“Good ideas are always crazy until they’re not.”
Elon Musk is one of the trailblazing entrepreneurs of our times. By age 46, he built companies that disrupted three industries – PayPal (Financial Services), Tesla Motors (Automobiles) and SpaceX (Aerospace).
But the man remained an enigma for most of us. That was until Ashlee Vance gave us insights into Musk’s mind through his biography titled Elon Musk.
Here are six lessons from the genius that is Musk which we can apply in our lives.
1. First Principles Thinking
In 2002, Musk began pursuing his quest to send his rockets to Mars but ran into a major challenge right from the beginning.
Rockets were expensive, felt that the industry has not evolved over 50 years, with lack of competition aerospace companies were building expensive rockets for achieving maximum performance rather than serving the purpose on hand. E.g. They were building a Ferrari for every launch when Honda Accord could do the trick. Musk applied first principles to rethink the problem.
He examined what a rocket was made of – aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, titanium, copper and carbon fiber – and checked the value of those metals on the commodity market. He found that the materials cost around two percent of the cost of a rocket.
Instead of buying rockets, Musk decided to build rockets by himself, and SpaceX was born.
Most people revert to existing solutions when faced with a complex problem. But this stifles innovation and keeps us mired in the “this-is-how-it’s-always-done” belief. But first principles thinking encourages us to question everything until we’re left with the fundamentals – the undeniable truth – on which we can build new concepts and technologies.
For Musk, these were the materials to build rockets, their costs, and the know-how. These fundamentals enabled SpaceX to slash the price of launching a rocket almost tenfold while still making a profit.
How will you apply first principles thinking to a complex problem you currently face?
2. Dream Big
But rather than sitting back and turning into an investor, Elon went on to challenge seemingly un-disruptable industries like automobiles, oil, aerospace, energy utilities and more which traditionally favored incumbents.
Each of Elon’s current (and future) ventures is about making a positive impact on society more than making profits.
First principles thinking enables you to spot opportunities early and identify what’s possible in the present rather than fixating on things that were possible around two decades ago. By staying updated with the facts of the world as they change real-time, you’re not just able to dream big but also take action to pursue them.
When Steve Wonder visited the Tesla HQ, he placed his hand on a car and said, “You’re going to enable people like me to drive someday.” That’s a big dream, a dent in the universe.
What are your big dreams? And how will you work towards fulfilling them?
3. Execute Like a Startup
At the break and traction testing track in North Sweden, automobile companies like BMW run standard tests on their cars for three to four days, collect data and conduct meetings for weeks at the company headquarters over adjusting the car. When something needs tweaking, the auto companies hold a confab where three to four companies play the blame game.
Tesla, on the other hand, sends its engineers along with the car to analyze the data on the spot. When something needs tweaking, the engineers rewrite the code on the spot and send the car back out. By the time the car returns from testing, no more meetings are needed to improve it.
According to Jeff Bezos, many companies make high-quality decisions, but they make them slowly. To retain dynamism, Bezos stresses the importance of speed in decision making and quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions.
No matter how big your organization is, you can always execute like a startup if you prioritize the quality and speed of your decisions.
What kind of decisions will you make today to empower your team or company to execute like a startup?
4. Don’t Let Setbacks Hold You Back
Just five months after Elon Musk started X.com, his co-founder initiated a coup and poached engineers from the company. At PayPal, Musk got relegated from CEO to an advisor to the company. The team at SpaceX suffered one crushing failure after another.
But through all this, Musk kept going. His friends credit this to his ability to stay focused in the midst of a crisis by becoming “hyperrational” rather than buckling under pressure and making bad decisions.
Steve Jobs is another. Ousted from the very company he created, he continued doing what he loved and returned stronger as the CEO of Apple to make it the world’s most successful company.
Setbacks are part of the journey. Learn from them. Use them as fuel to pursue what you want, discover your unique skills, and ensure that they reach an audience who needs what you offer.
How will you turn setbacks and obstacles into learnings and increase your resilience?
5. Don’t Let Reality Kill Creativity
Each of Elon’s visions – high-performance electric vehicles, reusable rockets and colonizing Mars, affordable solar power harnessing, and so on – sounded outrageous at first. A rationalist would’ve said, “This sounds great on paper, but is impossible in the real world.”
Elon didn’t just make them possible, his team is making them mainstream. For instance, SpaceX has gone from being a joke in the aeronautical industry to becoming one of the most consistent operators. It sends a rocket up once a month, carries satellites for companies and nations while undercutting competition like Boeing and Lockheed Martin by a ridiculous margin.
People who try to be “rational” and “realistic” run down new ideas because they only believe what already exists. But they sacrifice creativity in favor of the status quo. This curbs progress and innovation and fuels stagnation.
George Bernard Shaw was right. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Add a little bit of unrealism in your life. Pursue a grand vision. When you shoot for the stars, you’ll at least land on the roof.
How will you add creativity to your life today?
6. Attract Great Talent
None of Elon’s grand visions would be possible without a capable team to execute them. The same holds true for every great entrepreneur and inventor who has made a dent in the universe.
According to research, high performers are 400 percent more productive than average ones. They make quicker and better decisions and shorten the time it takes for your company to achieve its goals substantially.
Elon was (is) a master at articulating his vision, which is what got talented people excited enough to ignore established companies in favor of his startups. When Elon found someone good, he relentlessly courted them to join him and was successful in most instances. More importantly, he walked the talk when it came to working on what he envisioned.
Just the promise of money is not enough to attract and retain top talent. They want to know how their skills will make a difference and contribute to a larger picture.
How will you make your vision relatable to talented people and convince them to help you achieve it?
Elon Musk just might be a cyborg, something we can never be. But that doesn’t mean we cannot learn from him.
Dream big, think by first principles, execute like a startup and don’t let setbacks hold you back. You can improve the quality of your decisions and your life. The key lies in your hands.