How Do we Make a Real Difference in the World? Ask Elon Musk

Elon Musk on questioning how to do things better

“If you want to make something better, then you must analyze it for the flaws.”

– Elon Musk

Proverbs are simple and concrete sayings. People learn and repeat them because they express a truth based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity#. They are often metaphorical, and we borrow them from one culture to another. 

A proverb that contains timelines is a dead giveaway of the culture where it circulates. Asian cultures, for example, think in terms of millennia, compared to the centuries of Europe, and the decades of the United States.

For example, the proverb at the beginning of an interview for Chinese television where Elon Musk talks about Tesla, SpaceX, and the Ad Astra school he recently created for his kids and other SpaceX-staff children.

It starts with 2,000 years ago… there was a man worrying all day that what if the Heavens falls down and people laughed at him and said why can't you be concerned about something more pragmatic… and ends with a pointed question:

so you are the guy who is worrying about maybe another millennium of years away, worrying about moving to another planet.

The response is itself a lesson in patience, determination, and inventiveness. Musk says:

“I learn what I need to learn to accomplish my objectives, and I think most people can do this, but they often self-limit. People are more capable than what they think. If you do something like read a lot of books and talk to a lot of people, you can learn almost anything.”

Other snippets from the interview that are worthy of notice.

08:00. Reading books

Growing up, he was the youngest and smallest in his class, and his parents moved around a lot, so it was difficult to make friends. So he read a lot, “basically, I read all the time,” he says.

“And generally the sci-fi genre I found the most interesting and I also read a lot of the philosophers, and religious texts… and a lot of non fiction as well. I read the encyclopedia; in fact I remember just after school I was reading about ion engines and I found them super cool. And now we're launching satellites with ion engines.”

When asked about real figures in history as Newton and Einstein and if he ever thought about leaving a legacy, he said he never thought about it.

As a child, Musk did not know what he wanted to do as a grown up, but he did know he wanted to be involved with something that was cutting edge, things that would affect the future of the world.

11:28. Early days of entrepreneurship

“I expected to fail. The reason is that most companies fail. And if 90 percent of companies fail, and I have no track record of making companies work, then the most likely outcome is failure.”

It was a low risk decision, he could always go back to school. In the early days they had only a computer, a little bit of money between him, his brother, and a friend, and a decision to rent an office (cheaper and better to have people over) vs. an apartment.

The site worked only during the day because at night he was programming software. It worked out pretty well for the three of them ended up selling the business for 300 million dollars.

16:17. Tough times of 2008 (and success)

He talks about the difficulty in making the decision of whether to split the money between Tesla and SpaceX or to bankroll one instead of the other.

What if both fail because each did not have full funding — and consequent attention? It would have been a tough situation to not keep his responsibilities to investors and employees where one of the companies not survive.

Where did the tenacity or resilience come from?

Christmas 2008, they had three failures and only one success — that was not enough. They closed the contract on the SpaceX two days before Christmas and the Tesla financing on the last day, last hour that it was possible. Musk lost a lot of sleep, but not his good outlook. It came in handy at times when he and his team had to take corrective action. He says:

“When you're doing something new, there's going to be mistakes, and it's important to recognize those mistakes, acknowledge them, and take corrective action. The success of the company is much more about how quick you are at fixing the mistakes, not will you make mistakes.”

Going with both businesses is creating opportunities to learn from one and execute better in the other, as the recent SpaceX “Ludicrous” announcement may indicate.

20:57. Failure — a physics lesson

“In physics you're taught to always question yourself, to never assume you are right, to prove yourself not wrong. Physics brain work is very effective for learning counter-intuitive things.”

Failure is also an option, “If you only do things that are going to succeed, then you are doing very obvious things.”

22:03. The price of innovation — doing our chores

“In life, in every job, you have to do your chores. To be successful at anything, you have to do the tough stuff as well as the enjoyable stuff; you have to do the boring stuff as well as the non boring stuff. And if you don't do your chores, then bad things will happen. But if they don't do the things that they know they have to do, then the company will be in trouble.”

24:47. Elon’s kid education at Ad Astra School

Musk's five children go to a school he created — Ad Astra, which means to the stars#. Right now there are 14 kids, it will be 20 in September. There are no grades, all children of every age go at the same time, like an assembly line.

“One principle is that because some people love English or languages, math or music and they have different abilities at different times. It makes more sense to cater the education to match their aptitudes and abilities.”

“A second principle is that it's important to teach problem-solving or to teach to the problem, not the tools. So instead of teaching the tools say for an engine, you take apart the engine, and then the relevance of the tools becomes apparent.”

Musk hired a teacher from the school they attended, who agrees on the validity of the principles. The kids love going to school.

27:30. Advice for entrepreneurs — on the balance between imagination and pragmatism

“What Edison said, creating a company is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration, is true.

A lot of in creating a company is execution. You start off with an idea, and that idea is mostly wrong. Then you adapt that idea and keep refining it and listen to criticism… try to discard the wrong criticism, try to listen to the right criticism, and then engage in recursive self-improvement, constantly improving and making it better… and you have to work super hard, and keep iterating on a loop that says am I doing something useful for other people? Because that is what a company is supposed to do.

A company is just a group of people gather together to produce a product or service. And a company should only exist if that product or service is truly useful for customers.”

Musk's key goal with Tesla is to make an affordable electric car that is great — that's the only way to change the world with electric cars. With SpaceX it's a longer term goal of making reusability work with rockets to improve the cost of space flying.

29:17. What’s next for Elon — some of the rules he wants to live by

“Be useful, my actions had a good effect on the world.” 

Not mentioned in the interview is what many hail as the most compelling of his inventions, SolarCity. As Salon reports:

SolarCity, which focuses on putting solar panels on the roofs of homes and buildings, didn’t invent the solar panel. But, like Ford Motor Co. did a century ago, it has put together and perfected a combination of functions and disciplines—efficient assembly, economies of scale, vertical integration, and innovative financing techniques—that could make mass adoption possible. And it continually seeks and finds ways to expand its market.

Another innovative idea where good execution will make a real difference. And as the saying goes, a difference, is about the only thing worth making.

If you're interested in a more detailed account of the road that took Musk to the skies, how he runs his companies, and the struggles he overcame, Ashlee Vance has written a very engaging biography, also based on personal interviews. The Financial Times says Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Futureis an essential read.

Watch the full interview below (complete with background snippets and subtitles, both in Chinese.)



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *