — that is, separating those who know from those who act like they know.

Elon Musk: A Framework for Thinking

Elon musk
In this brief video, Elon Musk, who previously brought us how to build knowledge and 12 book recommendations, talks about a framework for thinking.

I do think there is a good framework for thinking. It is physics – you know the sort of first principles reasoning. … What I mean by that is boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there as opposed to reasoning by analogy.

Though most of our life we get through it by reasoning through analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that, otherwise mentally you wouldn’t be able to get through the day. But when you want to do something new you have to apply the physics approach. Physics has really figured out how to discover new things that are counter-intuitive, like quantum mechanics … so I think that’s an important thing to do. And then also really pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it, particularly from friends. This may sound like simple advice but hardly anyone does that and it’s incredibly helpful.

Elon Musk on How To Build Knowledge

elon musk
Elon Musk recently did an AMA on reddit. Here are three question-and-response pairs that I enjoyed, including how to build knowledge.

He knows how to say I don't know.

Previously, you've stated that you estimate a 50% probability of success with the attempted landing on the automated spaceport drone ship tomorrow. Can you discuss the factors that were considered to make that estimation?

Musk: I pretty much made that up. I have no idea :)

Everyone has that one teacher…

I’m a teacher, and I always wonder what I can do to help my students achieve big things. What’s something your teachers did for you while you were in school that helped to encourage your ideas and thinking? Or, if they didn't, what's something they could have done better?

Musk: The best teacher I ever had was my elementary school principal. Our math teacher quit for some reason and he decided to sub in himself for math and accelerate the syllabus by a year.

We had to work like the house was on fire for the first half of the lesson and do extra homework, but then we got to hear stories of when he was a soldier in WWII. If you didn't do the work, you didn't get to hear the stories. Everybody did the work.

Finally, his answer on building knowledge reminds me of The Five Elements of Effective Thinking and the latticework of mental models.

How do you learn so much so fast? Lots of people read books and talk to other smart people, but you've taken it to a whole new level.

Musk: I do kinda feel like my head is full! My context switching penalty is high and my process isolation is not what it used to be.

Frankly, though, I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Follow your curiosity to Elon Musk Recommends 12 Books.

(image source: forbes)