The failures of Elon Musk has contributed to the power of his drive as much as his successes. While many have heard of the companies he runs, we rarely hear about the way he ensures constant innovation. Whether it’s in philosophy, physics, or mathematics, his method is one that depends heavily on a cycle of responses to unsuccessful attempts.
It doesn’t matter if he starts with a first principle, an axiom, or a postulate, he starts at an opening truth then reasons and experiments his way to the right solution. While it’s not a straightforward path to success, it is an incredibly efficient one to innovation.
But why Musk does what he does is just as important as how.
The oldest of three children, Elon Musk was the son to a Canadian dietitian and a South African engineer. Called an introverted thinker by his father, Musk enjoyed the companionship of books to people and spent most of his time reading.
At 14, he felt he’d read all he could and he still wasn’t quite getting the answers he wanted. Until he read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that is. Then, he was inspired to start asking the right questions instead of always chasing answers.
In college, he asked the question “What will most affect the future of humanity?”, which lead him down his own separate path.
Depicted in the media as a real life Tony Stark: unparalleled genius, charismatic confidence, and a hero (minus the metal suit), Elon Musk isn’t in it for the praise and he isn’t trying to be cool.
The real power behind his success isn’t his larger than life image, it’s his practicality and immense motivation, two things from which we can learn and emulate.
The Added Value of Profound Responsibility
While Elon Musk’s goal revolved around making the world a better place, most of our everyday goals only relate to ourselves and our own aims. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that but it only too easy to let ourselves down and, therefore, fall short of our goals.
A 2015 study published in the American Economic Journal found that even where there were financial incentives, workers were more likely to keep to their exercise routines when asked to make a commitment to charity.
The experiment, run by researchers at the University of California, followed the exercising habits of employees at a Fortune 500 company for a month. The group receiving the financial incentives to honor their goals did well until the incentives ended. On the other hand, the employees who signed a commitment contract to donate to charity if they failed to visit the gym actually maintained their habits for years after they study ended.
Instead of just surface reasons, the employees with the commitment contracts had a larger reason, a deeper purpose for reaching and maintain their goals, which greatly augmented their motivations.
Make Your Goals Larger than Your Circle
While it’s doubtful that Elon Musk used a commitment contract, his motivational methods are similar. For example, his company Space X aims to start a colony on Mars.
This goal is fueled by Musk’s belief that the future of the human race depends on it’s ability to live on multiple planets. Although humans living on Mars sounds like a far-off and impossible dream, Elon Musk still pursues and has even made progress towards this goal.
This is because he is motivated by something deeper: the benefit of the human race. Further, he’s held accountable, not by a commitment contract per se, but by the media and his circle of peers and employees. His responsibilities lie not just with himself.
How does Elon Musk’s example pertain to your comparatively smaller goal? Say you, like the employees of in the University of California study, want to start exercising more, how can you frame this goal with a deeper purpose and a wider accountability circle?
Maybe you want to exercise to stay healthy or be more healthy, then ask why is your health important to you? Do you want to live longer for you kids, to watch them grow up and later become a grandparent or great-grandparent? Maybe you want to hike the Grand Canyon with your friends? Maybe you want to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest living person?
Either way, your reason is deeper than yourself, your responsibility extends further.
One way to make reaching your goals easier is to keep them achievable within your abilities. Not as simple as it sounds. According to premier psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, find our state of flow is critical to motivation and ultimately happiness, what he’s been studying for 50 years.
Flow is that optimal state, usually associated with athletes and artists, where focus leads to absorption, time flies, and productivity occurs without self-criticism or impediment. And getting in the ‘flow’ happens when we’re engaging fully with our activity. This activity must be complex enough to keep us interested, not bored, but not so difficult we get discouraged or too stressed and give up.
Finding this balance is not easy but not finding destroys our motivation.
Tesla – A Practical Example
The lofty aim of Tesla, Elon Musk’s sustainable energy company, is “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.” At its inception, not only did this sound unachievable but seemed to be outside of Musk’s skill set and start-up resources. The world thought him crazy.
Instead of folding in the face of adversity, he broke his overall aim into smaller steps, each one providing fuel for the next. First, Musk grabbed attention by producing beautiful high-end sports cars that happen to run electricity. He created a desire and market for the Tesla name and electric cars, in general, learning what it took to build a sustainable car along the way. Next, he turned to the more affordable luxury cars. Because the Tesla name was associated with high-end products now, opening up the market drove up sales, that created profit he could use to fund research for further developments. As the final step, in 2017, investment in Tesla’s latest model, a $35,000 car for the everyday man, is growing rapidly and Musk is very close to completing his original goal.
Because Musk was able to dissect Tesla’s mission into pinpoint directives, he never ran out of means or motivation. Using the concept of ‘flow’ to channel your own drive could be beneficial. If you like, Elon Musk, divide one large task into smaller chunks that present a challenge to match your abilities then build to your one overall goal, leaving your motivation and enjoyment intact.
We often see failure as something to avoid at by all means necessary rather than a viable road to success. In fact, in our schools, we are often punished instead of receiving vital feedback after we get something wrong. But really, success and failure are not exact inverses. Failure is not final but instead a momentary setback, a lack of success. Which, contrary to our instincts, could be a good thing.
When the price is low enough, then the feedback we get from our mistakes will quickly eliminate malfunctioning methods or an inefficient thought process, putting one right back onto the path towards success. Obviously, one doesn’t try to fail, in some cases, the tradeoff between cost and feedback simply isn’t worth it. But we shouldn’t let the fear of failing direct our actions and the threat of failing isn’t necessarily a reason to reconsider the status quo.
Listening to Your Critics
On a number of occasions, Elon Musk has said that a key component of his success is his predisposition to start at the fundamental concept of a project. While counterintuitive to start a car or rocket blueprint from the ground up, at absolute zero, when there are plenty of surefire and ready options already available, however, this is exactly how he’s found flaws in previous systems where none were thought to exist. By embracing failure as an option and starting at the bottom anyway, he’s continuously challenging what’s already been done. And keeping an ear open for criticism has allowed Musk to bring innovation to his companies at a brisk pace.
Don’t confuse purposelessly traveling a traditional avenue with guaranteed success or advancement. Motivation is fed by achievement and when you utilize strategies that increase your chance of success, you’re creating a positive feedback loop that continues to fuel your drive and engagement. Additionally, if you can turn fear of failure on its head, and further fuel your ambition, instead of smothering it, that one stumbling block already out of the way. Talking about criticism and failure isn’t fun and can often evoke the feeling of shame or disgust but ignore those errant emotions and the same tools that help Elon Musk stay on the forefront of innovation can help you stay motivated to reach your goals.
Though Elon Musk works to change the world for everyone and has made considerable in-roads to this end, he’s still in the beginning stages of his ultimate plans. He will continue to need his infamous drive towards innovation and immense motivation and focus in the face of long odds. Hopefully, we can all take a cue from him and his habits to make progress for our own goals.