In the sci-fi novel “Seveneves”, the character Sean Probst looks suspiciously much like Silicon Valley founder and investor Elon Musk. In the book, earth is awaiting impending doom and collectively trying to bring as many people as possible into space to give mankind a chance to survive. The brilliant and eccentric billionaire Sean Probst considers the democratically agreed upon plan insufficient and sacrifices his life by flying his self-made space ship to gather a big block of ice that humanity needs as fuel.
Last year’s biography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance is a fascinating piece of contemporary history and a window into the character of such a driven person. Vance offers a balanced account of Musk’s charming and brilliant side and the Musk who ruthlessly abandons old companions and pushes out the original founders of a company. What becomes clear from reading this book is just how much risk Musk has repeatedly taken on himself and how hard he worked. Vance cites the investor Antonio Gracias as saying:
I’ve just never seen anything like his [Musk’s] ability to take pain. (Chapter 8: Pain, Suffering, and Survival)
So why does someone who has proven himself, is vastly rich and has five young sons push himself so hard?
In “Seveneves”, the catastrophe is near and Probst would die soon anyway, so he might as well risk his live. And similarly, Vance’s overarching theory is that Musk is not primarily driven by “status cocaine”, but is a hyper-“Efficient Altruist” who thinks he’s figured out the most important challenges facing humanity and focuses all his energy on these goals:
Musk’s behavior matches up much more closely with someone who is […] profoundly gifted. […] It’s not uncommon for these children to look out into the world and find flaws — glitches in the system — and construct logical paths in their minds to fix them. For Musk, the call to ensure that mankind is a multiplanetary species partly stems from a life richly influenced by science fiction and technology. […]
Each facet of Musk’s life might be an attempt to soothe a type of existential depression that seems to gnaw at his every fiber. […] The people who suggest bad ideas during meetings or make mistakes at work are getting in the way of all of this and slowing Musk down. He does not dislike them as people. It’s more that he feels pained by their mistakes, which have consigned man to peril that much longer. The perceived lack of emotion is a symptom of Musk sometimes feeling like he’s the only one who really grasps the urgency of his mission. […]
Musk has been pretty up front about these tendencies. He’s implored people to understand that he’s not chasing momentary opportunities in the business world. He’s trying to solve problems that have been consuming him for decades. (Chapter 11: The Unified Field Theory of Elon Musk)