There are successful people and then there are extremely successful people. We all know it’s not about luck but more sheer hard work, determination and belief. But in the case of Elon Musk – who has built up four successful multi-million dollar companies – how does he do it?
He’s not only built up these four companies incredibly successfully but they’re all in separate industries – software, energy, aerospace and transportation. Surely this goes against all we’re taught? Shouldn’t we always focus on just one field in order to become the complete expert?
So what is the secret to Musk’s success? The answer lies in his ability to be an expert generalist.
What Exactly Is an Expert Generalist?
The term expert generalist was coined by Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Co. to describe someone who has the ability to learn and master several different disciplines and skills.
You may have heard the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none” which implies that by trying to learn many things, you inhibit your ability to master any of them fully. This is how many teachers and mentors have approached the way of achieving success. However, Elon Musk is an example of the opposite and proves that success can come from learning a wide variety of subjects in a deep way and gaining the ability to transfer and apply knowledge to several different fields.
How Being an Expert Generalist Can Bring You More Success
It’s time to break the myth that focusing on one discipline is what gets us the most success in life, especially when it comes to business.
In today’s world, business and the world’s economies are changing at a rapid pace. This means that, to get as much chance of success as you can, you need to be able to quickly adapt to change. This is how expert generalists such as Elon Musk get ahead of the game because they take care of both the breadth and depth of knowledge on many different subjects.
But this isn’t a new concept. Many successful people throughout the centuries have adopted this approach including Picasso, Richard Feymann and Charlie Munger who have all been able to master several, almost opposing, disciplines. They all carry similar characteristics including openness, an appetite for learning and the ability to draw ideas from multiple disciplines and be able to apply them across different subjects – in other words, they are all creative.
This idea was reflected in a study that examined how the top 59 opera composers of the 20th century mastered their success. They found that a certain degree of ‘cross-training’ was adopted rather than the expected result that deliberate focus and practice is what is the cause of a composers success.
So how exactly has Elon Musk developed a strategy that allows him to become an expert generalist? It’s all down to the concept of learning transfer which is a process of deconstructing and reconstructing the fundamental principles of knowledge.
The Learning Transfer Technique Revealed
This two-step process is something Elon Musk has talked about in multiple interviews as his secret to his exceptional success.
- Deconstruction of Knowledge into Fundamental Principles: This is basically the idea that when learning a new subject we shouldn’t just take one approach (often the most obvious or expected one) but look at several approaches, deconstruct and compare each one. This will ultimately highlight underlying fundamental principles.
- Reconstruct Fundamental Principles into New Areas: Elon Musk deconstructed his knowledge in artificial intelligence, technology, physics, and engineering and applied the fundamental principles to each of his businesses. In other words, he saw how the fundamental principles could be adapted and applied to new things instead of seeing each well of knowledge for each subject as only being separate and disconnected from each other.
This ultimately generates new ideas and to ‘think outside the box’ using creativity as a tool to use basic fundamental principles to create different perspectives.
How to Become an Expert Generalist and How to Adopt the Learning Transfer Ability
While many successful people are expert generalists, Elon Musk stands out as a true advocate for ultimate achievement. So what does he do to get to this level and what steps can we take?
- Read extensively: It’s not about reading a book every now and then, Musk would read around 60 times more than the average reader. The passion and thirst for knowledge must exist.
- Read about a wide range of disciplines: As discussed earlier, it’s not about focusing well on one subject but gaining knowledge from a wide variety in order to get a broader perspective.
- Deconstruct the ideas: What similar themes run through each discipline? How do they compare and contrast?
- Reconstruct the fundamental principles: Always ask yourself ‘what does this remind me of?’ and ‘why does it remind me of it?’ This helps you see possible connections across the different pools of knowledge and subjects that will allow you to reconstruct new ideas.
- Be unique in your thinking: Elon Musk says “when you want to learn something, you have got to boil it down to its simplest form, and then work your way up from there. You can never learn from others’ work.” In other words, don’t take a way that someone does something at face value – always search for different perspectives.
So if you’re looking to adopt the expert generalist mindset, the key is to recognise the value in new experiences and subjects. Opening yourself up to learning something new will deepen your knowledge base, while questioning concepts and seeing connections will help you come up with innovative ideas and solutions.
|||^||Scientific American: Creativity Is Much More Than 10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice|