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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
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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

A passionate writer who loves sharing about positive psychology.

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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