Elon Musk has become one of the world’s most ambitious and successful leaders by building tools of the future. He made his first fortune founding, and then selling, the company that would become PayPal; his current endeavors include electric car company Tesla as well as SpaceX, which he hopes will one day get him to Mars.
But Musk didn’t get there all by himself. “I read books,” he has replied when asked how he learned to build rockets, according to an Esquire profile. Indeed, the billionaire has long looked up to heroes in different fields for inspiration. He’s not alone: A survey of 233 wealthy individuals found that the vast majority (88%) said they devote 30 minutes or more each day to reading. And many, like Musk, tend to prefer nonfiction.
Musk isn’t shy about sharing his favorite books and explaining the ways they shaped him. And for a glimpse into how he’s thinking about the future, here are 5 books that he has recommended to explain where we’re headed.
Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down by J.E. Gordon
You may not be building spacecraft to colonize Mars, but in an interview with KCRW, Musk noted this book offers a more approachable take on engineering principles than many academic texts. “It is really, really good if you want a primer on structural design,” Musk said of Structures. The bestselling book has also been recommended by Scientific American and Architect’s Journal.
Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom
Musk believes deeply in the power of technology to help humans. But he’s also expressed concerns about the harmful potential of artificial intelligence. He cofounded OpenAI, a billion-dollar nonprofit that aims to make AI safe. Superintelligence tackles thorny questions about what might happen if computer intelligence surpasses human intelligence. Musk tweeted that it’s “worth reading.”
Our Final Invention by James Barrat
Musk also noted that Barrat’s book exploring the future possibilities of AI is “worth reading.” It no doubt made Musk aware of both the upsides and potential disastrous downsides of AI. The book even suggests how smart machines, if they exceed the intelligence level of people, could lead to the “end of the human era.”
The SpaceX chief isn’t entirely pessimistic about AI, however. Max Tegmark, an MIT professor, wrote this bestselling book about keeping AI beneficial. He stresses the importance of asking tough questions about what kind of future we all want, and making sure that our technological innovations mesh with those goals.
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
The massive riches attained by some in Silicon Valley have understandably sparked an interest in startup culture. Musk rode that wave in 1999 with his online payment company X.com, which merged with another company cofounded by Peter Thiel to create PayPal. The venture made them both loads of money and helped put them on the map. Musk endorsed Thiel’s book of insights on startups, writing, “Peter Thiel has built multiple breakthrough companies, and Zero to One shows how.”
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