What Principles Does Elon Musk Live by For Growth and Self-Improvement?

Elon Musk is one of the most influential entrepreneurs of the 21st century.


The derring-do to think out of the box, nay boxes. To chart the uncharted even in the face of skid-offs. To simplify the toughest issue at hand applying an Aristotelian principle – these are just some of the rules that have perhaps helped the most influential serial entrepreneur of this century to up and emend his game, project after project. Read how.  

How does one write of a man one has only read about, only on the World-Wide Net? How does one sift and sort through all those thousands of clicks that talk about the man, his businesses, his principles, his life story, his maverick play to venture where no man has gone before ever since he was 12, and what makes him one of the most influential entrepreneurs of the 21st century.

I am talking about Elon Musk, who with an estimated net worth at $200+bn is counted among the richest in the world. No silver spoon at birth, this self-confessed self-learner, self-made man must have thought through and thoroughly each project and done many things right (along with the many skid-offs) to chart the uncharted. There was a time, I glean, when this then millionaire was all set to move into his wife’s parents’ basement as he was almost going broke!  

What could be the principles that govern his life that make him so successful through all the ups, downs and downs, and then up and up? Let’s try and sneak a peek into his mind through his quotable quotes (!) on his mantras for growth and self-improvement. 

With interests and business straddling the worlds of automotive (Tesla), aerospace (SpaceX), satellite (Starlink), solar energy (SolarCity), ultra-fast ground transportation (The Boring Company), energy storage (MegaPack), neurotech (Neuralink), artificial general intelligence (OpenAI) and perhaps a few more, Pretoria-born Elon Reeve Musk once famously said – “If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not… There have to be reasons that you get up in the morning and you want to live. Why do you want to live? What’s the point? What inspires you? What do you love about the future? If the future does not include being out there among the stars and being a multi-planet species, I find that incredibly depressing.’

The first mantra to growth is to find a purpose, a dream that you can dream, and the gumption to work towards that dream. Be an innovator. Look for the blank spaces. Think out of the box, nay boxes! Elon Musk gives the example of Henry Ford. “When Ford made cheap, reliable cars, people said, ‘Nah, what’s wrong with a horse?’ That was a huge bet he made, and it worked.”

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A dream to dream that dream and then go chase it to the beyond to make it come true! But before it all, gain all the knowledge you can.

But even as you dream remember to ask questions. He tells how as a kid he would “question things… It would infuriate my parents… That I wouldn’t just believe them when they said something because I’d ask them why. And then I’d consider whether that response made sense given everything else I knew.”  Cross-question yourself, look for the quintessential devil’s advocate to warn you of the pits and falls. He stresses on the “feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better… constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.” 

Build on your knowledge. But before that it is “important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree – make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there’s nothing for them to hang on to… The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur.” The serial entrepreneur counsels and exhorts: Make books your best friend. “Imagine – if you read 25 pages every day, it is 750 pages /month (2-4 books), it’s 9000 /year (30-40 books) … And it makes a difference.” Don’t sell yourself short, says he who graduated from the Wharton School with a Bachelor of Science (BS) in economics and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in physics, and dropped out of his PhD course at Stanford University in only two days to chase his entrepreneurial dreams. He was all of 24 years and the Internet had just about begun to explode, and Silicon Valley was roaring ahead. 

Elon Musk and his first company - Blaster

Your ‘I-Can’ is more important than your IQ. Go innovate!

Elon Musk was just 12 when he sold his first innovation – a computer game for a handsome $500, and thereafter years down the line he co-founded PayPal and the rest. What set him apart was his derring-do in taking risks and pursuing what he had set his mind to, relentlessly.

“Your ‘I-Can’ is more important than your IQ. When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour…Take risks and do something bold. You won’t regret it. Constantly think about how you could be doing things. Keep questioning yourself… Some people don’t like change, but you need to embrace change if the alternative is a disaster. Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to… I think it is possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary… No results? Keep working! Bad results? Keep working! Great results? Keep working. Consistency is key.” 

