Eight Things I've Learned from Elon Musk

Elon Musk has floated into the driver’s seat of the world: From Payapl CEO to bankrupt entrepreneur, from laughingstock to curiosity, compelling figure to visionary futurist, his perception in the public marketplace has ebbed and grown with his wealth and success. I was one of the skeptics. But in recent months Elon has been flirting with the title of richest person in the world (what’s a few billion day in and day out as Tesla’s stock price changes?). With his gradual transition into that seat, I figured it’s about time to give him a listen, so recently I did.

Amid my recent Elon binge, I caught, among other things, a debate in Shanghai between Musk and Alibaba’s Jack Ma. The conversation is disjointed and yet somehow compelling. The two debate the nature of AI, whether computers can be smarter than humans (Ma says no, Musk says yes), and the nature of humanity and the human population itself. While Ma is a curiosity with a humanist bent, Musk’s visionary genius is the star of the show. Between that and various other interviews, here are some things I’ve learned from Elon.

The Neural Link

Elon Musk’s first fascination is with the cultivation of the “neural link”, perhaps crudely described as the effort to seamlessly link the brain and technology through implantable brain machine interfaces. The imperative for the neural link, Musk believes, is the need to link human brainpower and knowledge with the same effortless seamlessness that the internet holds itself. There are major impediments to the cultivation and expansion of shared human knowledge when we’re all separate people, can only exchange ideas through language, and it takes 20 years to build a human being that is even basically competent with enough knowledge to function in our modern world. The vulnerability to the species that comes with having to constantly re-educate each new generation to carry on the traditions of the old is a fixation to Musk, as is the inefficiencies borne from our brains NOT being seamlessly interconnected. Any working group, as we’ve all experienced, is a sometimes productive but often inefficient experience for all involved as people try to trade ideas through rather clunky means in comparison to the ways computers share knowledge. 8 billion brains working seamlessly together could be infinitely powerful in ways unrecognizable to our current brains, which must communicate clunkily across different languages while also often not even talking.

The neural link concept acknowledges the role that computers and smartphones have played in getting us all access to a compendium of human knowledge unprecedented in our human history. The internet is a compelling resource that aggregates a lot – if not most – of our shared human experiences. And our smartphones have unlocked for us collective access to this resource, and we all in turn operate with our phones more of less as extensions of our bodies. We’re better off for having access to this knowledge, whether it’s looking up a map or being able to quickly research a topic that once might have been inaccessible. But as access has gotten easier – though still not perfect – through our phones, inputting knowledge has gotten harder, and Musk is concerned that the requirement of inputting knowledge with our thumbs rather than our entire hands is an impediment to the growth of the internet’s power. Output has gotten easier, but input has gotten harder. At any rate, Musk believes, both could be improved enormously if we can close the gap between what is “human” and what is “technology” by giving our brains a kind of seamless, Terminator-like interconnectivity in which we can access anything at any time and in which our everything we know automatically can become part of a shared human knowledge pool. His company Neuralink is working on a “sewing machine-like” device that can stitch threads of technology into the brain for exactly that purpose. If this were to be successful, the seamless integration of minds as well as the reduced need for education would change the nature of being human and build exponential knowledge power in our species, while giving us generational resiliency we can hardly currently even fathom.

The Propagation of Consciousness

Why does Elon Musk want to go to Mars? His rationale is more than an adventurous pipe dream. Musk is fascinated by the fact we’ve never discovered other conscious life in the universe, and it’s convinced him that life must be a pretty rare thing. His fixation is with some kind of quantum risk management. Almost as if he’s managing a stock portfolio, Elon thinks the prospects of humanity are infinitely better if humans are able to become an interplanetary species – in other words, one whose fate isn’t dependent on the natural cycles of resources of a single planet. On earth alone, humanity’s prospects could be doomed at any time by an errant meteor, an inexplicable atmospheric rupture, or, ultimately, the expansion of the sun. By becoming interplanetary, humans will develop a universal resiliency that will make us a more sustainable species.

