It's no secret that our obsession with and admiration for Elon Musk is legitimately out of control, and we're not ashamed. The billionaire genius has done something that barely seems possible: he's built four multi-billion-dollar companies, each in a different field. And by the looks of it, he has no intention of slowing down. How does he do it?! Among other intangible factors, his success comes in part from his approach to learning.
What Would Elon Do?
As of the date this article was published, the Church of Elon does not yet exist. Luckily, we have some info on how to be more like Musk based on what he's shared in interviews and even a Reddit AMA. In 2015, Musk shared this nugget of wisdom on Reddit about how he approaches learning: "It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto."
What he describes here is called "first principles thinking." "I think it's important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy," Musk said in an interview. "The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [...] we are doing this because it's like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths ... and then reason up from there."
More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle mirrored this same mode of thinking. The philosopher said that the first principle is the "first basis from which a thing is known."
Nothing's Off the Table
Aiming to master the fundamentals of any given subject facilitates part two of Musk's learning method: learning transfer. This concept is the action of taking what you learn in one area and applying it to another area. This could mean applying something triangle-related you learned in trigonometry, for example, to a real-world problem like playing pool. This could also mean, in Musk's case, taking what you understand about software and technology and putting it to work in the aerospace industry.
Making connections across traditional boundaries is what sets Musk and others apart. Keith Holyoak, a UCLA professor of psychology and one of the world's leading thinkers on analogical reasoning, recommends people ask themselves these questions to hone their skills: "What does this remind me of?" and "Why does it remind me of it?"
Musk's successful use of learning transfer brings up another key vocab word: expert-generalist. These are the people who seem to know a lot about everything. As 99u explains, expert-generalists "develop an appetite for learning and openness" that makes them "more likely to be able to draw ideas from multiple disciplines."
That old phrase "jack of all trades, master of none" definitely doesn't apply here. As evidenced by Musk and other expert-generalists, you can very much be a jack of all trades and still be master of a few. Know how to learn (by starting at the "roots of the tree") and apply that gained knowledge wherever and whenever you can. When in doubt, just ask: What would Elon do?