How Elon Musk Started
Elon Musk is now Earth’s most future-oriented person. How did such a person come to be?
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In a hundred years, when most people reading this and the person writing this are long gone, Musk’s cars and rockets will still be circling the Earth and the skies. How can such a person get started against all odds is the question I ask here. And, more importantly, what can we learn from him?
Learning From The Outlier
Learning from Musk might seem naive. After all he is an outlier even among billionaires. I think this is exactly why he is worth studying – you don’t get insight into the extraordinary by studying the ordinary. Even with a sample size of one Musk we may find something in the way he started out that is fundamentally borrowable.
Sure, we can’t recreate the exact circumstances of his life for ourselves – we all have different parents, live in different countries, and have different bodies. Despite all the differences, we have control over our mindset as much as he does over his. This part of Musk we can borrow. The ways he deals with uncertainty, the books he reads, the ways he makes promises, and patches up his own mistakes are all borrowable, for example.
Thinking From First Principles (And Not Just By Analogy)
You might be skeptical about how studying another person’s life can help. His circumstances are not like yours. Musk would be the first to remind us here to think from first principles, as scientists do, rather than by analogy. Why should you think like Musk? You might know better than him after all. It’s true that thinking from first principles gives a truer result. But it also takes time which is limited for all of us. Yes, it’s best to think about your situation from scratch. But reasoning by analogy makes sense given that life is finite. To minimize our own mistakes we don’t need to borrow the exact decisions Musk made but study the way he makes them. Then we can apply his thinking method to what we know to be true for sure.
It’s Easy to Explain Greatness in Hindsight – The Narrative Fallacy
One psychological barrier to learning from other people’s lives is the narrative fallacy – making a neat story out of facts that at the time of their happening made little sense. As the classic book on improbability The Black Swan explains, we do it to deal with the randomness of life – we explain it away because we know how the story ended. We’d rather not figure out why we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
The media often write this way. Articles about Musk call him a “genius”, which he is. But labels like this make his accomplishments sound like a foregone conclusion. They aren’t. For example, he still has to deal with big oil companies that want to see Tesla go down .
We might assume he knows what to do with this because he is a “genius.” But genius is not a strategy. And his victory is far from certain. As you are reading this, he is doing something to deal with the uncertainty of his situation. What sort of a mindset is he in?
In this article and visualization I want to transport us inside Musk’s mind to understand how he started from the absolute beginning. How did he figure out what to do with his life? How did he come up with the first money to start a business? How many businesses did he try before?
Life = Decisions + Circumstances + Results
Life is a combination of decisions – things you do; circumstances – things that others do to you, including people you’ve never met, like politicians; and results – your decisions + the circumstances.
Labeling each significant event in Musk’s life on a timeline produced a lot of decisions, unsurprisingly. It’s fair to say he is a product of his decisions more than his circumstances. Musk seems to have been decisive and deliberate from the start. A quick glance at the timeline shows that his decisions by far outnumber his circumstances.
When we complain about life we mostly complain about our circumstances, not our decisions. We seem to be fixated on circumstances. When I first meet a person they tend to ask about my circumstances first – where am I from? where do I live? how long have I been in San Francisco? This is also true in other countries I’ve been. It’s only when people get to know me that they ask why I decided to be an information designer, for example. Why do circumstnces interest us more than decisions? Sure circumstances happen to us before we can even make decisions – even before we are born. But decisions are by far more interesting because that’s how you change circumstances, possibly to the point that the circumstances disappear or stop mattering. Musk was born in South Africa. Is that good or bad? I think it’s neither. What’s more interesting is that while still a kid he decided to move to the U.S. Why did he choose the U.S.? How did he decide to make it happen? That is the interesting part.
How Can I Use This?
Here’s an experiment to try – put the major events of your life on a timeline from birth through today – then mark each event as either a decision, a circumstance or a result. Is there a pattern? Are decisions and circumstances about even? Do circumstances pile up before there is a decision? Or decisions outnumber circumstances?
Choosing The Tough Father
Musk did not disclose much to his authorized biographer about living with his father other than calling it ”misery” and that he experienced emotional torture. The biography also reveals that Musk decided to never let his children meet his father – which suggests that his childhood memories are more painful than most people’s. 
Ironically and unlike most kids, Musk had the option to live away from his father but instead he decided to live with his father and not his mother after their divorce. Most children age 9, or any age for that matter, would not choose to live with a parent who is tough on them given the choice. Musk often cites his difficult childhood as the reason he is able to cope with the stress of his job. So why did he choose it? He did not explain. But I think it’s worth pondering.
“Non Stop Horrible” is how Musk himself described this period in his life when on top of enduring emotional torture from his father at home he was bullied at school. Musk himself believes that this adversity is what made him stronger. Still, as a father of 5 boys today he is ambivalent on whether adversity is a parenting strategy. Bothered that his kids have it much easier than he did, he wonders how one could create arficial adversity. 
How Can I Use This?
Does adversity always make one stronger? Or does it break some people? It’s easy to image a chart tracking the hard times and the achievements of a person and then look for possible coorelations. And if there is not enough adversity to chart it’s pretty easy to create some even in a non-artificial way. Just migrating to another country, starting a startup, promising more than you can deliver together will create enough stress that you can experience your own “non stop horrible.”
Learning Faster Than You Are “Supposed To”
A pivotal moment in Musk’s life came when he got his computer. It came along with a BASIC programming language workbook. The workbook was supposed to take 6 months, but he decided to stay up for 3 nights in a row and finished the whole thing. Within 3 days he basically was a programmer by the 1984 standards. His new skill brought his first success – he wrote a video game called Blastar and sold it for $500.
I think the idea of people learning things faster than others stirs some deep emotions inside us. Even today in most countries universities don’t encourage you to graduate faster even if you learn faster. Lawyers and doctors are required to be in school for a certain period of time regardless of their learning speed. I remember in law school learning 80% of everything in the first year. The sentiment was common among law students. Still there was no way to speed up the remaining two years. This, of course, doesn’t matter in areas where people are commonly self-taught like art, music, and programming. And Musk took full advantage of self-teaching.
How Can I Use This?
There are some proven ways to learn a skill fast. One that I have learned myself is realistic drawing. I used to think drawing requires talent. Now I think talent is just a code name for skill we don’t understand. I read Drawing on The Right Side of Brain by Betty Edwards and did the exercizes it offered. I started drawing realistically after 5 days. Try it.
The Immigrant Mindset
Do you need to move far away to bring out the b
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