Having broken new ground in numerous industries, Elon Musk has justified his popular reputation as “the real Iron Man.” In light of his extraordinary biography, it is tempting to conclude that there is little for the average person to learn from Musk’s experiences. Yet if we look beneath the surface of Musk’s biography—beneath the headline sales, mergers, and IPOs that have propelled his career, we find general psychological principles that we can apply in a wide variety of circumstances. In this sense, there is something that each of us can learn from Elon Musk.
A Clear Sense of Motivation
Picture the scenario: you’re 28 years old and receive a cash payment of $22 million. This is the situation Elon Musk faced in 1999 after the sale of his first Internet company, Zip2. Under these circumstances, most of us would likely retire into a life of recreation and luxury. In Musk’s case, he responded by investing half his net worth into a new venture later that year. That venture, X.com, became PayPal following a subsequent merger. where he has since contributed personally to the company’s financing rounds. Two years later, he became Chairman of SolarCity Corporation.
Musk’s decision to continuously reinvest in his own projects is far from arbitrary. Instead, it rests upon his underlying motivation for being an entrepreneur. Whether in relation to Internet commerce, space exploration, or renewable energy, Musk’s principle goal is to catalyze world-changing innovations. He views entrepreneurship as a means to that end.
Confronting the Worst-Case Scenario
In his famous treatise The Art of War, Sun Tzu counseled his readers to “win first, and then go to war.” One way of interpreting this counsel is by relating it to the importance of understanding—and accepting—the worst-case scenario associated with each of our endeavors. Once we have done this, we can pursue our objectives with deepened confidence.
By this interpretation, Musk seems to have heeded Sun Tzu’s advice. In a March 2015 interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Musk related the story of how, when he was 17-years old, he limited his daily spending to one dollar per day to determine how much money he needed to meet his basic needs.
Needless to say, Musk’s life took a different course. A billionaire several times over, Musk is far from needing to worry about making ends meet for one dollar per day. Nevertheless, I believe that this experience contributed to Musk’s psychological resolve. By realizing that, if all else fails, he could function with extremely limited resources, Musk strengthened a foundation of self-confidence that has paid dividends throughout his career.
Self-Education: Continuously Building Competence.
We live in an age in which the value of personal initiative is greater than ever before. The access to information that the average person enjoys is unprecedented, both with respect to quantity and quality.
One of the keys to Musk’s success is that, through life-long education, he has seized upon the opportunities presented by that access. For example, Musk read voraciously in his youth. In his August 2011 profile for the series Bloomberg Risk Takers, Musk reported that he read every book in his house as a child, so much so that he began reading through the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Musk’s love of reading is more than just a biographical curiosity. Instead, it has played an important role in the development of his career. In an October 2014 article in Business Insider, Jim Cantrell, SpaceX’s former Vice President of Business Development, reportedly said that Musk educated himself in rocket science by interviewing experts and reading textbooks.
The more one learns about Musk’s biography, the more it becomes clear that the path he followed was paved with hard-won knowledge. Thankfully, with the access to information we now enjoy, we have the tools necessary to follow in his footsteps. Whether we seize this opportunity is up to us.
The Bottom Line
Although Elon Musk has had an extraordinary career, his success rests upon steps that each of us can learn from. His development of a strong sense of motivation, his understanding and acceptance of risk, and his life-long education have laid down a path that we can all follow. Although there can only be one Elon Musk, there is no limit to the number of individuals who can adopt the principles underlying his success. If Musk’s career is any indication, the world would be far richer if many more of us were to do so.