How to Think Like a Modern Day Polymath – The World-Changing Intellect of Elon Musk, Deconstructed

By on August 19, 2016

Seeing as I am currently busy moving out of my flat and into my first home, the time seemed right to feature the first contribution on The Bioneer. The following is a guest post from author Trent Fowler. He is currently engaged in The STEMpunk Project, a one-man attempt to learn as much as possible about computing, electronics, mechanics, and robotics. He writes on a variety of topics in science, philosophy, and psychology at his blog Rulers To The Sky. He’s a fantastic writer with a fascinating insight. Read on and I think you’ll like what you find…

More than one thinker has noted that the fires of innovation which once propelled the world headlong toward the future now seem to be little more than cinders[1]. In recent decades the bursting of the Dotcom bubble seems to have made those investors and founders who survived afraid to pursue bold ideas. Their reticence was surely amplified when the subprime mortgage crisis sent seismic ripples across the world economy in 2008.

But the trend really extends further back than that. It’s difficult to conceive of a modern equivalent of the Manhattan Project, or find anything to equal the astonishing progress made by an America hell-bent on beating the Russians to the moon. In the pithy words of Peter Thiel, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”. Even science fiction, a genre noteworthy for its belief in the transformative potential of technology, has taken a noticeably dystopian turn.

retro space

In contrast are the excessively sunny dispositions of thinkers like Ray Kurzweil and Michio Kaku. Ebullient to the point of being hard to take seriously, this duo and their ideological kin regale us of with stories of a cybernetic destiny which we just might live long enough to see if we take the requisite hundred pills every day. Many of their claims can be defended soberly, but the version which tends to make it onto television sounds more like entertainment than analysis.

Though we must not impugn the very real achievements of the modern world, it does seem as though a sense of vitality, a swagger, has been lost. Are Twitter and Angry Birds the pinnacle of this generation’s capacity to innovate, our answer to the Henry Fords and Von Neumanns of the past? Do the Charybdis of apathy and the Scylla of untethered optimism form a boundary through which we can no longer pass?

At least in a few cases, the answer would seem to be no. South-African born entrepreneur Elon Musk has become a living symbol for the kind of fierce drive and staggering ambition that once put footprints on the moon. This real-life Iron Man has entered and revolutionized one long-stagnant industry after another, disregarding established protocols and setting a new standard for superlative quality accomplished at astonishing speed.

retro future

Paypal catapulted banking into the 21st century, becoming the single most popular way of sending and receiving money on the internet. SpaceX is the first private company to put a spaceship into orbit, dock with the ISS, and invent reusable rockets. Tesla, touted as the first successful American car startup since Chrysler in 1925, has transformed the popular conception of electric vehicles as clunky, ugly little contraptions with no power into status symbols worthy of comparison with any Corvette.

To be sure, he absolutely did not accomplish all of this single-handedly. He is surrounded by legions of bright, hard-working people without which SpaceX and Tesla would still be moonshots existing only in the imagination of an internet millionaire. Luck, of course, has played its part in Musk’s success. Both of his major ventures came as close to failure as its possible to come before being saved at the last possible second by something like a government loan coming through. And he is not worthy of emulation in all aspects of  life — I would not recommend taking his approach to relationships, for example.

Still. He is arguably the greatest industrialist on Earth, a man who has set, and achieved, incomprehensibly heroic goals when the entire world thought him ridiculous, with whole industries rooting for him to go down in flames, amidst setbacks, divorces, and even the death of his first-born son.

We could all learn from his example.

Musk has inspired enormous amounts of commentary. Writers have covered his insane work days, his near-autistic ability to focus on a problem, the demands he makes of his employees, and his maddening attention to detail. Tim Urban of Wait But Why has probably done the most thorough job aside from Ashlee Vance, who wrote the most popular biography of Musk to date. I want to duplicate their efforts as little as possible [2], so I have focused on two traits which I think set Musk apart, but which are improvable skills anyone can practice, and which tend to influence the other remarkable aspects of his personality.

1) Musk possesses a native talent for rationality

The popular community blog LessWrong describes itself as a forum for “refining the art of human rationality”, by which is meant “figuring out how to use a human brain to arrive at true and effective beliefs”.

At first glance it might seem as though there wouldn’t be much to explain. After all, aren’t we supposed to listen evenhandedly to criticisms of our ideas, seek out disconfirming evidence, and incrementally update our views in response?

This is what is sometimes known as “classical rationality” or “non-technical rationality” and, in theory, it should suffice. But it turns out that there are dozens of confounding forces which make actually practicing this family of techniques difficult. For example, consider the virtue of “updating on evidence”. Some models would be disconfirmed outright by a given observation — if you believe all swans are white, then seeing a black one means you were plain wrong. Other models need to have their probabilities adjusted on a given observation — if you believe rain is unlikely today, by how much do you shift your estimate when you see a few raindrops on your windshield?

