Elon Musk

I Think It Is Possible For Ordinary People To Choose To Be Extraordinary

Progress Comes From Being Focused And Performing Deep Work

Elon Musk - Introduction

Elon Musk is an extraordinary man.

He has founded, co-founded, and leads a cross-section of the world's most technically innovative companies. His first major commercial success was Paypal which he co-founded and sold.

Elon Musk is the co-founder and CEO of Tesla, and leads all product design, engineering and global manufacturing of the company's electric vehicles, battery products and solar energy products.

He is CEO and Chief Technical Officer at SpaceX, and oversees the development of rockets and spacecraft for missions to orbit Earth and eventually to other planets.

Elon Musk is founder and CEO of Neuralink, which is developing ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect the human brain to computers.

He also launched The Boring Company, which combines fast, affordable tunneling technology with an all-electric public transportation system in order to alleviate urban congestion and enable high-speed, long-distance travel.

For a more in-depth look at Elon Musk's activities see:

8 Industries Being Disrupted By Elon Musk And His Companies

If you want an indepth and totally facinating read on Elon Musk's early years written by Tim Urban and based on extensive face-to-face meetings with Musk read here.

The core theme and intention of this site is to show you how to think effectively and especially when coping with tough times.

In that context I believe that Elon Musk has much to teach us.

One of the most interesting things about Elon Musk is the thought processes that lead to his ideas and innovations, followed by his skill, persistence and patience to see them through to implementation.

Realistically, it is extremely unlikely that you have any desire or aspiration to start  a business in the way that he has done, and your vision may not be on the same scale as his, but the purpose of this article is to extract the key principles from his thought processes and learn from his:

  • Learning Skills
  • Thinking Skills
  • Productivity Skills

Elon Musk - Learning Skills

There are 3 key elements to Elon Musk's learning skills and these form the foundation upon which he is able to exercise his critical thinking skills.

[1] Know A Lot About A Lot

The technical description of this is someone who is an "Expert Generalist".

Elon Musk read widely and extensively when he was younger, allegedly 2 books a day across a very wide range of subjects including 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.

Few people are well informed across a range of subjects. The traditional focus of further and higher education is to specialise in one specific and narrow field and to master that.

The key take away on this point is extend and expand the scope of your reading.

[2] Know How It All Hangs Together

Simply absorbing a mountain of pieces of disparate pieces of information is rather like having a book or a website without an index. The information is hard to access and thus harder to co-relate and almost impossible to apply, so in practical terms it is largely useless.

People with minds stuffed full of disconnected information that they can not apply have been referred to as "educated derelicts". Intelligent people are those who can act and behave intelligently. That is to say, they "know how it all hangs together" and, equally importantly,  know how to apply it.

Elon Musk describes his process of knowing how things hang together:

Charlie Munger describes this process as one of creating mental models which are a high level representation, or overview, of how something works.

Since it is impossible to keep all of the details of all of the information that you absorb in your brain, you use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organisable chunks.

Mental models shape how you reason and how you understand, and they also shape the connections and opportunities that you see, and also why you consider some things more relevant than others.

The key take away on this point is to make sure that you have a good understanding - a good mental model - of how something works and hangs together. This way, everything that you read and learn on any particular subject fits into place within that mental model.

[3] Know How To Apply Core Principles From One Field Of Knowledge To Another

Bringing points one and two together: as you extend and expand your reading and learning across a wide range of subjects your brain is automatically building an extended network of mental models.

Charlie Munger describes this as a latticework of mental models spanning many different domains of information and experience then you can apply core principles from one field to another.

Munger outlines a simple and practical approach to help you learn how to build mental models.

This is what educational psychologists refer to as a "learning transfer", where we take what we learn in one context and apply it to another.

Elon Musk has mastered this process and he has a two-step process for fostering learning transfer:

[1] He deconstructs knowledge into the underlying fundamental principles.

In essence this process involves removing as much context specific information as possible, and in a sense going beyond the words and surface meaning to the core generic and abstract essence of the principles that can be applied in another totally different context.

This is largely a reflective and intuitive process that is all about seeing connections across traditional boundaries, by thinking by analogy and asking yourself questions such as: “What does this remind me of?” and “Why does it remind me of it?”

[2] He reconstructs the fundamental principles into new fields.

So for example he reconstructed the foundational principles he’s 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 off and land vertically
  • In technology in order to envision a neural lace that interfaces your brain

Elon Musk - Thinking Skills

Underpinning all of Elon Musk's innovative solutions is First Principles Thinking which he breaks down into 3 steps.

First Principles Thinking

    "Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning... boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy.

    It takes a lot of effort, but if you’re trying to do something new, it’s the best way to think.

    Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations."

