Elon Musk’s success is down to more than just hard work, the ability to visualise the future and a ‘never say die’ attitude, writes Michael Simmons for World Economic Forum.
Elon Musk is CEO and CTO of SpaceX, co-founder, CEO and chairman of Tesla Inc, co-founder of OpenAI and founder and CEO of Neuralink. He is worth US$15.3bn.
How has the 45-year-old entrepreneur achieved all of this in such a short space of time? He reportedly works 85-hour weeks, he has created a unique and clear vision of the future and he doesn’t let failure get to him. But the same could be said of a lot of people working in the tech industry – or any industry, for that matter.
The key to Musk’s success, according to fellow entrepreneur, author and journalist Michael Simmons, is that he is an “expert generalist”.
What is an expert generalist?
Orit Gadiesh, chairman of US management consulting firm Bain & Company, coined the term expert generalist, defining it as “someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries and topics, etc”.
The standard thinking is that focusing on one field is the only way to attain mastery. Those working in the tech industry should stick to learning everything they can about tech, biologists should stick to learning everything they can about biology, and so on. Most people would advise against exploring multiple fields, invoking the old cliche, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’.
Simmons disagrees. “Each new field we learn that is unfamiliar to others in our field gives us the ability to make combinations that they can’t,” he writes. “This is the expert generalist advantage.” If you’re in tech and you are knowledgeable about the latest advances in biology, or vice versa, you will have an advantage over your colleagues and competitors.
Simmons’s contention is backed up by a 2000 study of the top 59 opera composers of the 20th century by Dean Leith Simonton of the University of California, Davis, which stated: “The composition of the most successful operatic composers tended to represent a mix of genres… composers were able to avoid the inflexibility of too much expertise (overtraining) by cross-training.”
According to his brother, Kimbal, Elon Musk has worked his way through two books per day since he was a teenager, exploring a diverse range of genres and subjects, including science fiction, philosophy, religion, biography, science, engineering, product design, business and technology.
But being well read is not enough on its own. You must master “learning transfer”. Acquiring knowledge of numerous different fields is only of use if you can learn to transfer what you have learned to your own field, e.g. transfer your knowledge of biology to your field of tech.
Elon Musk’s process
According to Simmons, Elon Musk uses a two-step process to transfer his learning in one field to his own field of tech.
1) Deconstruct knowledge into fundamental principles. “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,” Musk wrote in a Reddit AMA in 2015.
It is important that you don’t just deconstruct one approach. You should deconstruct lots of different approaches and compare and contrast them to uncover the shared fundamental principles. This technique is called “contrasting cases”.
2) Reconstruct fundamental principles in a new field. Having deconstructed knowledge learned from one field into fundamental principles or “first principles”, Musk reconstructs those principles into a different field e.g. from aerospace in order to create SpaceX.
Keith Holyoak, a UCLA professor of psychology and an authority on analogical reasoning, suggests that when surveying your environment or reading new material you should ask yourself two questions: What does this remind me of? And Why does it remind me of it?
Do you believe in magic?
“Elon Musk is one of a kind, but his abilities aren’t magical,” writes Simmons. The key to gaining an “information advantage” and an “innovation advantage” over others in your field is to obtain knowledge in as many different fields as possible and then learn to identify fundamental principles and apply them to a your field.