Elon Musk, in the words of Wait But Why blogger Tim Urban, is “the world’s raddest man.” Plotting to colonize Mars? Revolutionizing the energy industry? Serving as the inspiration for Hollywood’s Iron Man? Check, check, check. That’s all Musk. The guy has the title in the bag.
But you knew that already. What you don’t know is how a mere mortal with the same 24 hours per day at his disposal as the rest of us manages to accomplish so much. But I bet you want to find out.
Wait But Why thinks it has the answer. As Urban explains, he recently got a call that 99.9 percent of bloggers can only dream of — someone from Musk’s office was on the line asking if Urban was interested in interviewing her boss. The result of that stroke of luck is a series of (extremely lengthy) blog posts laying out how Musk became a self-made billionaire, how Tesla will change the world, why Space X is aiming to colonize Mars, and finally a more personal look inside the brain of Musk.
For fans of the Tesla and Space X founder (who have some time to burn — I’m not joking about the lengthy thing), the whole series is a definite must read, but for those most interested in how Musk manages to be both so phenomenally productive, and so unbelievably innovative, the last post is where you should focus your energies.
In it, Urban aims “to understand why Musk is able to do what he’s doing.” What’s the mindset behind his success? Urban thinks he has the answer and claims Musk’s secret sauce “is actually accessible to everyone.”
The short answer.
It takes a bunch of funny doodles and a whole lot of words (quite a few of them profane) for Urban to explain his ideas about Musk, but he also offers a short reply to the question “What’s Elon’s secret?” Answer: “He’s a scientist through and through.”
To illustrate the point, Urban provides some odd but illuminating quotes from Musk, such as this one about his childhood fears: “When I was a little kid, I was really scared of the dark. But then I came to understand, dark just means the absence of photons in the visible wavelength–400 to 700 nanometers. Then I thought, well, it’s really silly to be afraid of a lack of photons. Then I wasn’t afraid of the dark anymore after that.” Obviously, this is a person with a greater than average commitment to evidence and objective reality.
How does that commitment to scientific rigor play out in practice? Urban argues that to Musk, we’re all computers. The slimy grey material in our skulls acts as hardware, while our thoughts and beliefs perform the role of software.
You might think it’s Musk’s hardware — the talented brain he was born with — that makes him an exceptional entrepreneur, but Urban is convinced it’s the software that makes the man. And he’s also convinced we can reprogram our own software to be more like Musk’s.
The long answer.
How to do that resists quick summarizing, so if you’re convinced Urban is on to something, I’d strongly suggest you give the complete post a read. It is possible to boil down a few key points, however:
- Unlike most of us, Musk reasons from first principles. He doesn’t do something because others say it’s a good idea or that’s how it was done before. Instead he reasons from first principles. “You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past,” he tells Urban.
- Musk continually tests his conclusions. Being rigorously logical in your thinking isn’t enough if you do it only once and then let it drift. “So after Musk builds his conclusions from first principles, what does he do? He tests the s**t out of them, continually, and adjusts them regularly based on what he learns,” writes Urban.
How has this approach worked when it comes to the big decisions of Musk’s career? How are most of us sidetracked from thinking this way? (Spoiler: Dogma and tribalism are two of the top culprits.) How can we get our own mental software to function more like Musk’s? The post goes into great depth on these sorts of questions, but let me leave you with one final quote from Urban summing up what makes Musk great (and what makes most of the rest of us comparatively mediocre).
“The difference between the way Elon thinks and the way most people think is kind of like the difference between a cook and a chef,” writes Urban. “The chef reasons from first principles, and for the chef, the first principles are raw edible ingredients. Those are her puzzle pieces, her building blocks, and she works her way upwards from there, using her experience, her instincts, and her taste buds. The cook works off of some version of what’s already out there–a recipe of some kind, a meal she tried and liked, a dish she watched someone else make.”
Do you approach life more like a cook or a chef?