1. Identify the problem and its common assumptions

Musk gives an example:

’Battery packs are really expensive, and that’s just the way they will always be. Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour,” he said, referencing the common assumption about car batteries.

He then went on to say that most people would just accept that:

“it’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”

2. Break the problem down to its fundamental truths

This is the hard part. As with so many things in life the key is to ask the right questions, questions that will challenge these common assumptions.

You have to persist with this line of enquiry until you are left with only the fundamental truths.

So to continue with the example of batteries, Musk asks: 

"What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?’ It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can...”

Then, he continued:

“...you’d break that down on a material basis and say, ‘If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?’ It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour.”

3. Use the fundamental truths to plot a new course.

Once you have identified the fundamental truths, you use them like building blocks to create a totally new, innovative solution.

So, to conclude with the example of the the batteries, Musk says:

“...you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell. Then you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

Optimise Function and Ignore Form

James Clear, the author of "Atomic Habits" analyses Musk's use of first principles thinking:

"Be wary of the ideas you inherit. Old conventions and previous forms are often accepted without question and, once accepted, they set a boundary around creativity.

This difference is one of the key distinctions between continuous improvement and first principles thinking.

Continuous improvement tends to occur within the boundary set by the original vision. By comparison, first principles thinking requires you to abandon your allegiance to previous forms and put the function front and center.

What are you trying to accomplish? What is the functional outcome you are looking to achieve?

Optimize the function. Ignore the form."

First Principles: Elon Musk on the Power of Thinking for Yourself

Closing remarks on first principles thinking

    "I think generally people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis.

    They’ll say, 'We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.' Or they’ll not do it because 'Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good.' But that’s just a ridiculous way to think.

    You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—'from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics.

    You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past."

People believe thinking outside the box takes intelligence and creativity, but it’s mostly about independence.

When you simply ignore the box and build your reasoning from scratch, whether you’re brilliant or not, you end up with a unique conclusion—one that may or may not fall within the box.

If you really want a deeper look into Musk’s mind and reasoning by first principles, read this indepth, idiosyncratic, brilliant (and very long) article:

The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce

Critical Thinking - Phases

Elon Musk knows that the root of innovation is a preparedness to question the way things have always been done and ask if there is a better, more efficient, more beneficial way to accomplish these tasks:

“Constantly think about how you could be doing things better, and keep questioning yourself...

...I'm always looking for what's wrong… in order to make [Teslas] better ... I have to think very critically. So, when I see the car, I see all the things that I think need to be fixed to make it better."

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has noted that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding and reconsidering a problem they thought they'd already solved:

"They're open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking."

That's good critical thinking, the ability to learn from ideas and thoughts, even if they are in opposition to your own.

So, how can you learn how to think critically?


This is about having the ability to:

  • Envision the future
  • "Fast forward"
  • Look at the bigger picture
  • Imagine alternative futures.
  • Set stretching goals
  • Set transcendent goals


  • Don't rush
  • Critical thinking is hard work
  • Block out time in your calendar to engage in deep thought
  • Exercise patience and emotional intelligence



You'll often benefit by walking away and letting all the facts settle in your mind and simmer and brew.

  • Set a time limit to think things through
  • Never make a decision late at night
  • Pay attention to negative feedback
  • Don't defend yourself or close your mind
  • Ask what can I learn from this?



Opportunities reveal themselves  to you when you can see the interconnection and/or interdependence of things that others cannot see.

For example, Elon Musk saw such a connection when he realised that SpaceEx could build a rocket to run on methane (CH4) which would give it enough range to reach Mars AND be able to return by creating the fuel from the return journey using the carbon dioxide, permafrost [water] and liquid oxygen.

Seeing this connection transformed the long-term economics of space travel between Earth and Mars because it means that you could send manned spacecraft to Mars without having to carry rocket fuel with you.



When Elon Musk’s SpaceX company tried to launch its first rocket, it did not succeed. There two more further attempts and each time the rocket didn’t launch.

Musk was on the brink of losing all investment, he tried one more time and finally succeeded in launching a rocket and the SpaceX name.

He describes his attitude to failure:

“If something is important enough you should try, even if the probable outcome is failure.”

So, don’t just try, try because you believe so much in the outcome you are trying for.


As an innovator you will run into the problem that innovative ideas will always inconsistent with prevailing belief and logic.

The ability to influence others to see your view, and reconsider their logic and beliefs, is critical.

Elon Musk is persuasive, trusting his own internal logic and instincts in the face of intense pushback.

Elon Musk - Productivity Skills

The first 6 minutes of this interview are a mini-masterclass in productivity skills.


- If a [engineering design] process is taking too long its wrong.

- Musk's the chief engineer - yet everyone's a chief engineer.

