Cannon Thomas, Ph.D.

The Architecture of Inspired Lives

Why Aren’t You Trying to Be More Like Elon Musk?

We thrill at Musk's ideas and marvel at his accomplishments. What about our own?

Posted Jun 22, 2018

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Stories about Elon Musk are everywhere. No wonder. This is a man who had the idea that we should colonize Mars as a backup for humanity in case of global catastrophe, and so he built SpaceX, a profitable space exploration company that sent more rockets into space in 2017 than the rest of America and Europe combined. He built Tesla, a car and now also a solar power storage company, “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” That company, which had never built a car before, has shown that electric cars can be among the most beautiful and highest performing cars on the road. The valuation of Tesla now rivals GM. And he keeps dreaming and then making extraordinary dreams seem attainable. He started a tunneling company, the Boring Company, to turn traveling between cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco into a local commute. He recently started a company, Neuralink, with the goal of developing brain computer interfaces that can treat major brain diseases in the short term and contribute to the artificial enhancement of human intelligence in the long term.

Is he the most visionary leader of his generation or Daedalus flying too close to the Sun? A lot of people revere him. Some revile him as a crackpot whipping up hysteria in a world too frenzied over the “Next Big Thing.” Most of us, though, recognize him as an innovator on a scale no one else is currently matching. We love to watch him -- his successes and his failures. We want to know what he will try next and whether he can pull it off. He absorbs and excites us. Inside and outside of his companies, there are many who are deeply inspired by his vision. But how often do we look at him and think, “If he can do that, what can I do?”

We could. I have quoted Steve Jobs on this point before:

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use…. Once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways.

It’s a crazy idea: Maybe you could use your mind and your life with the same creativity as one of the people with the craziest ideas in the world. There is no shortage of opportunities to innovate in every aspect of society. Maybe if you did your life would be better, and maybe if a lot of us did the world would be better too. Play along with me and see if it really seems like such a crazy idea after all.

We can frame what is unique about Musk in terms of a few simple questions that any of us can ask every day of our lives:

How Are Things Now? How Could They Be Better?

These questions do not on their face seem to have a lot of bite, but everything follows from them. They drive Musk’s life and work. The analysis of Musk’s career in the February 10, 2018, issue of The Economist, from which all of the subsequent quotes in this post come, makes the point:                        

Mr Musk does not simply want to have fun building rockets and fast cars. Nor is he running two multi-billion-dollar companies just to become rich, or to beat rivals. He wants to open up fundamental opportunities with which he thinks the market would not trouble itself [italics added]…. The fact that the firms’ goals go beyond products and profit sets the two companies apart from, say, Jeff Bezos’s Amazon or Larry Page’s Alphabet. In “The Complacent Class”, which laments lost entrepreneurial vigour, Tyler Cowen, an economist, cites Mr Musk as a counter-example, today’s “most visible and obvious representative of the idea of major progress in the physical world.”

Musk is doing something different than the tide that carries with it the general flow of even the most influential and creative in business, like Bezos and Page. The possibilities that the market already has a handle on are going to happen anyway — for better or worse. Maybe they will not happen as well without certain people that lead the field, but they will move in roughly the same direction. But Musk starts by looking for what could be that is not happening already. He tries to see what the fundamental possibilities are that would improve the direction the world is taking, and he pursues them.

Thinking this way is exceptional. Cognitive science has taught us how conservative our brains really are. All of us tend to start by absorbing what is already happening, and then we continue in that vein. We miss the alternatives in the shadows on the periphery as if it did not exist, even though that is where all of the interesting, novel possibilities are.

Almost every aspect of social experience could be better. Any area that you care a lot about has obvious problems. But they do not necessarily have creative, effective minds applying deliberate effort to discovering how to change them. Simply asking the question of what could be better that is not being addressed and considering seriously whether there is any way you can explore the answers can almost immediately open you up to goals you never would have considered otherwise. Few of us consider them seriously. If you pursue them, those goals will take you out of your comfort zone and beyond your current capacities. You will grow, if you can learn how to explore new possibilities effectively. Doing so starts with asking the question:

How does it work?

