We all know Elon Musk as the CEO of SpaceX, Tesla and a plethora of other tech companies — but have you ever wondered how his brain works? In his TED2022 talk, Musk reveals how he thinks about problem-solving, what inspires him and why the only way to be creative is to surround yourself with creative people.
It’s enough to make you wonder if Musk had some kind of secret inspiration in mind when he named his companies after science fiction and fantasy authors like C.S.
What is intelligence?
The short answer is that we don’t really know, says Dr Gary Marcus, a neuroscientist and host of NPR’s new podcast How I Built This (or HIBT). In a recent episode, he talks with entrepreneur Elon Musk about intelligence — or more specifically, how Musk sees it. The smartest person you’ve ever met is someone who didn’t seem particularly smart at first sight, explains Musk in an email to Marcus before their conversation. You may only discover how extremely intelligent he was after having many conversations with him and observing his behaviour over time. The two discuss both neuroscience and life advice — such as how a rigorous work schedule can be good for your health — during their chat on HIBT.
Intelligence is a tricky thing to pin down. In fact, Musk says that people who think they’re smart are often, at least in his experience, the opposite. It’s easier to measure intelligence after you’ve had a chance to talk with someone over time and observe their behaviour. He also explains that intelligence comes in many forms and can be hard to recognize on first impression. All of us have come across someone we initially thought was unintelligent but later realized was actually very smart — even if they didn’t fit our original idea of what being intelligent looks like.
Elon musk-grew up reading science
I grew up reading science fiction, he says.
I was raised by books. When asked how many books he read in a week, musk replied: About half a dozen. Maybe more. You’d be surprised at how fast you can go through books if you devote some time to them.
I read a lot of books on physics, astronomy and chemistry when I was young. Those subjects were fascinating to me, and they continue to be my passion. A large part of my way of thinking comes from those early days. But it’s not just science — I was a big fan of fiction too, especially fantasy. Some people might be surprised that an inventor who builds space rockets also loves science fiction, but there is no connection between those two things in my mind. The fact that no one had ever built rocket ships before was as far removed from fantasy as you can imagine! I used to watch Star Trek reruns all the time when I was a kid; Star Trek really captured my imagination, more than anything else that had come before it.
Elon musk-hasn’t done much else since he started earning money
If you watched Elon Musk’s SpaceX Livestream, then you know he doesn’t sleep much. But that’s not exactly because he just likes to work—it turns out that without enough sleep, his brain actually stops making new neurons (or at least makes far fewer than normal). The takeaway: No matter how busy you are or how focused on your goals, make sure to get seven to eight hours of rest every night. And if you can’t get that? At least try for some power naps throughout your day.
Just because he doesn’t sleep much doesn’t mean Musk skips his other daily routines. As a matter of fact, he sticks to a pretty strict schedule, which includes exercise and meditation. In particular, he loves to practice tai chi and meditate—in fact, he even has a picture of him doing so on his desk at work. It relieves stress and takes your consciousness away from…the sort of normal addictive cycles we all get caught in every day, Musk says in one interview.
Elon musk-came to earth as a child
Although he was born in South Africa, Elon was actually sent to Canada at a young age. He moved around quite a bit as a child (which makes sense given his future ventures), but he found time for reading and learning about engineering. He credits these experiences with teaching him how to learn things quickly and efficiently, as well as how to function under pressure. Elon musk talks Twitter: It’s no secret that Elon is huge on Twitter—to the point that many people don’t know that he also created PayPal, which revolutionized online payments. While it might seem odd at first glance, there are several reasons why his affinity for Twitter makes sense—the biggest being his ability to stay connected with people all over the world while accomplishing tasks.
Elon had quite a lot of interests as a child, so he left home when he was 17 years old to pursue his own goals. During that time, he held multiple jobs including those in engineering and finance. He started Zip2—which provided online city guides—with his brother, Kimbal. Elon musk talks on twitter: The company sold to Compaq in 1999 for over $300 million in cash and shares. After that deal, Elon made millions but felt like it wasn’t enough money to really push humanity forward—so he decided to move on from Zip2 and start SpaceX and Tesla Motors.
Elon musk-loves books about rockets
In an interview with Leslie Stahl that aired on 60 Minutes Sunday night, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told her that a childhood obsession with reading books about rockets helped prepare him for his current profession. That’s part of what helped him build rocket ships in high school and later go on to found SpaceX — as well as companies like Tesla and The Boring Company. Even today, he said, he reads about space technology and physics all day long. Space is not only cool but also serves as a kind of escape: If you love something, you don’t really work too hard, he said. It almost doesn’t feel like work.
