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How Elon Musk Gains Massive Success by Learning Differently from Everyone Else

How Elon Musk Gains Massive Success by Learning Differently from Everyone Else

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.

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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.

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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[1] 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.

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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.

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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.

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Jenny Marchal

Freelance Writer

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Last Updated on August 16, 2018

16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

The same old motivational secrets don’t really motivate you after you’ve read them for the tenth time, do they?

How about a unique spin on things?

These 16 productivity secrets of successful people will make you reevaluate your approach to your home, work, and creative lives. Learn from these highly successful people, turn these little things they do into your daily habits and you’ll get closer to success.

1. Empty your mind.

It sounds counterproductive, doesn’t it?

Emptying your mind when you have so much to remember seems like you’re just begging to forget something. Instead, this gives you a clean slate so you’re not still thinking about last week’s tasks.

Clear your mind and then start thinking only about what you need to do immediately, and then today. Tasks that need to be accomplished later in the week can wait.

Here’s a guide to help you empty your mind and think sharper:

How to Declutter Your Mind to Sharpen Your Brain and Fall Asleep Faster

2. Keep certain days clear.

Some companies are scheduling “No Meeting Wednesdays,” which means, funnily enough, that no one can hold a meeting on a Wednesday. This gives workers a full day to work on their own tasks, without getting sidetracked by other duties or pointless meetings.

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This can work in your personal life too, for example if you need to restrict Facebook access or limit phone calls.

3. Prioritize your work.

Don’t think every task is created equal! Some tasks aren’t as important as others, or might take less time.

Try to sort your tasks every day and see what can be done quickly and efficiently. Get these out of the way so you have more free time and brain power to focus on what is more important.

Lifehack’s CEO has a unique way to prioritize works, take a look at it here:

How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

4. Chop up your time.

Many successful business leaders chop their time up into fifteen-minute intervals. This means they work on tasks for a quarter of an hour at a time, or schedule meetings for only fifteen minutes. It makes each hour seem four times as long, which leads to more productivity!

5. Have a thinking position.

Truman Capote claimed he couldn’t think unless he was laying down. Proust did this as well, while Stravinsky would stand on his head!

What works for others may not work for you. Try to find a spot and position that is perfect for you to brainstorm or come up with ideas.

6. Pick three to five things you must do that day.

To Do lists can get overwhelming very quickly. Instead of making a never-ending list of everything you can think of that needs to be done, make daily lists that include just three to five things.

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Make sure they’re things that need to be done that day, so you don’t keep putting them off.

7. Don’t try to do too much.

OK, so I just told you to work every day, and now I’m telling you to not do too much? It might sound like conflicting advice, but not doing too much means not biting off more than you can chew. Don’t say yes to every work project or social engagement and find yourself in way over your head.

8. Have a daily action plan.

Don’t limit yourself to a to-do list! Take ten minutes every morning to map out a daily action plan. It’s a place to not only write what needs to be done that day, but also to prioritize what will bring the biggest reward, what will take the longest, and what goals will be accomplished.

Leave room for a “brain dump,” where you can scribble down anything else that’s on your mind.

9. Do your most dreaded project first.

Getting your most dreaded task over with first means you’ll have the rest of the day free for anything and everything else. This also means that you won’t be constantly putting off the worst of your projects, making it even harder to start on it later.

10. Follow the “Two-Minute Rule.”

The “Two-Minute Rule” was made famous by David Allen. It’s simple – if a new task comes in and it can be done in two minutes or less, do it right then. Putting it off just adds to your to-do list and will make the task seem more monumental later.

11. Have a place devoted to work.

If you work in an office, it’s no problem to say that your cubicle desk is where you work every day.

But if you work from home, make sure you have a certain area specifically for work. You don’t want files spread out all over the dinner table, and you don’t want to feel like you’re not working just because you’re relaxing on the couch.

Agatha Christie never wrote at her desk, she wrote wherever she could sit down. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. Thomas Wolfe, at 6’6″ tall, used the top of his refrigerator as a desk. Richard Wright wrote on a park bench, rain or shine.

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Have a space where, when you go there, you know you’re going to work. Maybe it’s a cafe downstairs, the library, or a meeting room. Whenever and wherever works for you, do your works there.

12. Find your golden hour.

You don’t have to stick to a “typical” 9–5 schedule!

Novelist Anne Rice slept during the day and wrote at night to avoid distractions. Writer Jerzy Kosinski slept eight hours a day, but never all at once. He’d wake in the morning, work, sleep four hours in the afternoon, then work more that evening.

Your golden hour is the time when you’re at your peak. You’re alert, ready to be productive, and intent on crossing things off your to-do list.

Once you find your best time, protect it with all your might. Make sure you’re always free to do your best uninterrupted work at this time.

13. Pretend you’re on an airplane.

It might not be possible to lock everyone out of your office to get some peace and quiet, but you can eliminate some distractions.

By pretending you’re on an airplane, you can act like your internet access is limited, you’re not able to get something from your bookcase, and you can’t make countless phone calls.

Eliminating these distractions will help you focus on your most important tasks and get them done without interruption.

14. Never stop.

Writers Anthony Trollope and Henry James started writing their next books as soon as they finished their current work in progress.

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Stephen King writes every day of the year, and holds himself accountable for 2,000 words a day! Mark Twain wrote every day, and then read his day’s work aloud to his family to get their feedback.

There’s something to be said about working nonstop, and putting out continuous work instead of taking a break. It’s just a momentum that will push you go further./

15. Be in tune with your body.

Your mind and body will get tired of a task after ninety minutes to two hours focused on it. Keep this in mind as you assign projects to yourself throughout the day, and take breaks to ensure that you won’t get burned out.

16. Try different methods.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote the first drafts of his novels on index cards. This made it easy to rearrange sentences, paragraphs, and chapters by shuffling the cards around.

It does sound easier, and more fun, than copying and pasting in Word! Once Nabokov liked the arrangement, his wife typed them into a single manuscript.

Same for you, don’t give up and think that it’s impossible for you to be productive when one method fails. Try different methods until you find what works perfectly for you.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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