How does Elon Musk think?
That’s what I aimed to discover while researching the habits behind his unbelievable success. Musk is arguably the most impressive living human being on earth. For proof, here's his track record:
Oh yeah, and he’s one of only two people to found three billion dollar companies. Not bad.
The crazy part is he doesn’t care that he’s worth billions. In fact, he’s annoyed with journalists asking about him. He wants them to ask about the bigger, worldly problems he's trying to solve. He’s not focused on his existence, he’s focused on the existence of humanity -- sustainable energy, clean transportation, and interplanetary space travel.
How does he think? What are his mental frameworks? What makes him tick? I scoured through dozens of interviews to unravel his six most compelling lessons … and turned them into actionable exercises.
These lessons (and accompanying exercises) have changed my life.
Elon Musk Advice
- Seek criticism
- Challenge your existing beliefs
- Narrow your focus
- Create a back-up plan
- Practice for failure
- Have a big impact
Complete the following exercises, based off the psychology of Elon Musk, and they might change your life, too.
Access the exercises to follow the lessons:
Criticism is like exercise. In the beginning, it's tough. But it slowly shapes us into healthier people and leads to many long-term benefits. While compliments create contentment, criticism creates improvement.
And when your mission for SpaceX is “interplanetary co-existence” and Tesla “transforming sustainable energy for humanity” (yes, those are Elon Musk’s words), you cannot be content. For example:
“When I spoke with someone about the Tesla Model S, I didn’t really want to know what’s right about the car. I want to know what’s wrong about the car.
When my friends get a product, I ask them to please not tell me what they like. Rather, tell me what you don’t like. And if I’ve asked that a few times of people, then they will start automatically telling me without me having to always ask the question."
"You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong."
- Elon Musk
Einstein said, “You can’t solve problems with the same thinking that caused them.” Musk couldn’t agree more.
For example, people have said battery packs will always be expensive, because they’re expensive to make, and that’s just is how it is. Yet Musk realized when you break down batteries into their fundamental components (cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, polymers, and a steel can) and build your own batteries, costs go down dramatically.
This led to Tesla Energy, or revolutionary energy storage for sustainable homes and businesses. By challenging the status quo, Musk developed home energy storage that's causing radical change.
Most of us aren’t creating revolutionary shifts in energy consumption. So how does this lesson apply to the rest of us? Simply put, it means questioning when someone (or yourself) says, “That’s just how it is and how it’s always been.”
Upset the status quo. Ask tough questions. Explore the fundamental truths behind the challenges in your life. Explore how things really work by making “why” your favorite question to ask.
"Boil things down to the most fundamental truths. Then reason up from there."
- Elon Musk
Focus on signal over noise
Elon Musk isn’t the only billionaire preaching the power of focus. Warren Buffet had his notorious “not-to-do list.” Steve Jobs consistently preached a focused mindset by saying, “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” And according to Noah Kagan, Facebook employee #30, Mark Zuckerberg once said, “I will not entertain ANY idea unless it helps Facebook grow the total number of users.”
Musk follows the same principles. Except he will not entertain any idea beyond product development. For example, many companies put more money into marketing than they do engineering. Musk would rather minimally promote an incredible product than promote the living hell out of a mediocre one:
“At Tesla, we’ve never spent any money on advertising. We’ve put all our money into R&D, engineering, design, and manufacturing to build the best car possible. When we consider spending money, we ask, 'Will this create a better product?' If not, we don’t proceed with spending the money.”
Stephen Covey calls this putting first things first. Focus on what matters, ignore the rest.
"Will this activity result in a better product? If not, stop those efforts."
- Elon Musk
I believe inaction is caused by fear. Particularly, the fear of failure. We don’t apply for our dream job, because we’re afraid we won’t get it (which makes us feel crappy about ourselves). We don’t approach the attractive person across the room, because we’re afraid we’ll say something stupid. We don’t start a company, because we’re afraid we’ll waste our money and fail.
When you’re starting a company with a mission for interplanetary exploration, failure is a viable option. Instead of throwing in the towel, Elon Musk anticipated failure and created a contingency plan for SpaceX:
“If we don’t get the first SpaceX rocket launch to succeed by the time we’ve spent $100 million, we will stop the company. That will be enough for three attempted launches.”
What happened to the first launch? $30 million later, it failed. The second? $60 million later, it failed. On the third and last attempt, SpaceX successfully launched. This won a $1.6 billion contract from NASA for 12 resupply flights to the station. Not bad Elon Musk, not bad at all.
Was Elon Musk afraid of failure? Absolutely. But did he create a plan to address possible failure? Yes. And that’s precisely what made him put rockets into space.
"Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough."
- Elon Musk
After defining worst-case scenarios and addressing solutions to potential problems (i.e. a contingency plan), we can still feel afraid. The best way to remove fear is by literally putting yourself in that horrible situation and asking how you feel.
For example, when Elon Musk decided he wanted to be an entrepreneur at 17 years old, he forced himself to live off $1 per day (the typical struggle of an entrepreneur). At that time, he lived mainly off hot dogs and oranges.
Elon didn’t do it because he was poor. He did it to see if he had what it takes to lead the life as an entrepreneur. And since he was successful with this experiment, he knew that money wouldn’t be an issue.
Experimenting with a reduced income showed Musk he could do it. This pushed him into entrepreneurship.
"I figured if I could live off a dollar a day then, at least from a food stand point, it's pretty easy to earn $30 a month."
- Elon Musk
Many of us (I’m guilty of this myself) focus on finding a fun, secure, and challenging job that makes us happy. We ask about the salary. About the benefits. And the culture. But are we asking if our work is making an impact on the world? Are we using today to solve tomorrow’s problems? Are we forward thinking?
Elon Musk didn’t ask himself, “What are some of the best ways I can make money?” Instead, as he left PayPal, he asked himself, “What are some of the problems that are likely to affect the future of humanity?”
Musk never mentions profit in interviews. He discusses SpaceX's goal to make humanity into a multi-planetary species, or Tesla's goal to accelerate the world's movement toward having most electric cars.
He solves problems not to improve his world, but the world.
"If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it."
- Elon Musk
An Honest Reflection
Will I ever start the next Tesla, SpaceX, or other company that’s literally changing the course of humanity? Honestly, probably not. What I will do is continually apply Elon Musk’s mental frameworks to improve my life.
When I receive a compliment, I’ll ask what I can improve. Faced with a tough problem, I’ll break it down into the fundamentals. When distracted, I’ll remember the billionaires all have one similar trait -- focus. I won’t be afraid of failure because I'll make it an option (and live it). And finally, as my life progresses, I’ll challenge my existence by continue to evaluate worldly problems and what I can do to help.
Encourage criticism. Dissect the fundamentals. Focus on high-impact activities. Push myself to failure. Challenge my limits. But most importantly, solve problems beyond myself.
Will you do the same?
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