What can we learn from Elon Musk?

The three fundamentals to Elon Musks success.


How to constantly build your knowledge and understanding.

An oft asked question of Musk – ‘How did he learn so much?’

Since childhood, he has been a tireless self learner. At the age of 10 he resorted to reading Encyclopedia Britannica after devouring every other book at home.

From interviews and discussions with Musk, its becomes apparent that he views people as computer systems, being made up of hardware (body) and software (mind). Recognizing that your software is one of the most powerful tools that you possess, Musk works tirelessly on updating his, feeding it with more knowledge and information when he wants to understand a problem.

Jim Cantrell, one of the founding team members of SpaceX comments on Musk’s incredibly fast learning ability:

“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.”

In 2000, before Musk had even set up SpaceX, he began devouring books on propulsion, avionics and aeronautical engineering. He already knew that his goal was landing people on Mars, now he just needed to upgrade his software with the information and tools on how to accomplish it.

A trait that underpins Musk’s model of thinking is being able to quickly consume and understand complex information, then plan with clarity how to apply it in making progress towards his goal. People are impressed with his deep knowledge across a wide range of technical subjects, from electrical, structural, mechanical, aeronautical, and software engineering through to business strategy and more.

“I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

Elon Musk

This habit of self learning and forcing himself to understand new concepts, gives him a huge internal database of knowledge that he is then able to run through his internal problem solving tool.


How to get to the nucleus of a problem and understand the facts.

Aristotle described a first principle as, “[the] first basis from which a thing is known”.

It means basing conclusions on fundamental truths, not on assumption or analogy.

Reasoning from first principles requires mental effort. It means boiling things down to their most basic truths, and reasoning up from those truths. It requires you to actively engage your brain and work ideas through.

The alternative to this is reasoning by analogy. Assuming something is true or correct because it’s similar to something else that has been done before.

Musk is a master of using the scientific method of first principle reasoning, and applying it to problem solving scenarios. Here is one example;

“Historically, all rockets have been expensive, so therefore, in the future, all rockets will be expensive. But actually that’s not true. If you say, what is a rocket made of? It’s made of aluminium, titanium, copper, carbon fiber. And you can break it down and say, what is the raw material cost of all these components? If you have them stacked on the floor and could wave a magic wand so that the cost of rearranging the atoms was zero, then what would the cost of the rocket be? And I was like, wow, okay, it’s really small—it’s like 2% of what a rocket costs. So clearly it would be in how the atoms are arranged—so you’ve got to figure out how can we get the atoms in the right shape much more efficiently.

And so I had a series of meetings on Saturdays with people, some of whom were still working at the big aerospace companies, just to try to figure out if there’s some catch here that I’m not appreciating. And I couldn’t figure it out. There doesn’t seem to be any catch. So I started SpaceX.”

Elon Musk

In our day to day, we make most decisions based on analogy. It would simply take too much mental time and capacity to question every single small decision during the day.

But when it comes to big decisions, it’s important to reason from first principle. Make sure you know the facts, data and figures, don’t just follow the crowd and assume.


How to give your ideas the best chance of success.

Highly intelligent, fast learning, dynamic problem solving ability and lots of money, they’ve all contributed to the success of Musk’s endeavours. But there’s another key character trait to the man which has been critical to his success – an incredible and highly efficient work ethic.

“Work like hell. I mean you just have to put in 80 to 100 hour weeks every week. [This] improves the odds of success. If other people are putting in 40 hour work weeks and you’re putting in 100 hour work weeks, then even if you’re doing the same thing you know that… you will achieve in 4 months what it takes them a year to achieve.”

Elon Musk

The fact is that Elon Musk gets a lot done. Running two separate billion dollar companies requires making a lot of decisions and having eyes on many moving parts. Here are some of the key aspects to Musk’s working process that make him so efficient.

– 100 hours a week – has noted many times that at critical periods in the lifespan of his companies, he has gone from working 80-90 hour weeks up to doing 100 hours a week. It is not unusual for him to work seven days a week, normally rising at 7am and getting to bed around 1am.

– Batching – or multitasking, he combines multiple tasks which can be done together effectively e.g. Emailing while reviewing spreadsheets, meetings over lunch, etc.

– Scheduling – A man as busy as Musk needs to run to a tight schedule to be efficient. He spends Monday and Thursday at SpaceX in LA, Tuesday and Wednesday at Tesla in the Bay Area, and splits Friday between both. His assistant has his planner broken down into five minute slots, and there’s a long line of people trying to get ahold of him for that time. Efficient scheduling is a behaviour pattern seen in many highly successful people.

– Feedback loop – Musk is a strong believer in constructive criticism. He constantly bounces ideas off colleagues and advisors to sense check them. Open and honest criticism should be encouraged to help improve an idea or product. “Constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.” – Elon Musk

– Caffeine – „To get through the day, Musk relies on two stimulants: caffeine and a desire to help humanity colonize Mars. Until he recently started cutting back on the former, Musk consumed eight cans of Diet Coke a day, as well as several large cups of coffee. „I got so freaking jacked that I seriously started to feel like I was losing my peripheral vision,“ he says. If he realizes how crazy this sounds, he doesn’t let on.” – from Inc Magazine.




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