While not all can be an Elon Musk, innovation can be the only game-changer. “Banks don’t like Bitcoin, taxis don’t like Uber, hotels don’t like Airbnb, bookstores don’t like Amazon, cinemas don’t like Netflix, 9-5s don’t like remote work. Innovation is not always liked… If you go back a few hundred years, what we take for granted today would seem like magic – being able to talk to people over long distances, transmit images, flying, accessing vast amounts of data like an oracle. These are all things that would have been considered magic a few hundred years ago… If you’re trying to create a company, it’s like baking a cake. You have to have all the ingredients in the right proportion… Starting and growing a business is as much about the innovation, drive and determination of the people behind it as the product they sell… A failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough… Going from Paypal, I thought, well, ‘What are some of the other problems that are likely to most affect the future of humanity?’ Not from the perspective, ‘What’s the best way to make money?’ which is ok, but it was really, ‘What do I think is going to most affect the future of humanity”.

Complicated and aiming literally for the stars? Yes! But then that’s what had the Ted Talks chief guy describe Elon Musk as the “world’s most remarkable living entrepreneur”. And while talking about innovation in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Elon Musk said:  it (innovation) is “absolutely learnable… It is not some mysterious thing. It’s basically being just an absolute perfectionist about the product or service that you make. Just make your product better. This is the thing that really matters.” Get out of the conference room, the mercurial Musk warns, and he speaks with firm conviction. “When I spend too much time in conference rooms, that’s generally when things have gone awry. And when I go spend time on the factory floor, or really using the cars, or thinking about the rockets, that’s when things have gone better.”

He adds: “If you find yourself spending a lot of time getting presentations and reviewing spreadsheets, you’re barking up the wrong tree. That’s the effect, not the cause. So just get out there on the factory floor. Get out there in stores and talk to customers. Being on the factory floor makes for more employee engagement.” And watch how you improve, how business grooves. 

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Elon Musk, who with an estimated net worth at $200+bn, is counted among the richest in the world. No silver spoon at birth, this self-confessed self-learner, self-made man must have thought through and thoroughly each project and done many things right (along with the many skid-offs) to chart the uncharted.

Simplify! Simplify! Simplify! Apply ‘first principles’, says Elon Musk

Simplify! Simplify! Simplify! Is yet another golden rule that the genius innovator swears by. “First-principles” – a decision-making strategy which goes back to more than 2,000 years, propounded as it was by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. The first principles method can perhaps be applied across all streams of life – from the personal to the professional which includes entrepreneurial growth and improvement!

Musk explains: “I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is in physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. Generally, I think there are — what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that. Otherwise, mentally, you wouldn’t be able to get through the day. But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive, like quantum mechanics. It’s really counterintuitive. So, I think that’s an important thing to do, and then also to really pay attention to negative feedback, and solicit it, particularly from friends. This may sound like simple advice, but hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful”.

Musk has spoken about first principles many times over the years. He explained it once while talking about the early days at SpaceX, and the physics graduate reiterated on physics: “Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So, I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminium alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fibre. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two per cent of the typical price… It’s very hard to do,” he said on another occasion, adding “You can’t think that way about everything. It takes a lot of effort, but if you’re trying to do something new, it’s the best way to think. It’s really a powerful, powerful way of thinking.”

Thus, he dwells not on the riff-raff, instead of cutting straight and into the chase. His daily schedule smacks of that as he slices out minutes in each day to ensure he gives equal attention to all his projects – even his 5 boys — one set of twins and another triplet!

Work like hell, he encourages. “I mean you just have to put in 80-to-100-hour weeks every week. (This) improves the odds of success. If other people are putting in 40-hour workweeks and you’re putting in 100-hour workweeks, then even if you’re doing the same thing, you know that you will achieve in four months what it takes them a year to achieve.”

Mantras that speak to the heart and the brain. Go follow!

Richa Bansal
Richa Bansal
Richa writes on startups, retail, tourism, self improvement and Ecommerce. Her two decades of stint includes Times Internet, PTI and Images Group. She is currently consultant editor at Fibre2Fashion

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