How To Think Like Elon Musk

The approval of a ‘high speed rail’ system in California irked Elon Musk.  For someone like him, working in the innovation hub that is Silicon Valley, he found it flabbergasting that the ‘high speed rail’ was neither cheaper or faster than currently available trains.  In fact, I’ll let him speak:

“The underlying motive for a statewide mass transit system is a good one.  It would be great to have an alternative to flying or driving, but obviously only if it is actually better than flying or driving.  The train in question would be both slower, more expensive to operate and less safe by two orders of magnitude than flying, so why would anyone use it?”

There it is.  An incredibly honest and obvious take on this specific transport issue.  You or I could have written that, the thinking is simple, logical and rational.

What sets us apart however is the next step.

Before you carry on reading, take a minute and think about how you would react to that problem?  If you were to put on your thinking cap and look to solve this – what would you do?

Most likely, if we are honest with ourselves, we would have suggested a faster, cheaper train.  Maybe by changing the raw materials or the routes, or the infrastructure – we could make a better train!  That sounds like the next step.

Elon disagrees.

As a true innovator does, he didn’t see the question as “How do we build a better train?” but rather “How do we solve the problem?”

What was needed was a solution for short distance travel between cities with heavy traffic that was cheap, fast, efficient and safe.  What Elon does that sets him apart, is that he is not hamstrung by the world as we see it today.  His imagination is not limited by the technology we have available or the language we use with transportation or even by the solutions we currently use.   His mind roams free to explore any possibility.

He dreams of a new form of transportation.

The Hyperloop

Hyperloop is a metal tube that would carry human sized-pods to the destination.  Bare with me here.

On the nose of the pod, there would be an electric compressor fan mounted that would transfer high pressure air from the front to the rear of the vessel.  In essence, the pod would move on the cushion of air, at high speed, to the other end of the tube.  The pods are accelerated using a magnetic linear accelerator (Don’t worry – I have no idea what that is either).

Now whether you understand that at all is irrelevant.  Whether you believe it will work as a transport system is irrelevant.  What I am trying to get at here is the mindset that Elon Musk has when tackling problems.  He doesn’t want to build a better train, he wants to find the best solution.

It’s something that we all struggle with.  Naturally, when we want to improve our lives – we think that we need to get a better TV or a better car or go to a better school.  The only thing we can see in our mind is that the object we have right now is optimal and the only way to improve is to upgrade that particular item or concept or idea.

It is very seldom that we can see past the face value and look at the actual root cause of that desire.

For example, the problem as defined in Elon’s mind – was not: “This train is too slow and too expensive”.

Rather, it was – “People need to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles as quickly and cheaply as possible.”

He tackles the very root of the problem which allows him to open up the spread of possibilities that could be feasible.  He is not looking to make a 10% improvement.  But rather a 10X improvement.

He is not looking at improvement, for improvement’s sake.  He is not trying to innovate for the sake of innovating.

He is trying to solve the problem, plain and simple.

How do you apply this?

This mindset has helped to write Elon’s name into the history books as one of the greatest inventors and entrepreneurs of our time, and as the real life Tony Stark.  However I don’t want you to read this as an inspirational piece and think that it’s wonderful that he can create things like this, but who am I to be like this.

This is something you can apply in your own life, for your own benefit.  All it takes is some conscious effort.

Dare to step outside of yourself and examine what you take for granted in your life.  What can you re-imagine?

Are there problems/weaknesses in your life, that you could improve 10x rather than by 10%?  Throw out the preconceived notions and look at the root cause or desire.  Then work a solution from there.  You might find some gold.


Further Reading: Hyperloop White Paper

** I must acknowledge that the Hyperloop idea is the result of large scale collaboration between employees at SpaceX, Tesla and Elon himself.  So I don’t want to undermine their efforts.  However, it is undeniable that Elon’s inspiration is paramount and the space that he has built within his companies to allow for this sort of thinking is what makes it possible.  Then again, this is all tangential.  The point is the thought process and how you can apply it to your own life.