- Everyone knows everything about all systems [involved in overall design].

- There is no subsystem optimisation [in isolation to the whole system].

- Product errors reflect organisation errors.

- The trap that design engineers fall into - is optimising something that shouldn't exist.

- When framing a question - the start point to it is: "This question is wrong!"

- The hard part is framing the question - the point at which you can properly frame the question - the answer is easy.

Here in Elon Musk's own words are a number of observations about his attitudes and behaviours regarding productivity.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list and it does not include all the usual things you would expect to see on such a list.

What we are focused on here are points of difference that set Elon Musk apart.

“I don’t spend my time pontificating about high-concept things; I spend my time solving engineering and manufacturing problems.”

 "I was at one point thinking about doing physics as a career—I did undergrad in physics—but in order to really advance physics these days, you need the data.

Physics is fundamentally governed by the progress of engineering.

This debate—“Which is better, engineers or scientists? Aren’t scientists better? Wasn’t Einstein the smartest person?”—personally, I think that engineering is better because in the absence of the engineering, you do not have the data.

You just hit a limit. And yeah, you can be real smart within the context of the limit of the data you have, but unless you have a way to get more data, you can’t make progress.

Like look at Galileo. He engineered the telescope—that’s what allowed him to see that Jupiter had moons.

The limiting factor, if you will, is the engineering. And if you want to advance civilization, you must address the limiting factor. Therefore, you must address the engineering."

“Focus on signal over noise. Don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t actually make things better."

“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.

I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”

 “Don’t tell me what you like, tell me what you don’t like.”


"When you struggle with a problem that is when you understand it."

Progress comes from being focused and performing deep work.

This means living as asynchronously as possible and with minimal interruptions from co-workers.

NOTE: I really do recommend you check out: "Deep Work" and bookmark it. This mode and process of thinking is exactly what Elon Musk spends much of his quality time engaged in.

If this is your one actionable take away from this article it will be the most productive thing you can do.

“The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur.”

Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

“You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong”

Elon Musk - Inspirational

In this article we have deliberately focused on the rational and mental side of Elon Musk in an attempt to highlight clearly key aspects of how he thinks and to do so in a way that makes this accessible to anyone reading this.

I want to close the article with a couple of videos that show his emotional and human side.

Elon Musk - Against All Odds

Elon Musk - You Can Also Be Great

Return to: Inspirational People

Return to: Thinking Skills


English Chinese (Traditional) Russian French German Italian Spanish Vietnamese


  1. Your Relationship With Failure Is Critical To Your Success

    Just Because You Have A Spectacular Failure Doesn’t Mean The Game Is Over. The thought that you could fail can really slow you down. But the problem is not the failure, the problem is your relationshi…

    Read More

  2. Lost, Stuck & Going Round In Circles?

    Are You Lost In Transition? To be in an alien North African city, late in the evening, in the dark, completely lost in transition from the main market square back to the obscure location of our Riad…

    Read More

  3. Seeing Is Believing Or Is It?

    Do You Believe What You See Or Do You See What You Believe? Like the characters in "The Matrix" we are fooled by the illusion that what we see is how things really are. Why? Because this is the mind's…

    Read More

  4. What Difference Did You Make?

    What Impact Will You Leave In The Lives Of Others? If you knew you were going to die tonight and you were given a few minutes to reflect before that happened, what would you say was the meaning of yo…

    Read More

  5. Compassion Is Selfish And You Need It

    If You Want Others To Be Happy, Practice Compassion. If You Want To Be Happy, Practice Compassion. Compassion is derived from the Latin words "com pati" meaning to suffer with. It has been defined as…

    Read More

  6. The Placebo Effect - 2 Key Takeaways

    The Power Of Expectation Of An Outcome Regardless Of The Lack Of Any Substance To That Expectation. Traditionally, the placebo effect occurs when false, or dummy, treatments of inert substances [that…

    Read More

  7. The Red Pill

    This Is What Will Happen After You Take It. "This is your last chance," rebel leader Morpheus tells Neo, holding a coloured pill in each hand. “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in y…

    Read More

  8. Transformational Life Hacks

    This Has To Be One Of The Best Ways For Living The Best Life You Can Possibly Live. An online search on life hacks will invariably provide you with multiple links to ways of increasing your productivi…

    Read More

  9. This Too Shall Pass

    The Blessing And The Curse Of Impermanence. There is a story of a king who sought wisdom. Eventually he heard of a man living in a remote part of the kingdom who had a reputation for great wisdom. The…

    Read More

  10. The Stories We Tell Ourselves

    The Stories That We Tell Ourselves Are A Matter Of Choice. The stories we tell ourselves form the backcloth and the tapestry of our lives. These narratives shape and define our sense of self and how a…

