Who would think billionaire Elon Musk had time to read? The CEO of Tesla and SpaceX likes to read often, that is when he’s not tweeting. Musk, 49, once told The New Yorker that J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” made him feel purpose in his life, despite being picked on as a child in Pretoria, South Africa.
“The heroes of the books I read, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and the ‘Foundation’ series, always felt a duty to save the world,” he told the magazine in 2009.
Since his childhood, Musk has quickly reshaped the transportation industry, both on Earth and in space. Tesla is front and center of the electric car revolution, becoming the world’s most valued automaker by market cap last year. SpaceX recently set a new record for the most spacecraft launched by a single rocket in one jump as it hopes to send its first Starship to Mars by 2024.
If you’re dreaming of becoming the next Elon Musk or one of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, it starts with reading. When asked about how he learned how to build rockets, Musk simply said that he “read books.” If only it were that easy, but ideas come with reading and Musk certainly likes to read.
Here’s a peek at some of the books that might be found on Musk’s bookshelves, from ones that inspired him as a child to others that he discovered later in life.
Searching for meaning
In an interview with the Guardian in 2013, Musk explained how he turned to space exploration after he made a fortune off of PayPal, which he helped co-found in 1999. He said his desire to build rockets and land elsewhere stems from the science fiction series
“It’s sort of a futuristic version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Let’s say you were at the peak of the Roman empire, what would you do, what action could you take, to minimise decline?,” Musk said.
He added: “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.”
At one time, going to Mars likely sounded like science fiction — until Elon Musk started thinking about it. It’s clear how the genre played a role in Musk’s development and it comes as no surprise that he was obsessed with Douglas Adams’ sci-fi novel, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Musk said in an interview he first read the book when he was around 12 or 15 during a period which he described as an “existential crisis,” in hopes to find the “meaning of life.”
“It all seemed quite meaningless and then we happened to have some books by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in the house, which you should not read at age 14 (laughter),” Musk told Alison van Diggelen of Fresh Dialogues. “It is bad, it’s really negative. So then I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy which is quite positive I think 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.”
Musk said that the book helped him focus meaning differently.
“So, 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,” he said.
The famed drama performed across the world is also one that Musk recommends. As Musk alluded to searching for meaning before, Beckett’s classic explores two aimless men named Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot, a figure that never arrives.
“Have recently come to appreciate the awesome, absurdist humor of Waiting for Godot. We so often wait, without knowing why, when or where,” Musk tweeted in 2016.
Musk and AI
Musk’s relationship with artificial intelligence is murky. He once invested in DeepMind, an AI agency acquired by Google in 2014, which he recently called a “top concern” due to the company developing AI systems that were better than humans.
He told The New York Times last year that AI is going to make things weird very soon.
“My assessment about why A.I. is overlooked by very smart people is that very smart people do not think a computer can ever be as smart as they are,” he told me. “And this is hubris and obviously false.”
He adds that working with A.I. at Tesla lets him say with confidence “that we’re headed toward a situation where A.I. is vastly smarter than humans and I think that time frame is less than five years from now. But that doesn’t mean that everything goes to hell in five years. It just means that things get unstable or weird.”
Here are some of his recommendations.
Bostrom’s “Superintelligence” explores what could happens if AI once day surpasses human intelligence. It’s been on the mind of Musk, who equated the dangers of AI to that of chemical warfare.
“Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes,” Musk said in 2014.
MIT professor Max Tegmark explores what the future of AI and how humans and technology work together. Mostly, what is the future of AI and where do humans come in.
“Worth reading Life 3.0 by @Tegmark. AI will be the best or worst thing ever for humanity, so let’s get it right,” he said.
Musk named “Our Final Invention” one of the five books everyone should read about the future. It dives deep into the dark waters of what once seemed like science fiction only to be reality as humanity inches closer and closer to AI and whether we can coexist.