Everything that humans create — great chess playing, art of arresting beauty, speeches that move the hearts and minds of crowds, our jokes, our stories, the buildings we live in, the products we use — is complex. We can appreciate these things, but we will not become creators ourselves without knowing how the pieces work together to create the effects we appreciate. No matter how many symphonies you listen to and no matter how deeply you are moved by them, you will never be able to compose one until you study how every note works together to create the overall effect. Innovators are not just dreamers. They are discoverers who find what is possible through explorations of minute detail. They have great ideas because they have mapped out the connections that make things work so many times that they can navigate possibilities better than the rest of us. Most of us take a great deal about how things are done for granted. Innovators do not. They know that the details of how things work is where the potential for discovery lies. They study like a child taking the back off of a radio to understand how it works.

This process of learning is at the heart of what makes Musk so extraordinary. Impatient with formal education, he dropped out of a Ph.D. program in applied physics and material science at Stanford. But he did not stop studying the world with the attention to detail of a physicist and an engineer. As Chris Anderson of TED has said, he is “uniquely good at system-design thinking.” The Economist observes, “He reduces thorny problems to what he sees as their essence—typically expressed in terms of physics—and then extends his analysis to technologies, business systems, human psychology and design in an attempt to solve the issue.” Most of his great ideas have come from this detailed examination. The ideas at the heart of SpaceX and The Boring Company came from his realization that rocket launches and tunneling were both more expensive than physics required they should be. From there, he figured out what changes could be made in machines, in supply chains, and in pricing schemes that could support the improvements that were possible. Musk describes himself as a “nano-manager.” Antonio Gracias, a board member at SpaceX and Tesla, said, “Elon can be at the macro, see everything that’s highly disruptive, and then can zoom all the way down to the micro, down to the door handle.” He absorbs enough of the complexity of every project he takes on that he can look relentlessly for possibilities for improvement in achieving his goals. Tunneling and rocket launching have been going on for decades, but it is because people tend to stop looking past the established way of doing things that the whole profession missed opportunities.

Following this path can be thrilling, because it changes our experience of the world. The person who is so intimate with music that she can understand how every tone plays into the overall effect appreciates what is possible with music on a whole different level than someone who sits back and lets it sweep over her. We start to see the world not as a fixed set of assumptions but as full of potential. The fact that we are learning in the service of bold goals we care about makes it all the sweeter.

But it is also a lot of work. The established path involves much more predictable rewards. It satisfies most of us most of the time. So the big question I need to ask if I want to work hard for uncertain rewards is:


Everyone will have to find their own answers, but Musk suggests a couple of reasons to me that at least help me answer this question for myself. The first is that he is a reminder that some very bold goals we thought were unrealistic are worth pursuing. The business world is a source of enormous creativity and innovation, but we do not expect large, successful businesses to be defined from inception by their leaders’ attempts to improve the world. Musk’s career is a reminder that our expectations often gloss over what is possible. The business world is full of people who would love to improve the world. Many start non-profits with their business profits in order to do it. But none of them saw the possibility that that mission could be built directly into the world’s capitalist DNA at such a scale. To me, it is a reminder that there are almost certainly areas in yours and my corner of the world where we have dismissed as unrealistic ways that the world actually could be improved. Not exploring them means that we are part of the mass of people who perpetuate the false belief that realism and routine are synonymous, rather than the ones who open the creative possibilities that all too often go unexplored.

The second reason that Musk suggests to me that pursuing bold goals off of the beaten path is worth the work is that he brings home the fact that we do not have to reach our goal to have lived a very successful work life. One reason most of us stay on the beaten path is that we can contribute something there. We do not want our life’s work to be irrelevant, and pursuing goals no one else cares about or believes in yet can feel like it runs that risk. The Economist notes that every one of his current companies may fail to achieve its stated objective. In the end, though, he may not have to achieve his objectives to succeed. As The Economist writes:

It may also be that, even in failure, he achieves his goals. Now there is one gigafactory, others may see its merits and build more. Now there is a market for high-quality electric cars, others will expand it….

Asked about a new space race after the [SpaceX] Falcon Heavy launch, Mr Musk was enthusiastic: “Races are exciting.” They also let pacesetters guide the field. If you start a race in the direction you think people should be going, it may not, in the end, matter if you win.

Musk sets the goals for what he believes is a better world. If he sparks others to realize those possibilities, he wins. Of course, nowhere near as many people may ever know about our successes or our failures. But some people will. If they see us standing against the grain and making progress, it may leave them thinking twice before they assume making bold changes is a fool’s errand. If that happens, our life’s work becomes a surprising and inspiring reminder that humanity can do better.