I think what drives me is that I want to be involved in something that’s important for the future, that makes a difference, he said. And space is one of those things. In his interview with Stahl, Musk also discussed how Twitter can be an effective means of communicating with Tesla customers — and why he sometimes prefers it to email. When you’re emailing someone, he said, you might not get a response for several days or perhaps never if it gets lost in an inbox. But on Twitter, people will respond within minutes or even seconds.
Elon musk-talks like a normal person
Something I realized after watching Elon Musk’s first presentation at TED 2023: The way he talks about his projects sounds exactly like how a normal person would talk about, say, their kid or an upcoming trip. He’s not trying to dazzle with buzzwords or complex phrasing — he wants you to see him as someone who understands your problems and is working on solutions. The goal of his presentations is not to sound smart; it’s to make you believe that he is actually going to do these things. And in many cases, he already has done them. At least when it comes to Tesla and SpaceX, anyway.
In fact, when you look at some of Elon’s tweets, you can see that he sounds like a normal person: Frustrating days with Model 3 production. Or Starting to think Tesla was built in a parallel universe full of demons. The only difference is that his timelines are much shorter than ours; he sees things happening now that will make your eyes go wide.
Learn from your mistakes. Try again. Don’t give up
In some ways, not being afraid to move on from ideas that don’t work out is a key element of Musk’s ability to think big. Every time I thought we had something worked out, he says at one point, something would change. Elon musk talks on Twitter and says he adopted two rules:
- It cannot be something where you say, ‘We will give up in six months if it does not work out—it has to be a commitment you are willing to make and be held accountable for. That is rule number one.
- Rule number two is ‘change or die.’ Once you choose something and put energy behind it and it does not work … then clearly your initial premise was wrong.
That is precisely what happened when SpaceX started trying to develop reusable rockets. For years, he says, it was just not working. He says after months of struggle, a colleague of his asked him an interesting question: ‘How long would you give yourself and your company to try to do something that most people think is impossible before you gave up?’ Elon musk talks twitter thought about it and said ten years. But in actuality, it didn’t work out in even ten weeks; but by making a public commitment to keep going for ten years no matter what — even if he didn’t know how he would pay people — it gave him a deadline and helped motivate him to find a solution faster than he ever would have otherwise.
The riskiest thing you can do is nothing. But this means you must be prepared to fail
In other words, do something 10 times harder than anyone else thinks is possible. Once you believe something is impossible, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If something can’t be done, then it won’t be done. — Elon Musk (at TED2022)
If you have an idea, don’t ask people if it’s possible. Ask them if it’s impossible
When did you first realize you wanted to be an entrepreneur? What’s your definition of a good idea versus a bad one? These musings will help keep your mind organized. Not sure what to write about? Think about how Elon Musk tweeted back and forth with his Tesla followers after a car accident in California: They called him an idiot and he had some choice words for them, but both sides were talking about Tesla! Social media is very powerful, says Steve Blank, a serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist at SaaStr Fund.
Give yourself room to think. Stop frequently on your commute home and write down your thoughts in a notebook
Though he may seem larger than life, Elon Musk is actually a man with many anxieties. He told interviewer Chris Anderson that his sleep schedules are so erratic that it’s dangerous for him to be alone in his home. I don’t have friends, he said. It sounds kind of sad, but I think in order to really make great leaps forward… you have to apply when you’re young. One way he applies himself? By letting go of past mistakes—and learning from them.
Cultivate the ability to let go
The ability to let go is crucial for those working in a creative field, where you must be willing to make sacrifices and kill your darlings. If you’re an entrepreneur, I think it’s important to cultivate the ability to let go of things that don’t work. If something isn’t performing well or it’s not resonating with customers, then I think being able to throw yourself at new ideas is important, says Johnson. That requires cultivating an attitude of creativity that allows you to almost treat your endeavours as a portfolio of experiments and ideas. You have experiments and some things are going better than others but overall you learn something from all these different experiences.
If you’re able to let go of things that aren’t working and not get stuck in your head on something that isn’t resonating with customers, then you’re going to be better off in business. I think it’s helpful to do side projects and cultivate a creative attitude where you treat everything as an experiment and don’t worry too much about failures. When failures occur it doesn’t mean all hope is lost, says Johnson. It means you now have more information about what isn’t working and how can improve your product for future iterations.
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