October 24

How to Think Like Elon Musk

How I can become great like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, or think like Elon Musk?

A few years ago, a computer science student asked a version of this question on Quora.

One the people who answered was Justine Musk: Someone who has a unique view of how to think like Elon Musk. It’s a view most of us will never get.

Justine is a novelist and an incredibly talented writer. She wrote the foreword to my first book and happens to be a friend of mine. So I asked her if I could interview her about this. I based this article on my interview with her about the psychology of visionaries.

Society imposes structures and systems on us which are designed to encourage conformity.

It’s a one-size-fits-all solution. We’re taught that to work on our weaknesses, we can become average. Instead of focusing on our strengths to become extraordinary.

But for some individuals, the system fails such that they can not survive, succeed or thrive within it. For these people, they have no alternative but to dismantle the structures of such a system and reshape that system to their own liking. These are the odd ducks, rebels, misfits, and instigators. Others write them off and sometimes dismiss them as people who will never amount to anything. They are misunderstood for long periods of time.

Whether it’s art, entrepreneurial endeavors, or social movements, anything that rewards its creator long after the average person quits is admired but rarely encouraged.

To go through the world this way requires faith, optimism and unwavering conviction in your capability to do things. It’s a commitment to developing a drive and need that is so compelling it defines your life. This kind of dynamism and ability to think like Elon Musk is not something we can learn. But inside of each of us, there are elements of these visionary tendencies. We can bring them about.

Uncovering them requires a willingness to persist in the face of impossible odds. It requires sacrifices from you and the people in your life. It’s a commitment to mastery that might mean you spend the rest of your life working on this. This is not a path for everybody. As you will see, there is nothing easy about this road.

What exactly does it take to think like Elon Musk?


1. A Tremendous Sense of Optimism

There’s a big difference between delusion and optimism. People who are delusional think they can sit around making vision boards and billions of dollars will fall from the sky. People who are optimistic believe they can do big things, but they’re also realistic about the work involved.

Sometimes we are optimistic when we start. But our failures make us pessimistic. It’s the difference between letting your past inform your life or define it.

If you go through life assuming the worst, you’ll never find the courage to take the kind of risks that lead to wildly ambitious goals. If you assume the best, you see your failures as nothing more than data. You adjust your hypothesis and try again. Without optimism, it’s almost impossible to develop any other visionary tendencies.

2. Unwavering Conviction

Of all the qualities that enable you to think like a visionary, this is the most difficult to develop.

That’s because there is a long period in which there appear to be no external results from your efforts.

  • Every writer starts with zero readers.
  • Every company starts with zero customers.

In every interview, I’ve heard Chris Sacca says the same thing about the founders he’s invested in: They believe that their success is inevitable. They don’t speak in conditional statements.

But, parents, peers, and society don’t care how:

  • Grand your vision is.
  • Bold your idea is.
  • How much you believe your success is inevitable.

They judge you based on your results. How many users does your app have? How many people have read your books? Is it lucrative? Society assesses your value based on measurable metrics. Yet, somehow you can’t measure yourself based on them.

Tests of your Conviction

Thus, when there are no results, your conviction will be put to the test. People will encourage you to quit, suggest what they think is a better alternative, and tell you to be realistic. They will doubt your capabilities and question your sanity. It might be 10 years before you stop hearing this from them. Or they might never stop asking at all.

Despite having a multi-decade career as an author, people ask Dani Shapiro if she’s still writing. Nobody ever asks a doctor if he’s still doing brain surgery.

A while back, a good friend of mine met a girl. Because he was still a work in progress, she decided not to date him. But he had an unwavering conviction that he was headed for big things. He made it clear that he wasn’t going to let her back into his life when things got good. And they did. Fortunately, he met someone amazing who stuck with him through every failure.

To develop an unwavering conviction to your vision, resist the temptation to listen to these people who try to fill you with doubt. If you don’t, it will diminish your confidence, and your conviction will waver.

3. A Bold and Compelling Point of View

We admire the people who have bold and compelling points of view, but fear having one of our own. Having a bold point of view means people will disagree with us, doubt us, and even dislike us because of it. As Justine said to me, “If you have a bold and compelling point of view, it’s going to piss some people off.”

I recently spoke at a conference where some of the attendees in my talk didn’t like what I had to say. On the flip side, there were others who loved my ideas. Trying to please everyone, regardless of the context, is a recipe for disaster. You’ll never do anything worthwhile with your life there.

To think like a visionary, you have to be convinced of your point of view. You have to be driven by, not doubt it, and not let other people’s doubts contaminate your beliefs.

4. A Unique Path to Success

If you follow conventional wisdom, you’re going to end up with conventional results. Understand the road to any extraordinary accomplishment is never linear. Navigating the geography of a creative life is full of detours, dead ends, dark valleys and false horizons. While society’s life plan is linear, real life is anything but.

You might have to work at a job you hate. But if you’re intent on becoming a visionary, the job should be nothing more than a stepping stone. You treat it as an opportunity to acquire practical knowledge, learn who you are, and figure out what you find engaging.

Armed with this insight, you steer yourself in the direction of your strengths. You lean into what works, and make little bets. You take small risks that give you feedback, and iterate your way into bigger things.

If you don’t enjoy the process and only care about the result, you will not only be miserable. But you’re unlikely to succeed.

Resist the temptation to choose a career path or start a company because that field is currently hot. Trends do come to an end. By choosing a unique path, you won’t become obsolete when a trend is over.

You can’t do this by following anyone else’s lead or formula. The blatantly obvious variable that throws off every formula for success is you.

You have to develop faith in your uniqueness. You have to believe in your ability to carve your own path without starving, and forge the world according to your vision of it.

Navigating Adversity

People who are visionaries are square pegs in round holes. Even though we celebrate their uniqueness as adults, in childhood they must contend with the fact that people see them as odd. Their inability to conform often gives them no choice but to shape the world to their needs and liking. That could mean putting life on Mars, or starting an airline in order to get somewhere when a flight is cancelled.

The greater your ambition, the darker the difficult parts of your life will be. There’s no significant accomplishment that does not require you to go through a few dark valleys. You have to take a few blows to face, and get your ass handed to you. But as Justine says, “The darker times teach you things you need to know to get where you want to be.”

Recognize Misconceptions

Media has a profound impact on shaping perception. We see the pictures people put on Instagram and make assumptions about their lives. We see billionaires and cultural icons on the covers of magazines and think we have an idea of what it takes to be like them. The last question I asked Justine was what misconceptions people have about extreme success.

We see the moments in the spotlight, but don’t see the labor it takes to get there. People who are cultural visionaries and icons have a work ethic that defines their life.

We think that we want these kinds of accomplishments. But we don’t see that they will come at the cost of almost everything else in our lives.

It requires sacrifices from them and the people in their lives.

Think about somebody like Barack Obama. When he went to a parent-teacher conference, he’d show up with a motorcade and there would be snipers on the roof. His daughter found this embarrassing. This is is one of many sacrifices his whole family had to make when he became the president.

Think about becoming so famous that people recognize you everywhere you go. You sacrifice your privacy, and something as simple as getting a meal at a restaurant.

All of us have visionary tendencies within us. It’s a matter of cultivating and nurturing them.

  1. Carve out time every week to think.
  2. Sit in a room for 30 minutes.
  3. Write things down.
  4. Figure out what matters to you.

There’s no formula that’s going to make you the next Steve Jobs, Oprah or Beyonce. But by adapting what you’ve learned to your unique gifts, you tap into the ability to reach your full potential.


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