The Profile Dossier: Elon Musk, the Architect of the Future
"When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor."
As a complement to the regular Sunday newsletter, the Profile Dossier is a comprehensive deep-dive on a prominent individual. The dossier editions are only available to paying subscribers.
SpaceX. Tesla. Neuralink. SolarCity. Starlink. The Boring Company. Hyperloop. OpenAI. Future of Life Institute.
Elon Musk is taking on … virtually everything. The self-made billionaire is singularly focused on “saving humanity” by creating a clean energy future, colonizing Mars, and attempting to expand the breadth of human consciousness.
He’s one of the most radical and innovative thinkers of our time, which means that he’s also attracted heavy backlash from the incumbents he’s trying to disrupt. And there are a lot of incumbents because he happens to be involved in everything from the automotive industry to aerospace to solar energy to satellite to even multi-planetary expansion.
WaitButWhy author Tim Urban put it best: “The dude is a steel-bending industrial giant in America in a time when there aren’t supposed to be steel-bending industrial giants in America, igniting revolutions in huge, old industries that aren’t supposed to be revolutionable.”
Even though smart, rich, and important people told Musk that he was lighting his time and money on fire because no entrepreneur had ever succeeded in building cheap rockets or long-range electric cars, he persisted. “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor,” he says.
His work paid off in spades recently when SpaceX made history as the first private company to launch humans into space. It demonstrated to the world that rocket reusability as a long-term approach can make space exploration cheaper and more sustainable. In other words, Musk did it even though the odds were not in his favor.
“This is a dream come true. In fact, it feels surreal. If you'd asked me when starting SpaceX if this would happen, I'd be like, 1% chance, 0.1% chance,” Musk said about the launch.
In this Dossier, we’ll learn about the importance of originality, creativity, and independent thought.
(Photo credit: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images)
On the way Musk’s brain works: This four-part series on Elon Musk in the blog WaitButWhy is the single best profile of him you will ever read. It delves into Musk’s ambitions, companies, mindset, and decisions. You will gain an understanding of why Musk is doing what he’s doing and why he’s able to do what he’s doing. Just a warning that once you dive into this, you’ll be sucked in for hours on end.
On reinventing the world (and Mars): Musk is certainly not short on ambition. One of his companies is trying to upend the auto industry. Another is trying to put people on Mars. Yet another is trying to bring electricity to everyone who needs it. This is a fascinating portrait of the man who wants to reinvent the entire world in a single lifetime.
On his crusade to stop the A.I. apocalypse: Ever wonder what keeps Musk up at night? The possibility that when machines become smarter than humans, robots will take over the world and make us all their slaves. Here's a terrifying scenario of the future: Imagine tiny synthetic bacteria with tiny computers hiding inside your bloodsteam & everyone else's. And then, simultaneously, they release one microgram of botulinum toxin and everyone just drops dead at the same time. Game over for humanity. Here’s how Musk plans to save us from machine-learning overlords.
On battling loneliness: Even billionaires succumb to loneliness. In this profile, Musk discusses his marriage to writer Justine Musk, his marriage to actress Talulah Riley, and his breakup from actress Amber Heard. The billionaire shakes his head and grimaces: “If I’m not in love, if I’m not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy.” The writer explains that needing someone so badly that you feel like nothing without them is considered codependence. Musk disagrees and says, “It’s not true. I will never be happy without having someone. Going to sleep alone kills me.” (Related: The Science Behind Why Social Isolation Can Make You Lonely)
On inventing the future: Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk is like a roller-coaster ride. You’ll find yourself in awe when you realize just how many times Tesla, SpaceX, and his other companies were one hair away from imploding. Yet Musk always managed to save them from the brink at the last possible second. The story takes us back to Musk’s tumultuous upbringing in South Africa all the way to his dramatic technical innovations and entrepreneurial pursuits. It’s a great read.
On the future of human consciousness: This conversation delves into Musk’s belief that artificial intelligence will be able to outthink humans in every way. “It feels like consciousness exists in a different dimension, but that could be an illusion,” Musk says. “If you damage your brain in some way physically, then you damage your consciousness, which implies that consciousness is physical.” Take a peek into Musk’s view of the future, and why he decided to build his futuristic company Neuralink. This is a must-listen.
On Tesla’s turbulent year: 2018 was a tough year for Tesla. In this episode, Kara Swisher grills Musk like no one else can. She asks him about using Twitter without a filter, going to war with the press, his “excruciating” year, why he pushes himself so hard, and how his sleep deprivation had affected his leadership. What a conversation.
On his secret sauce: This TED Talk interview explores Musk’s so-called “secret sauce.” First, how does he so effectively pull together design, technology, and business and synthesize them in a way that very few people can? And more importantly, how does he feel so damn confident it’ll succeed that he’s willing to bet his entire fortune on it time and time again?