    Read More

  11. Who Do You Trust?

    Trust Is A Choice And It Creates Your Reality. Nothing in life is permanent and nothing lasts forever. Every relationship ends in tears. Somebody leaves or somebody dies. This is how things are. This…

    Read More

  12. How Positive Asymmetry Can Transform Your Life

    Finding This Hidden Value Is The Key To A Huge Upside. Most of us spend our lives working to linear rules where there is an equal relationship between effort and result. Work hard you get a result. Wo…

    Read More

  13. 5 Tips For Developing A Growth Mindset

    How To Be There When Preparation Meets Opportunity. The growth mindset holds the core belief that your intelligence and personality is something you can develop and that you can expand and grow. The p…

    Read More

  14. Lost For Words? Experience Truth

    If you can't think of the right thing to say, say nothing. The concepts we employ, the categorizations we apply and the words we choose and use to articulate a direct experience put us in a double bi…

    Read More

  15. Belief - A Terrible Tyrant Or An Empowering Servant

    To Believe Or Not To Believe - That Is The Question. Nothing has inflicted more suffering on humanity than its beliefs and dogmas. The religious and cultural beliefs that sanction and allow or impose…

    Read More

  16. How To Avoid Herd Mentality

    How To Stay Far From The Madding Crowd. Herd mentality describes how we make decisions based on what everyone else is thinking and doing. It is also known as a mob or crowd mentality. We follow the he…

    Read More

  17. Are You Trying To Teach A Cat To Bark?

    We Suffer Every Time We Believe A Thought That Argues With What Is. When your mind is perfectly clear, what is, is what you want. If you want reality to be different than it is, you might as well try…

    Read More

  18. The Value Of Slack

    Slack Is The Capacity To Effect Change And The Resource To Deal With The Unexpected. Many organizations are obsessed with efficiency and try to ensure that every resource is fully utilized to its full…

    Read More

  19. 6 Tips To Help You Stop Trying Too Hard

    Less and less do you need to force things, until you arrive at non-action. We are brought up to believe that we get what we want in life as a result of what we do, by the actions that we take, that ha…

    Read More

  20. Your Point Of Focus

    Is It Helping You Or Hindering You? Your point of focus is the central point of your attention. Your point of focus is a binary choice and the result of that choice is critical to your happiness, your…

    Read More

  21. Your Secret For Success

    To accomplish any success in life, you must identify accurately what it is that you hunger for, thirst for and long for. The purpose of this article is to look at the foundation of the secret for succ…

    Read More

  22. Can You Stop Thinking?

    Discover The Joy Of A Quiet Mind Can you stop thinking? According to Zen Buddhist priest Shunmyo Masuno the art of not thinking about anything is not easy to achieve. Even practising monks find it dif…

    Read More

  23. How To Build Self Confidence

    What Is Holding You Back From Pursuing Your Dreams? Your self confidence is based on ability. Your self confidence is all about your level of trust, faith and belief in your abilities [your power] and…

    Read More

  24. How To Overcome Fear And Perform Powerfully

    Learning how to overcome fear and perform powerfully is a skill that we all need to acquire as fear of failure affects most of us at some point in our lives. Whilst it is natural to feel a level of fe…

    Read More

  25. Dance Into The Light And Stop Chasing Your Tail

    You are creating hell on earth when you are too subsumed within your underlying and deeply embedded negative energetic states. To counter your dissatisfactions and misery you initially go unconscious…

    Read More

  26. Change Your Language To Change How You Feel

    How you mentally characterize a situation has a profound impact on how you respond to it emotionally. There is a direct causal link between how you think about a situation, the words you use to articu…

    Read More

  27. How To Live In A Participatory Universe

    What good is a universe without somebody around to look at it? What Conclusions Can We Draw About Living In A Participatory Universe? The inescapable conclusion is that the world and the universe (wit…

    Read More

  28. 4 Keys To Working With The Energy Of Life

    The journey home to the energy of life does not consist in arriving at a new destination it is a coming home to one’s self. [1] How are you feeling, what is your dominant emotion right now? [2] Where…

    Read More

  29. How To Deal With The Challenges Of Playing The Long Game

    You have to be willing to suffer today in order to reap enormous rewards tomorrow. The long game is so hard to play because it involves taking a series of very small steps, that people rarely see, per…

    Read More

  30. If You Don't Take Care Of You, Who Will?

    How To Build Self Esteem In my early life and until my early twenties I suffered from a deep inferiority complex and low self esteem. Forty years later and, said in sincerity and with humility, I have…

    Read More

The Balanced Life

The Balanced Toolkit

3 Keys Solutions

Get new posts by email:

Support This Site