What does it take to do the impossible?
That’s the question that came to mind when I set out to study Elon Musk. If you’re unaware, Musk is a billionaire, entrepreneur, and inventor. He’s the mastermind behind companies such as PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla. Electric cars and interplanetary travel are a reality in the future he hopes to build. Throughout his life, he was consistently told that what he was trying to accomplish was impossible. Despite the negativity, Musk continued to move forward and defy all expectations. In May of 2012, SpaceX launched the first commercial spacecraft to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. After studying Elon Musk’s biography, I’ve selected 3 principles that, I believe, allow Elon to accomplish the impossible.
01 | Intrinsic Motivation vs. External Motivation
External motivations consist of any motivation that comes from outside yourself or the activity. Examples include: material possessions, fame, or approval from others.
On the other hand, intrinsic motivation means doing something for yourself or because you want to. The activity is the reward.
In his early years, Elon was not the best student. He was not unintelligent, but he simply wasn’t interested in school. He excelled in classes that he enjoyed, like math, and did poorly in classes that he didn’t. However, he started teaching himself to code at a very young age. His mother said that he created video games that were so advanced for his age that older coders would be impressed.
Elon would later go on to use his self-taught coding skills to found his first successful start-up: Zip2. In 1999, Musk sold Zip2 and walked away with $22 million. I think this is an important aspect of Elon’s character. He pursues activities that are intrinsically rewarding for him. When starting a company, he doesn’t think about money, fame, or status. On the contrary, he said,
I like to make technologies real that I think are important for the future and useful in some sort of way. — Elon Musk
Why is this important and how can we apply this information in our own lives? Externally motivated individuals only do an activity as long as they are being rewarded. The thing is, we don’t have control over external rewards. By nature, they are outside of us. If you study a degree in college with the hopes of being rich, or successful then you are externally motivated. You may work hard in college, but what will you do if you graduate and you can’t find a job? Externally motivated individuals will find that their motivation fades away.
On the other hand, internally motivated individuals will continue despite their setbacks. The act of doing the task brings about enjoyment and creates a positive feedback loop. The biggest takeaway from this for me is that you can only be successful in a field when it is intrinsically motivating for you. When difficult times come — and they will — the activity itself has to be motivating enough for you to want to struggle to keep doing it.
02 | Innovator vs Imitator
The difference between an innovator and an imitator is mindset. Imitators analyze how the world is, and live life according to the data they obtain. The vast majority of us are imitators. Despite its negative sounding connotation, being an imitator is actually a good thing and crucial to creating a healthy society. We are all born as imitators, mirroring our parents, our friends, and our peers. The current norms of society become our truths. Living life according to society’s rules help create stability, comfort, acceptance, and familiarity. Imitators hold up the status quo and prevent chaos.
On the other hand, innovators see the world not just as it is, but as it could be. They are disruptors. They are your Uber’s, and your AirBnB’s. They are Newton and they are Copernicus. Innovators help bring about new and groundbreaking changes to the status quo. What you and I may consider true, they see as one hypothesis. Individuals who live in an innovative mindset experience a life opposite to that of an imitator. Their lives are full of discomfort, instability, denial, and unfamiliarity. Only once a disruptor’s ideas are accepted by the mainstream do they have some semblance of peace. By definition, disruptors will always seem crazy to the imitators.
When Elon opened up about his plans to start a space exploration company — Space X — people thought he was insane. They had seen this story before. Rich guy thinks he can conquer the world. Rich guy starts a rocket company. Rich guy loses his fortune. Increasing the public’s doubt, Elon knew next to nothing about aerospace engineering at the time. Then, he thought he could create an electric car. Wait, not just an electric car… he thought he could change the entire transportation infrastructure by creating charging stations for his cars as opposed to gas stations. Around 2008, when Tesla and SpaceX had been losing a lot of money, the press made a mockery of Musk. They ridiculed his ideas and shoved a big fat, “I TOLD YOU SO!” into his face. “That’s what you get for dreaming too big,” they would think to themselves.
That’s the thing about being a disruptor, imitators will constantly convince you to revert back to norms and discourage you. That’s a part of their duty of preserving the status quo. As a result, being a disruptor is a constant battle. Some will win, most will lose. It takes a brave person to stand in the face of “I told you so’s”, discomfort, loneliness, instability, and unfamiliarity and to keep moving forward.
So, what can we learn from this? In order to accomplish the impossible, we have to be willing to reject old patterns of thinking and adopt new ones. Around the 1950s, most people believed that it was impossible to run a mile in 4 minutes. The closest anyone got was 4 minutes and 1 second but no one could pass the 4 minute barrier. Some scientists believed that it was physically impossible. In 1954, a man by the name of Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3 minutes and 59 seconds. He had shattered this preconception of what was physically possible. Soon after, many runners were reported to overcome this 4 minute barrier.
A lot of the people we admire like Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk are massively successful due to their disruptor mindset. Mentally, they never put themselves into a box. They challenge old ideas and remix them into new ones. However, as we discussed, the disruptor mindset is a hard one to adopt. Only those who can withstand the fire can find peace in hell.
03 | Conviction & Grit
So, how does one win a battle against the world? This is where the final principles come in: conviction and grit. Conviction means having a strong belief in an idea. I like Angela Duckworth’s definition of grit: “grit is living life like its a marathon, not a sprint.” Grit is all about seeing something through to the VERY end no matter what obstacles may arise.
In the early days of SpaceX, Elon didn’t intend to build rockets. He wanted to buy them. He travelled with his co-workers, to Russia, in order to buy some rockets. Unwilling to pay the expensive prices, he left empty handed. His entire team was heart broken. Elon refused to give up on his dream. On the plane ride home, Elon determined that he could build his own rocket for a lot cheaper. His co-workers were dumbfounded. The metaphor he used was that “[engineers] were [building] a Ferrari for every launch, when it was possible that a Honda Accord might do the trick.” In this situation, Elon’s grit shows up again. Instead of seeing obstacles as something holding him back, he sees them as something to overcome.
I bet most people don’t know this, but Musk didn’t know much about finance or banking when he started PayPal. He didn’t know anything about rockets, when he started SpaceX. Through his conviction and grit, he was able to study these subjects intensely and learn enough about them to get both companies started. He didn’t let the act of not knowing get in his way. He believed that the world needed change and that he could bring it about. That’s conviction and grit.
What does this mean for us? I believe that in order to get through the dark periods of being an innovator, you have to have a strong conviction. I believe that conviction can only be gained through purpose and that purpose can only be gained by knowing yourself.
In Ashlee Vance’s biography on Elon Musk, we learn that Elon struggled to find his place in the world at a young age. He read lots of books — ranging from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to religious texts — in order to learn more about life. Eventually, Elon came to discover that “the only thing that makes sense to do is strive for greater collective enlightenment.” Realizing his mission on Earth, Elon has been able to move with a strong conviction in his actions ever since.
For better or worse, conviction is what allows you to drown out the sound of naysayers. Grit is what keeps you moving you forward on the path of innovation. It’s asking yourself everyday, “whats the next step I need to take?” and “how can I overcome this obstacle?” Grit means not taking, “no” for an answer.
So… what does it take to do the impossible? Based on my study of Elon, its a combination of doing a task that is intrinsically motivating for you, creating new patterns of thinking about the problem, and having the conviction and grit to bring about the change.