Elon Musk: Visionary Engineer

elon musk[Image Source: OnInnovation]

By now you are probably familiar with all kinds of facts about Elon Musk. You know that he’s a billionaire, a brilliant engineer, a serial entrepreneur and an innovator who is changing both the present and the future right now. You also probably know he co-founded Zip2 and PayPal and is the co-founder, CEO & product architect of Tesla Motors, CEO & CTO of SpaceX and the chairman of SolarCity. He’s taken on the behemoths of the auto, oil, energy and aerospace industries and shows no signs of slowing down. If that weren’t enough, he even created the blueprint for a new mode of transport, the Hyperloop. You may not know that he is co-chairman of OpenAI and has proposed a supersonic jet aircraft known as the Musk electric jet. He wants to ensure that humans are multi-planetary, thereby, hopefully reducing the risk of human extinction. He wants to speed up the adoption of sustainable energy to reduce global warming. In short, he wants to change the world and humanity. According to tech writer, Ashlee Vance,

“Musk has the potential to be much grander than anything Hughes or Jobs produced. Musk has taken industries like aerospace and automotive that America seemed to have given up on and recast them as something new and fantastic.”

Like me, you’ve probably wondered for a long time how he does what he does. You may have even found yourself deifying him and thinking there is no way possible for you to accomplish even a fraction of what he has done. You’ve probably found yourself caught in the trap of the cult of personality.

The best source of information about Elon Musk comes not from mainstream media, but from Tim Urban’s website, Wait But Why. Tim Urban is rare in that Elon Musk personally asked Tim to write an article about him.  Contrast this with Ashlee Vance, who recently wrote a biography of Elon Musk. Ashlee only succeeded in doing so after a prolonged and incessant period of pestering Mr. Musk. Elon finally caved in and agreed to provide Ashlee with access to his life so he could write his book. Vance’s book is worth reading, but I’ve found more valuable insights about the inner workings of Elon’s mind in Tim Urban’s article.

timurban[Image Source: Tim Urban from Ted.com]

From Tim Urban’s extensive article on Musk, we learn that there are many reasons Elon Musk is able to do what he does. Unlike most people, Musk uses first principles to achieve outcomes. First principles are foundational in nature and they don’t rely on any assumed information from the past. Musk explains it best:

“I think generally people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, ‘We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.’ Or they’ll not do it because ‘Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good.’ But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—’from the first principles’ is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.” –Elon Musk from Wait But Why

Musk used first principles mode of thinking to reimagine the electric car battery. Before he began building a car battery, he discarded the socially acceptable, dominant modern opinion, “electric car batteries are too bulky and expensive to realistically mass produce.” Instead, he asked himself, “What materials are used to make electric car batteries? If I make the batteries myself, can I drastically reduce their cost?” Musk’s Gigafactory is the first principle answer to those questions.

tesla-gigafactory-solar-roof-01.jpg.650x0_q70_crop-smart[Image Source: Tesla /Promo Image]

You can see that by using first principles, Elon has been able to reimagine entire industries. But there is another thing at work within Elon Musk that is worthy of investigation. It’s something that most people don’t do. Elon Musk is continually examining, re-examining and re-thinking every aspect of a solution. He’s also constantly re-framing the question. He does this by constantly educating himself and improving upon his knowledge. From my research on him, it appears that he is never content with anything. He seems to want it faster, more precise, more perfect, always. If you’ve ever sat inside one of his Tesla cars, you’ll know what I mean. It’s as close to perfection as is humanly possible.

When most people hear the name, Elon Musk, they think of the word, billionaire. InsteadI think of the term, visionary engineer before billionaire, because making money is only a side effect of what really makes Elon Musk tick. So, what makes Elon Musk tick? He explains it best:

“I’m interested in things that change the world or affect future in wondrous new technology where you see it and you’re like, ‘How did that even happen? How is that possible?” –Elon Musk from Wait But Why

I bet you’re also wondering how Elon Musk decided what fields to go into when he was much younger. Here’s his answer:

I was at one point thinking about doing physics as a career—I did undergrad in physics—but in order to really advance physics these days, you need the data. Physics is fundamentally governed by the progress of engineering. This debate—’Which is better, engineers or scientists? Aren’t scientists better? Wasn’t Einstein the smartest person?’—personally, I think that engineering is better because in the absence of the engineering, you do not have the data. You just hit a limit. And yeah, you can be real smart within the context of the limit of the data you have, but unless you have a way to get more data, you can’t make progress. Like look at Galileo. He engineered the telescope—that’s what allowed him to see that Jupiter had moons. The limiting factor, if you will, is the engineering. And if you want to advance civilization, you must address the limiting factor. Therefore, you must address the engineering.” –Elon Musk from Wait But Why

So what books would Elon Musk recommend for aspiring engineers? While doing research, I discovered that he recommends: Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down by J.E. Gordon and Ignition! An informal history of liquid rocket propellants by John Clark.

So, maybe instead of fixating on Elon Musk’s astonishing accomplishments, we should all be studying how he makes his decisions and then attempt to incorporate those elements into our own thinking patterns. By adopting the first principle methods, who knows what we all would be capable of accomplishing? Wanting to change the world is good, but knowing how to do it is essential.

There are many other qualities about Elon Musk that I haven’t yet explored, like the apparent lack of fear of failure he exhibits. That will have to be saved for another article. Oh, and if you want to also sign the petition that Elon Musk and other leading scientists have signed against the proliferation of future killer AI military robots, go here.

I definitely need to thank Tim Urban for writing exhaustively about Elon Musk.

Article written by Leah Stephens. She is a writer, artist, and experimenter. She recently self-published her first book, Un-Crap Your Life. Fun fact: she’s been cutting her own hair since she was a teenager and calculates she’s saved over $3,500 in haircutting expenses so far. You can follow her on Twitter or Medium.

SEE ALSO: Elon Musk Says Tesla’s Autopilot Reduces Crashes by Half