Because he thinks humans are likely the only conscious species out there, he views the quest to go to Mars as the first step toward the universal “propagation of consciousness”, something he views as our ultimate obligation to the cosmos. Musk realizes that this vision is a long-term gambit, and it depresses him that it’s unlikely humans will make it to Mars while he’s still living. He speaks with an urgency as if he’s trying to will the industries of the world to get moving to develop the technologies needed to make such a voyage possible sooner rather than later. He wants to get this show on the road.

Population Collapse

Amid a chorus of intellectual elites continuing to bemoan population growth and the negative impacts of humans on the planet, Musk’s wistful romanticism about humanity is a stark contrast. Musk recognizes the uniqueness and fleetingness of human life. He warns that the biggest risk facing humanity in the coming decades is nothing to do with human growth, but the inevitable reality of population collapse that will accompany continued economic growth and already observable slowing of the birth rate around the world. Abundance of humanity isn’t something we should take for granted, Musk stresses, arguing that within 20 years intellectuals will likely shift their tune to the longer-term and more difficult challenges that will come when our species and our societies aren’t growing quite as rapidly.

A Window of Opportunity

Musk is optimistic about the possibilities of technology in the coming decades, but the way he speaks conveys a sense of urgency. He sees the window for the possibility of things like getting us to Mars as a finite one. Bad economic or political decisions, resource scarcity or any number of unforeseen causes may at any time slow or even half the freedom for humanity to prioritize grand and cosmic futuristic dreams in lieu of fixating merely on sustaining ourselves in the present day. How long will the window for great possibility be? Musk doesn’t know, but figures it won’t be forever.

College and Education

Musk homeschools his kids, opting to focus on problem solving rather than education by tools to get them excited about what they’re learning. Musk brings a lot of his own frustrations as a student into his educational philosophy – among them his frustration about not knowing “why” he was learning certain things growing up. He contends college is by no means a prerequisite to change-making or to hiring at his companies. Instead, he says, college can be useful, mostly as a checkbox activity to ensure people are able to do their chores, and likely as a critical social activity. People need a few years in their youth where they want to hang out with people their own age. Beyond that, Musk stresses that college isn’t really for learning anymore, that people can learn anything they want free on the internet, and that college shouldn’t be viewed as some prerequisite to being able to do things.

The One Question He Asks at Interviews

In interviewing candidates for positions, Musk says the one question he asks prospective hires is “tell me about the toughest problem you’ve faced, and how you solved it”. That, more than anything else, he says, will offer insight into the minds of a young person, how they work, how they think, how they bring in tools from their education, and how they’re likely to translate skills from one area into another. He doesn’t care much for “years of experience” type thresholds or disciplinary boundary constraints, as both of those are antiquated relics of a bygone era in human resourcing.

Run with Things that You Find Simple that Others Find Hard

Thomas Sowell has often said that the one piece of advice he’d give to young people is to ignore all the noise and, if they want to be successful, “learn a skill that someone is willing to pay you for”. Elon echoes a similar sentiment with a slightly greater focus on urging people to find their niche. Elon’s piece of advice to young people, particularly those who don’t “fit in”, as he felt he didn’t growing up, is to identify the things that they find simple that others find difficult. Elon recalls growing up being surprised that so many of his young peers didn’t have the same spirit of vision and earnestness that he did. He could readily see solutions to problems that his peers couldn’t, or didn’t care about, and made this the focal point of his life. If there are things where you find yourself uniquely more easily able to see through the noise than others, make those things your calling card. Build your life around them and use them as a pathway to uniqueness and success.

Simple Innovations

Elon’s companies are immensely complicated, but the kinds of problems they are trying to solve are often simple and universal. The Neural Link, for instance. The most successful companies in the modern world have often been after outcomes that at their core are simple and elegant. For Microsoft and Apple, taking the greatest technological tool of our time, the computer, and putting it in the hands of everyone. For Google, chronicling the sum total of human information in the easiest and most readily accessible way possible. And for Amazon, making access to new stuff more instantaneous than ever before. If you want to change the world, find a simple and elegant big ticket item like that, worry less about the constraints of the tools at your disposal, and just go for it.