How to Learn Like Elon Musk

Elon Musk inspires a lot of people, and it’s not always for how rich he is. Actually, sometimes it’s because of the diverse and wide-ranging knowledge base he’s been able to acquire.

He runs two separate billion dollar companies, Tesla and SpaceX. While they’re both devoted to travel, one revolves around electric cars while the other on rocket science and space travel. He has also shown a strong interest in artificial intelligence, and has Bachelors degrees in both physics and economics.

While a shy glance at most billionaires might promote thoughts of greed, the money isn’t what motivates Musk.

“I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future. If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multiplanetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet—to cope with a worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness—then, I think that would be really good.”

Elon Musk

Given how well he has adapted to many different domains of knowledge, the next question becomes, how can we learn like Elon Musk?

Well, other than putting in the time—he sometimes pulls 100 hour weeks—there is another important tip that won’t require so much effort: start with the fundamental principles.

In a Reddit AMA, Musk offers a tip:

“One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

While this might seem intuitive, it’s advice many of us don’t heed.

While tackling new topics in school often consisted of learning the fundamentals first, when we grow up we start bouncing from curiosity to curiosity, subject to subject. Without grounding ourselves in the basics that underlie this new knowledge, we fail to truly grasp what it is and what it’s about.

Understanding the seeds from which a subject branches out is also a powerful problem solving capacity. Musk provides an example:

“Historically, all rockets have been expensive, so therefore, in the future, all rockets will be expensive. But actually that’s not true. If you say, what is a rocket made of? It’s made of aluminium, titanium, copper, carbon fiber. And you can break it down and say, what is the raw material cost of all these components? If you have them stacked on the floor and could wave a magic wand so that the cost of rearranging the atoms was zero, then what would the cost of the rocket be? And I was like, wow, okay, it’s really small—it’s like 2% of what a rocket costs. So clearly it would be in how the atoms are arranged—so you’ve got to figure out how can we get the atoms in the right shape much more efficiently.

And so I had a series of meetings on Saturdays with people, some of whom were still working at the big aerospace companies, just to try to figure out if there’s some catch here that I’m not appreciating. And I couldn’t figure it out. There doesn’t seem to be any catch. So I started SpaceX.”

Another important point is that Musk uses what he learns. He takes into account not just what this information means for how the world works, but also how he can make use of it in his life. His knowledge is made practical, and by acting on that knowledge he helps to reinforce it.

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