He wants to die on Mars but says he’d prefer it not be on impact. Elon Musk once ignored when trying to apply for a job at the now-defunct Netscape – is arguably the world’s biggest dreamer.
The mover and shaker behind Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and SolarCity, Musk’s accomplishments are well known. What is less known are his secrets to innovation, advancement and vision.
Here, I put a spotlight on the limitless mind of Elon Musk in the hope that we can all start to think bigger to expand our horizons, serve a purpose and shape a legacy.
Imagination Is More Interesting Than The Real World
“I’m interested in things that change the world or that affect the future and wondrous, new technology where you see it, and you’re like, ‘Wow, how did that even happen? How is that possible?’”
Many of us give up on our dreams, convinced they could never come true. Focussed solely on “just getting by” we give no time to thinking big. But isn’t it true that our imagination can be the most exciting part of our life? Elon Musk thinks like a 10-year old child – without limits and in a state of wonderment. The truth is, if we think big, we may not achieve all of our dreams, but we will surely get farther than if we choose not to exercise our imagination at all. Let us go back to being kids and never stop asking “What if?”
First Principles Thinking
“I think it is important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy.”
Elon Musk believes that most people base their thinking on what other people say or do (making a comparison or analogy), even if those things are unproven or wrong. But “first principles” thinking, to which Musk adheres, is about starting with the “first principle” or, in other words, something we know to be true, so we can then “reason up from there.”
The car battery, for example, has typically cost $600 per kilowatt hour, but Musk came up with a figure of only $80 per kilowatt hour, based on what he knew to be true – that a battery’s core materials – nickel, carbon and cobalt – are inexpensive. In his words, “Clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realises.”
Used in physics and mathematics, the idea of a “first principle” isn’t new – referenced by Greek philosopher Aristotle who called it “the first basis from which a thing is known.”
The Wright brothers used the same thinking process as Elon Musk to create aviation. In the late 1890s, they noticed that birds would easily take flight by catching an updraft, twisting the tips of their wings to manipulate the wind to turn left or right. These were the first principles of flight.
Today, in our own lives, we can focus on what we know to be true (rather than listening to what others tell us is true) as the starting point in solving any problem.
Credit: AP/Wide World Photos
The year is 2001 when Elon Musk’s company X.com became PayPal. Musk is seen here on the right with his then-partner Peter Thiel. It would be just one year later that eBay would purchase PayPal for $1.5 Bn dollars. Today, PayPal is a stand alone company said to be worth over $50 Bn – more than eBay.
The Joy Of Failure
“Failure is an option. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
Could it be that so many of us cannot progress because of our aversion to failure? I was surprised to learn that Elon Musk embraces failure. In fact, he publicly stated that the chances of his space exploration company succeeding were maybe 50 per cent. Why try something if we believe it will fail? Because, as Musk sees it – if something is important, then you do it, even if the odds are against you. You can always adjust, fine-tune and start over, armed with the knowledge only experience can bring.
As a consultant, I listened to a CEO recently address his staff at the annual meeting – telling everyone “failure is not an option” because the company was facing near bankruptcy. The CEO should have been fired on the spot. It is the exact opposite. Failure brought on by relentless innovation, experimentation and calculated risk – is essential to growth.
Work For A Cause
“People should pursue what they’re passionate about. That will make them happier than pretty much anything else.”
Elon Musk wants to make a lot of money but not for the reasons you may think. Musk (who prefers to be known as an engineer) is all about fighting for a cause – in his case – putting humans on other planets. And that takes money. He isn’t motivated by money for money’s sake – like a lot of people. Thinking big should never be about cash flow. Instead, going outside of the box is about pursuing our passion to fulfill that which is bigger than ourselves.
Elon Musk, age 45, doesn’t believe in time management, almost never uses Facebook, and knows that many people think he’s crazy.
But that’s okay because he has no time to worry about what others think. It should be exactly that way with all of us as well.
This big thinker, out to save humanity, taught himself computer programming at age 12. Seen as a nerd by classmates, Musk was severely bullied, at one point being beaten until he lost consciousness.
Elon Musk the teenager had few friends, spending most of his time inside his own head.
At age 24, he dropped out of Stanford after only two days to pursue interests in the Internet, renewable energy and outer space.
From his first company in 1995, a software venture called Zip2 which he began by borrowing $28,000 from his father, to a net worth today of $14 Bn – Elon Musk has been busy dreaming.
He gets ideas from things which happen to him in daily life, such as slow traffic, igniting a plan to create a “hyperloop” transportation system in which a pod of passengers is propelled on a soft cushion of air through a tube at 600 mph.
The hyperloop, an old idea brought back to life with new technologies by Elon Musk, is a vacuum-like tube designed to push people and freight, first by an electric motor, then by magnetic power. Musk thought about the applications while stuck in heavy traffic saying light rapid rail is “too slow”. He maintains he’s now too busy to take the project on himself and has encouraged others to turn hyperloop into reality. (Concept art courtesy: Camilo Sanchez)
The dreamer Musk, who appears to have endless luck in business, has been less lucky in his private life. He had 6 sons by his first marriage, the first of whom died at 10 weeks. Later, Musk divorced his second wife, reconciled, then tried to divorce her a second time, before a third divorce was filed, this time by his wife, which was successful.
While claiming not to be religious, Musk has been known to pray for the success of his companies, once admitting that he put his head down and said “any entities that are listening, please bless this launch.” (Referring to one of his rocket launches).
Elon Musk is changing the world, one thought at a time – encouraging us all to think big and make this a better life.
In his early entrepreneurial days, Musk lived in his rented office, slept on a couch and showered at the YMCA. Today, he brings his dogs to the office. Those who have worked closely with Musk say his ego is as big as the universe he hopes to populate. Kind-hearted and brilliant, friends say he’s also intolerant of people he views as stupid.
You won’t see ads for Musk’s companies because he doesn’t believe in advertising – choosing instead to fuel word-of-mouth and media interest. Elon Musk is on a mission, convinced that interplanetary migration is the only solution to sustaining humanity.
[This post by Cory Galbraith first appeared on LinkedIn and has been reproduced with permission.]