Elon Musk is a modern-day polymath.
He has expert knowledge on four separate fields: degrees in Physics and Economics and is self-taught in aerospace and automotive engineering.
From this knowledge he has built four multibillion companies: SpaceX, Tesla Inc., SolarCity and the non-profit OpenAI.
Pretty amazing, right?
If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how can one man can be so successful.
Well, according to entrepreneur and best-selling author Michael Simmons, it boils down to 2 things:
1) He’s an expert generalist. Expert-generalists study widely in many different fields, understand deeper principles that connect those fields, and then apply the principles to their core specialty.
2) He uses a brilliant two step process to connect knowledge in those different fields.
Before we reveal what that two-step process is, let’s explore how Elon Musk became so knowledgeable in so many different fields.
So, how did Musk become an ‘expert generalist?’
Musk started his road to expert-generalist as a teenager. His brother Kimbal Musk reportedly told Bloomberg that Elon read two books a day covering such diverse subjects as fiction, philosophy, religion, programming, biographies of scientists, and as he got older his interests spread to physics, engineering, product design, business, technology and energy.
He spent many years reading 60 times as much as an avid reader. He read widely across different fields. He exposed himself to much more information than school can offer.
Elon Musk’s two step process for ‘learning transfer’
Simmons believes that Musk excels at learning transfer. According to Simmons, Musk interviews reveal a unique two-step process for fostering learning transfer.
First, he deconstructs knowledge into fundamental principles. To discover the basic principles, he studies different versions of or approaches to a subject.
By studying lots of diverse cases when we learn something new, we begin to intuit what is essential and develop the ability to make our own connections.
When we’re entering a new field, we shouldn’t just take one approach or best practice. We should explore many different approaches, deconstruct each one, and then compare and contrast them. This will help us uncover underlying principles.
Next Musk reconstructs the fundamental principles in new fields. Musk took the foundational principles he 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.
- In technology in order to co-found OpenAI, a non-profit that limits the probability of negative artificial intelligence futures.
- In solar energy with SolarCorp in order to provide clean energy to homes
But wait a minute. What about the adage: Jack of all trades, master of none?
Elon Musk defies this adage as have many polymaths before him. I think we can scrap that one. The point is, people like Musk are not ‘Jack of all trades’, they are ‘master’ of the trades they get involved in.
To get ahead, people have been forced to specialize. It’s no longer good enough to have a bachelor’s degree. In fact, on its own it’s practically useless. If you want to get anywhere, you’re forced to specialize. But what does this do? It gives us a lot of people who know a lot about a little. While specialization can certainly lead to discoveries and innovation, it is not the only path.
A deep dive into different fields and cross pollination of information can yield astounding connections that can upend entire industries, as Musk has proven more than once.
And if you think only Elon Musk can achieve such amazing feats, remember this quote from the man himself: