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How Elon Musk learns faster and

better than everyone else


How is it even possible that Elon Musk could build four
multibillion companies by his mid-40sin four separate fields
(software, energy, transportation, and aerospace)?
To explain Musks success, others have pointed to his heroic work
ethic (he regularly works 85-hour weeks), his ability to set
reality-distorting visions for the future, and his incredible
resilience.
But all of these felt unsatisfactory to me. Plenty of people have
these traits. I wanted to know what he did differently.
As I kept reading dozens of articles, videos, and books about
Musk, I noticed a huge piece of the puzzle was missing. Conventional
wisdom says that in order to become world-class, we should only focus
on one field. Musk breaks that rule. His expertise ranges from rocket
science, engineering, physics, and artificial intelligence to solar power
and energy.
In a previous article, I call people like Musk expert-
generalists (a term coined by Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain &
Company). Expert-generalists study widely in many different fields,
understand deeper principles that connect those fields, and then apply
the principles to their core specialty.
Based on my review of Musks life and the academic literature
related to learning and expertise, Im convinced that we should all
learn across multiple fields in order to increase our odds of
breakthrough success.
The jack of all trades myth
If youre someone who loves learning in different areas, youre
probably familiar with this well-intentioned advice:
Grow up. Focus on just one field.
Jack of all trades. Master of none.
The implicit assumption is that if you study in multiple areas,
youll only learn at a surface level, never gain mastery.
The success of expert-generalists throughout time shows that
this is wrong. Learning across multiple fields provides an information
advantage (and therefore an innovation advantage) because most
people focus on just one field.
For example, if youre in the tech industry and everyone else is
just reading tech publications, but you also know a lot about biology,
you have the ability to come up with ideas that almost no one else
could. Vice-versa. If youre in biology, but you you also understand
artificial intelligence, you have an information advantage over
everyone else who stays siloed.

Despite this basic insight, few people


actually learn beyond their industry

Each new field we learn that is unfamiliar to others in our field


gives us the ability to make combinations that they cant. This is the
expert-generalist advantage.
One fascinating study echoes this insight. It examined how the top
59 opera composers of the 20th century mastered their craft. Counter
to the conventional narrative that success of top performers can solely
be explained by deliberate practice and specialization, the researcher
Dean Keith Simonton found the exact opposite: The compositions of
the most successful operatic composers tended to represent a mix of
genrescomposers were able to avoid the inflexibility of too much
expertise (overtraining) by cross-training, summarizes University of
Pennsylvania researcher Scott Barry Kaufman in a Scientific
American article.

Musks learning transfer superpower

Starting from his early teenage years, Musk would read through
two books per day in various disciplines according to his brother,
Kimbal Musk. To put that context, if you read one book a
month, Musk would read 60 times as many books as you.
At first, Musks reading spanned science fiction, philosophy,
religion, programming, and biographies of scientists, engineers, and
entrepreneurs. As he got older, his reading and career interests spread
to physics, engineering, product design, business, technology, and
energy. This thirst for knowledge allowed him to get exposed to a
variety of subjects he had never necessarily learned about in school.
Musk is also good at a very specific type of learning that most others
arent even aware oflearning transfer.
Learning transfer is taking what we learn in one context and
applying it to another. It can be taking a kernel of what we learn in
school or in a book and applying it to the real world. It can also be
taking what we learn in one industry and applying it to another.
This is where Musk shines. Several of his interviews show that he has a
unique two-step process for fostering learning transfer.
First, he deconstructs knowledge into
fundamental principles
Musks answer on a Reddit AMA describes how he does that:
It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic treemake
sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big
branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for
them to hang onto.

Research suggests that turning your knowledge into deeper,


abstract principles facilitates learning transfer. Research also
suggests that one technique is particularly powerful for helping people
intuit underlying principles. This technique is called, contrasting
cases.
Heres how it works: Lets say you want to deconstruct the letter A
and understand the deeper principle of what makes an A an A. Lets
further say that you have two approaches you could use to do this:

Which approach do you think would work better?


Approach #1. Each different A in Approach #1 gives more insight into
what stays the same and what differs between each A. Each A in
Approach #2 gives us no insight.
By looking at lots of diverse cases when we learn anything, we
begin to intuit what is essential and even craft our own unique
combinations.
What does this mean in our day-to-day life? When were jumping
into a new field, we shouldnt just take one approach or best practice.
We should explore lots of different approaches, deconstruct each
one, and then compare and contrast them. This will help us
uncover underlying principles.

Next, he reconstructs the fundamental


principles in new fields

Step two of Musks learning transfer process involves reconstructing


the foundational principles hes learned in artificial intelligence,
technology, physics, and engineering into separate fields:
In aerospace in order to create SpaceX
In automotive in order to create Tesla with self-driving features
In trains in order to envision the Hyperloop
In aviation in order to envision electric aircraft that take of
and land vertically
In technology in order to envision a neural lace that interfaces
your brain
In technology in order to help build PayPal
In technology in order to co-found OpenAI, a non-profit that
limits the probability of negative artificial intelligence futures
Keith Holyoak, a UCLA professor of psychology and one of the worlds
leading thinkers on analogical reasoning, recommends people ask
themselves the following two questions in order to hone their skills:
What does this remind me of? and Why does it remind me of it?
By constantly looking at objects in your environment and material you
read and asking yourself these two questions, you build the muscles in
your brain that help you make connections across traditional
boundaries.

Bottom line: Its not magic. Its just the right


learning process

Now, we can begin to understand how Musk has become a world-class


expert-generalist:
He spent many years reading 60 times as much as an avid reader
He read widely across different disciplines
He constantly applied what he learned by deconstructing ideas
into their fundamental principles and reconstructing them in new
ways
At the deepest level, what we can learn from Musks story is that we
shouldnt accept the dogma that specialization is the best or only path
toward career success and impact. Legendary expert-generalist
Buckminster Fuller summarizes a shift in thinking we should all
consider. He shared it decades ago, but its just as relevant today:
We are in an age that assumes that the narrowing trends of
specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable In the meantime,
humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding.
Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in
individuals. It has also resulted in the individuals leaving
responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization
breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and
ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.

If we put in the time and learn core concepts across fields and
always relate those concepts back to our life and the world,
transferring between areas becomes much easier and faster.
As we build up a reservoir of first principles and
associate those principles with diferent fields, we suddenly
gain the superpower of being able to go into a new field
weve never learned before, and quickly make unique
contributions.
Understanding Musks learning superpowers helps us gain some
insight into how he could go into an industry that has been around for
more than 100 years and change the whole basis of how the field
competes.
Elon Musk is one of a kind, but his abilities arent magical.
Want to take to learn like Musk? I created a free learning how
to learn webinar you might like. Its based on the learning best
practices of the worlds top entrepreneurs.
This post originally appeared on Medium. Follow Michael
on Twitter. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome
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