Ask any entrepreneur who their idol is and they’ll likely say Elon Musk. Ask any scientist who they look up to and again, they’d probably say Elon Musk.
How is it possible that Elon Musk could build four multi-billion companies by his mid-40s and become an expert in four separate fields (software, energy, transportation and aerospace)?
When people refer to Elon Musk’s success, they point to his worth ethic (apparently he works 85-hour weeks), his ability to set amazing visions for the future and his incredible resilience. But there are many people like this. What is it really that separates Elon Musk from the rest?
Conventional wisdom says that to be an expert at something, we need to focus on one thing. The smaller that thing is, the better chance you’ll have.
But Elon Musk breaks the rule. His expertise ranges from artificial intelligence to solar power to rocket science, engineering and physics.
Clearly, Elon Musk is an “expert-generalist”, a term used to define people who understand deeper principles that can be applied to many different fields.
The Surprising Benefits of Being a “Jack of All Trades”
Based on Elon Musk’s success, perhaps we all should be learning wisdom from multiple subject areas, while having a core set of principles that keeps us grounded across all fields. Here’s why:
It’s generally said that if you’re a “‘jack of all trades”, then you’re a master of nothing. However, Elon Musk shows that this is wrong.
Learning across multiple fields clearly gives you a knowledge advantage. Why? Because most people just focus on one field. If you’re a biologist, you just read biology publications. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re probably only reading entrepreneur magazines.
Despite this, very few people actually learn beyond their industry. Any new field of learning gives enormous opportunity to make connections and combinations. You’ve all heard the famous quote from Steve Jobs:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”
Elon Musk’s learning transfer
But his unique brilliance isn’t just because he takes in information from different subject areas. It’s the way he does it.
Few people are aware of this, but studying Elon Musk’s life and comments in the media give us a certain glimpse into his super power of “learning transfer”. According to his brother, Elon Musk would read 2 whole books every single day!
This reading spanned various topics from philosophy, science, religion, programming and biographies of scientists and entrepreneurs.
However, this is where Elon Musk shines. He says it’s crucial to deconstruct knowledge into fundamental principles. This enables us to easily learn new skills and transfer them to different fields. He gave us a glimpse of this wisdom on Reddit:
“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 is nothing for them to hang onto.”
Elon Musk is certainly onto something. Research suggests that turning your knowledge into deeper principles facilitates learning transfer.
So, how do we come up with these principles? When we learn something new, we shouldn’t just take one approach. We should explore different approaches, deconstruct each one and then compare them. This will help us find the underlying the principles.
But it doesn’t stop there. In order to be as smart as Elon Musk, we need to transfer our knowledge to new fields. This can be easily forgotten as you go about your day.
UCLA professor of psychology, Keith Holyoak, says that the best way to do this is to constantly ask yourself “What does this remind me of?” and “Why does it remind me of it”? By constantly looking in your environment and any knowledge your reading and asking yourself these two questions, you build the muscles in your brain to make connections across different areas.
All of us can benefit from becoming a jack of all trades
The bottom line is: We ALL can gain from becoming knowledgeable in different fields.
In fact, legendary expert-generalist Buckminster Fuller says this is a shift in thinking we all need to consider adopting:
“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 individual’s 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.”