Posted on December 30, 2016 by Matt Pressman
When Tesla Motors [NASDAQ: TSLA] CEO Elon Musk recently won Motor Trend's Person of the Year award, the iconic car magazine described him as: "A charmer and conjurer of dreams, Musk possesses a hypnotic voice... At times mercurial but also self-deprecating, he creates an intimacy and illusion of transparency rare in a CEO. Musk has cast a spell over tens of thousands of consumers." Are his abilities really magical? Does he possess some special superpower completely out of reach from others in his industry?
Above: Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk (Image: Motor Trend)
The Observer* argues that, "Understanding Elon’s learning superpowers helps us gain some insight into how he could go into an industry that has been around for more than 100 years and change the whole basis of how the field competes. Elon Musk is one of a kind, but his abilities aren’t magical." Nevertheless, they too wonder: "How is it even possible that Elon Musk could build four multibillion [dollar] companies by his mid-40s — in four separate fields (software, energy, transportation, and aerospace)?" They offer three compelling clues into how Musk has been able to accomplish the unthinkable.
Become an 'expert-generalist'
In contrast to a specialist, "Expert-generalists study widely in many different fields, understand deeper principles that connect those fields, and then apply the principles to their core specialty." But, you may wonder: wouldn't this force Musk to learn at a surface level only and never gain true mastery? Contrary to the jack-of-all-trades myth, "Learning across multiple fields provides an information advantage (and therefore an innovation advantage) because most people focus on just one field... Each new field we learn that is unfamiliar to others in our field gives us the ability to make combinations that they can’t." Musk applies this multi-disciplinary approach in order to disrupt the automotive world and achieve otherworldly breakthroughs in rocketry.
Above: Witness the historic landing of a Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral with unprecedented access to Elon Musk and his SpaceX team (Youtube: National Geographic)
Improve your 'learning transfer' skills
From childhood, "Starting from his early teenage years, Musk would read two books per day in various disciplines according to his brother, Kimbal Musk. To put that [in] context, if you read one book a month, Musk would read 60 times as many books as you." He read across multiple disciplines which made him "good at a very specific type of learning that most others aren’t even aware of — learning transfer." Elon Musk's "thirst for knowledge allowed him to get exposed to a variety of subjects." In turn, this gave him skills in "Learning transfer... taking what we learn in one context and applying it to another." So how does he do it? Read on for the next clue...
Above: Elon Musk and Lyndon Rive talk SolarCity (Image: Car Talk)
View knowledge as a 'semantic tree'
In Musk's Reddit AMA interview, Elon wrote, "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 onto." Furthermore, "If we put in the time and learn core concepts across fields and always relate those concepts back to our life and the world, transferring between areas becomes much easier and faster. As we build up a reservoir of 'first principles' and associate those principles with different fields, we suddenly gain the superpower of being able to go into a new field we’ve never learned before, and quickly make unique contributions."
Above: Elon Musk unveils the Tesla Model X (Image: Ask Men)
Granted, "To explain Musk’s success, others have pointed to his heroic work ethic (he regularly works 85-hour weeks), his ability to set reality-distorting visions for the future, and his incredible resilience." All true. But, "At the deepest level, what we can learn from Elon Musk’s story is that we shouldn’t accept the dogma that specialization is the best or only path toward career success and impact." By becoming an expert generalist, excelling at learning transfer and viewing knowledge as a semantic tree — you might be able to capture a little of that Elon Musk magic.
*Source: The Observer