On dealing with public scrutiny: Musk has appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast twice. The first was in 2018 when Musk was under fire for his public pronouncements about Tesla’s manufacturing goals and sales targets. He was also facing a subpoena from the SEC and a litany of lawsuits claiming market manipulation. Musk addressed all of this by appearing on Rogan’s show where he sipped whiskey, smoked marijuana, and talked about the end of the universe.
On evolving humanity forward: Musk’s latest Rogan appearance was in May, a month before SpaceX’s historic launch. In the podcast, he says something interesting: “Too many smart people go into finance and law. That’s both a compliment and a criticism.” He argues that society could benefit from “more people making stuff” and fewer people focusing on finance. “Making a car is an honest day’s living, that’s for sure,” Musk says.
On his relentless persistence: This fascinating documentary gives us an inside look at SpaceX's plan to get humanity to Mars. Filmed over the course of three years, this film takes us behind the scenes with Musk and his engineers as they persevere amidst both disheartening setbacks and huge triumphs to advance the space industry.
On creating magic: In this graduation speech, Musk talks about the power of innovation. He quotes Arthur C. Clark, who said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. “If you go back 300 years, the things we take for granted today, you’d be burned at the stake for,” Musk says. He points that his interest in how the universe works goes back to having an existential crisis: “I was trying to figure out ‘what does it all mean?’ Like what’s the purpose of things?” This is a really good one.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Consider your mental software: When Musk looks at people, he sees computers. Thinking of our brains as computers can actually serve us well. It allows us to consider the distinction between our mental “hardware” (our raw intelligence and natural talents) and our “software” (our belief systems & thought patterns). The hardware is like a ball of clay handed to us at birth, but it’s the software that determines what kind of tool the clay gets shaped into. In other words, your brain software is the most important product you possess, so make sure you design it well, test it every day, and optimize the software by ingesting quality information.
Start from first principles: First-principle thinking is extremely useful in everyday life. So many of us do things a certain way simply because that’s how they’ve always been done. Few of us ask, “Why?” Musk believes we need to think like a scientist, cut through all the conventional thinking, and start with only the information you know to be scientific fact. Here’s what he says about how he learns: “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, like the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
Avoid blind tribalism: Tribalism and dogma are severely prevalent in our society. If you don’t neatly fit into a political party, then good luck. Because so many of us crave connection, we’re willing to flush our independent reasoning skills down the drain and blindly adopt a certain group’s dogmatic beliefs instead (ie: install someone else’s software). This is how a lot of conventional thinking is born, so to find out just how open-minded your friends are, try challenging their beliefs and assumptions about politics or religion. Think for yourself.
Aim to be a chef: Here’s how WaitButWhy’s Tim Urban characterized the difference between the way Elon thinks and the way most people think. It’s the difference between a chef and a cook. “When I say chef, I don’t mean any ordinary chef,” Urban writes. “I mean the trailblazing chef—the kind of chef who invents recipes. And everyone else who enters a kitchen—all those who follow recipes—is a cook.” The chef reasons from first principles, whereas the cook works off of some version of a recipe that’s already out there. While creating something new may be messy and terrible and awful at first, remember that in this life, we only have two options: create or imitate. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new ingredients.
Face your fears with facts: When we’re scared of something, we’re likely using our emotions to gauge the danger. Musk looks at it literally and sees the facts until he renders it harmless. For example, he used to be afraid of the dark as a kid. “But then I came to understand, dark just means the absence of photons in the visible wavelength—400 to 700 nanometers. Then I thought, well it’s really silly to be afraid of a lack of photons,” he says. So ask yourself, is your fear rooted in logic or is it simply misplaced?
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"I think it is possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary."
"When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor."
"It's OK to have your eggs in one basket as long as you control what happens to that basket."
"If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it's not."
"When Henry Ford made cheap, reliable cars, people said, 'Nah, what's wrong with a horse?' That was a huge bet he made, and it worked."
"Some people don't like change, but you need to embrace change if the alternative is disaster."
"There's a tremendous bias against taking risks. Everyone is trying to optimize their ass-covering."
"Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough."
"Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up."
"I could either watch it happen or be a part of it."
Want more? Check out the following dossiers:
— Charlie Munger, the master of mental models
— Bryan Stevenson, the death row lawyer
— Chris Hadfield, the astronaut who conquered fear
— Sara Blakely, the self-made billionaire
— Malcolm Gladwell, the thinker selling good ideas
— Kenneth Feinberg, the master of disaster
— Ira Glass, the king of storytelling
— Chris Voss, the FBI hostage negotiator
— Esther Perel, the relationship guru
— Amelia Boone, the queen of pain
— Neil deGrasse Tyson, the curious starman
— Annie Duke, the master of uncertainty