Elon Musk is now Earth’s most future-oriented person. How did such a person come to be?
In a hundred years, when most people reading this and the person writing this are long gone, Musk’s cars and rockets will still be circling the Earth and the skies. How can such a person get started against all odds is the question. And, more importantly, what can we learn from him?
Learning From The Outlier
Learning from Musk might seem naive. After all he is an outlier even among billionaires. We think this is exactly why he is worth studying – you don’t get insight into the extraordinary by studying the ordinary. Even with a sample size of one Musk we may find something in the way he started out that is fundamentally borrowable.
Sure, we can’t recreate the exact circumstances of his life for ourselves – we all have different parents, live in different countries, and have different bodies. Despite all the differences, we have control over our mindset as much as he does over his. This part of Musk we can borrow. The ways he deals with uncertainty, the books he reads, the ways he makes promises, and patches up his own mistakes are all borrowable, for example.
Thinking From First Principles (And Not Just By Analogy)
You might be skeptical about how studying another person’s life can help. His circumstances are not like yours. Musk would be the first to remind us here to think from first principles, as scientists do, rather than by analogy. Why should you think like Musk? You might know better than him after all. It’s true that thinking from first principles gives a truer result. But it also takes time which is limited for all of us. Yes, it’s best to think about your situation from scratch. But reasoning by analogy makes sense given that life is finite. To minimize our own mistakes we don’t need to borrow the exact decisions Musk made but study the way he makes them. Then we can apply his thinking method to what we know to be true for sure.
It’s Easy to Explain Greatness in Hindsight – The Narrative Fallacy
One psychological barrier to learning from other people’s lives is the narrative fallacy – making a neat story out of facts that at the time of their happening made little sense. As the classic book on improbability The Black Swan explains, we do it to deal with the randomness of life – we explain it away because we know how the story ended. We’d rather not figure out why we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
The media often write this way. Articles about Musk call him a “genius”, which he is. But labels like this make his accomplishments sound like a foregone conclusion. They aren’t. For example, he still has to deal with big oil companies that want to see Tesla go down.
We might assume he knows what to do with this because he is a “genius.” But genius is not a strategy. And his victory is far from certain. As you are reading this, he is doing something to deal with the uncertainty of his situation. What sort of a mindset is he in?
Life = Decisions + Circumstances + Results
Life is a combination of decisions – things you do; circumstances – things that others do to you, including people you’ve never met, like politicians; and results – your decisions + the circumstances.
Labeling each significant event in Musk’s life on a timeline produced a lot of decisions, unsurprisingly. It’s fair to say he is a product of his decisions more than his circumstances. Musk seems to have been decisive and deliberate from the start. A quick glance at the timeline shows that his decisions by far outnumber his circumstances.
Learning Faster Than You Are “Supposed To”
A pivotal moment in Musk’s life came when he got his computer. It came along with a BASIC programming language workbook. The workbook was supposed to take 6 months, but he decided to stay up for 3 nights in a row and finished the whole thing. Within 3 days he basically was a programmer by the 1984 standards. His new skill brought his first success – he wrote a video game called Blastar and sold it for $500.
Even today in most countries universities don’t encourage you to graduate faster even if you learn faster. Lawyers and doctors are required to be in school for a certain period of time regardless of their learning speed.
The Immigrant Mindset
Do you need to move far away to bring out the best in you? Musk plotted his escape from South Africa ever since he had access to information about America. His idea of America was cliché – he didn’t overthink it. He wasn’t interested in criticizing the system – he wanted to move to the land of yes-men, and he was one himself.
Getting His Hands Physically Dirty
Musk doesn’t seem to think that physical work is beneath him. He embraces it. When he moved to Canada at 17 on his own, he sought out a job that required him shoveling dirt in a boiler room wearing a hazmat suit. Even today, with his designer clothes on, Musk walks the floor of his rocket factory and sometimes gets physically involved in the process – his clothes ruined with epoxy.
Sharing Wildly Ambitious Plans
Compared to other people and companies, Musk has an unusually futuristic outlook. He has made and shared his plans for as far away as his death on Mars after he helps a million people move there on his rockets at $500,000 per ticket. It’s easy to dismiss this as marketing hype – and people did dismiss a younger Musk. By now it’s clear though that he lives up to his ambitions.
Not Looking Back
Musk is known for not hanging on to things or people. He looks forward. Ironically he might have a lot more to look back at and be sorry about than many. His first child died at 10 months old, he divorced his first wife, the first 3 times he launched his rockets they blew up – one of them destroying an expensive NASA payload. He has blown promises, missed deadlines, miscalculated costs and had to charge customers extra after they had already paid (Musk had to ask 400 customers who already prepaid to add extra $17,000 for each Roadster). This list alone is enough, I believe, to make most people look back and infer that maybe it’s time to reign in the ambition, to mend relationships, etc. But that is not the point – for all his failings, Musk is capable of greatness. His products justify his mistakes. At the age of 44 he still has more to gain than he has lost – more rockets to launch, more cars to manufacture, and even more children to have.
Starting Really Small
Compared to what Musk is doing now – electric cars, rockets, and solar panels his first businesses were ridiculously straightforward – selling computer parts from his dorm room, running a glorified speakeasy from his house in college. Would he do this if he saw a straight path to making electric cars back in college? I think not. It looks like he took incremental steps towards a goal he had no idea how to reach at the beginning.
Just Enough Money To Start
Most people would say that it’s the lack of money that prevents them from starting a startup. Musk’s biographer helpfully tells the amount he had when he started. Between him and his brother Kimbal they had $28,000 that came from their father plus $6,000 from their friend Greg Kouri, who joined as a co-founder of Zip2. Today the $34,000 adjusted for inflation would be $53,000. This amount was enough to set up an office in Palo Alto. Musk and his brother slept in the office, showered at the YMCA, and subsisted on a diet of fast food.
Teaching Himself From Books
When Musk decided to do something with space he apparently realized that he needed to learn about space himself. He correctly estimated that money alone, which he didn’t have enough of to start a rocket company either, does not solve the space problem. Wealthy people have done this before – threw some money at a space project and watched it fizzle out helpless without the engineering knowledge. Not Musk. Jim Cantrell, an aerospace engineer that Musk cold called back in 2001 said this about how Musk learns, “He literally sucks the knowledge and experience out of people that he is around. He borrowed all of my college texts on rocket propulsion when we first started working together in 2001. ”
Over-Optimism, Over-Promising, and Over-Delivering
With both SpaceX and Tesla there is a pattern: make a wildly ambitious promise, delay the reveal several times, finally unveil the product, promise to deliver it soon, delay the delivery date, deliver a product that surpasses expectations.
In design I’ve learned that you can have only 2 out of the three things: amazing, fast, or cheap. Musk doesn’t seem to compromise on amazing. He is definitely striving for cheap (100 times cheaper rockets than now, Model 3 at $25,000 after tax incentives). So you don’t get fast. The Model X, for example, came 3 years late.
How Many Tries Does It Take?
It took 4 tries for Musk to successfully launch his first rocket. This number is low compared to his competitors who blew up a lot more hardware before it would fly.
There is one key difference, though – Musk only had enough money to launch 4 times. If the 4th time didn’t fly that would have been it.
“I’d rather commit seppuku than fail,” Musk tells an investor to explain why he should get the investment. This is a theme with Musk in negotiations, physical activities, and relationships. He might move on but he doesn’t fail. He might be late on his promises, he might come across as too pushy, or get kicked out of the company he started, but he doesn’t let things fail.