Once you’ve dealt with these issues by making your models more explicitly probabilistic, there still remains the question of how to get statistics to work correctly on wetware not designed for it. Can you feel any difference between a 69% chance of observing A and a 71% chance of observing A? Probably not. The only viable solution might be to establish discrete categories for continuous variables.

The probability of rain varies from “a little above 0%” to “a little below 100%”. Since the difference between 69% and 71% doesn’t matter to me, I might instead just break the continuum up into somewhat arbitrary chunks: below a 20% chance of rain I’ll go for a run in my usual clothes; between a 21% and 50% chance of rain I’ll carry a light raincoat; between 51% and 89% I’ll carry an umbrella; above 89% I’ll stay inside.

This procedure might be more effective if human brains weren’t so spectacularly good at defending pre-conceived conclusions against the onslaught of countervailing evidence. One popular explanation for the evolution of human-level intelligence is that it served a mostly political function. That is, people able to convince others of their ideas would be better at gaining power and consequently more sexually successful. This notion might be too simplistic, but even a casual look at the landscape of human politics would seem to offer some confirmation. As hard as it may be to believe, our leaders do tend to be smart people; but are they above average at finding truth, or are they above average at defeating counterarguments and accruing influence?

So apart from the issue of building useful models and dealing with the implied statistics, there is the possibility that your own brain is sabotaging you. If you’ve endorsed a position and begun to seek out disconfirming evidence, how sure can you be that you aren’t unconsciously focusing your efforts on the weaker evidence? Having encountered a strong counterargument, is the answer you’ve devised actually a defeater, or a clever-sounding excuse to dismiss the counterargument?

One can continue on like this for a while, and the conclusion is increasingly bleak: if rationality is about navigating unstructured spaces to find truth and act effectively, then most of us aren’t that good at it.

But all hope is not lost! Just as a human fist can be turned into a formidable weapon through the appropriate martial training, a human brain can be tuned into an instrument of effective cognition. Bruce Lee sat at the pinnacle of martial arts, and while most of us simply aren’t capable of achieving what he did, nearly all of us can emulate him to be better than we currently are.

Elon Musk is emphatically not a Bruce Lee of rationality, because humanity just doesn’t know enough about training minds to make someone as good at using theirs as Lee was at using his body. But he is the rationality equivalent of a natural street fighter, born with good instincts that need relatively little honing to be deadly.

This is what Tim Urban was describing in the finale to his extensive series of posts on Elon Musk. To illustrate, he offers examples of what he calls “MuskSpeak”. On the topic of death, Musk said having kids had made him more comfortable with his possible mortality because “kids sort of are a bit you. At least they’re half you. They’re half you at the hardware level, and depending on how much time you have with them, they’re that percentage of you at the software level.”

Notice how Musk’s first instinct is not to wax poetic or to wander off into lucubrations on the meaning of life. He parses survivability down to its basic component: legacy. He makes a distinction between a ‘hardware’ legacy (genetics) and a ‘software’ legacy (teachings), and is already talking about percentages. It might seem cold, but it’s an effective way of looking at things.


Graphic from the excellent post

Musk describes this process as “reasoning from first principles”. Rather than drawing upon a well of past experience and tradition, he begins with physics and asks what is permitted or prohibited on that basis alone. I assume he then moves up a level to economics and asks what is permitted or prohibited on that basis, though the evidence suggests he doesn’t take economic infeasibility too seriously.

It’s true that experience and tradition are often useful sources of insight, and reasoning from first principles can go wrong for many reasons. But Musk has a point, and it’s hard to argue with his results.

Urban does a fantastic job of elucidating Musk’s thinking process with graphs, but here is a basic non-graphical overview: early in life Musk dug into first principles to decide where he wanted to focus his efforts. Though doing fundamental scientific research has its appeals, he decided instead to focus on engineering. Success in engineering would simultaneously make the world more prosperous and give young Feynmans or Einsteins technological achievements by which to be inspired.

As an impecunious teenager there wasn’t much Musk could do to directly advance his goals, so instead he spent ten hours a day reading and expanding his knowledge of what was possible. Later, when he realized that South Africa was an awful place to be an entrepreneur, he did everything in his power to make it to the United States. When he co-founded his first company, Zip2, in 1995, he allegedly worked around the clock to insure the company’s success, making himself a millionaire in the process. During the tempests of 2008, he strained himself to the limit to keep Tesla and SpaceX alive, transfusing millions of his own fortune into both companies and bulldozing one obstacle after another to get it done.

In a way I’ve tried to apply these lessons in my own life. The STEMpunk Project is my own version of building the technological knowledge required to make an impact on the future. I am pursuing the most lucrative line of work I can find while simultaneously giving talks in Boulder and Denver to cultivate a network of like-minded technologists. Hopefully by the time I’m 30 I will have big ideas, know people who want to execute on them, and have the funds required to bootstrap the process.

Whether anyone reading this is capable of being Elon Musk is no more relevant than whether they are capable of being Bruce Lee. The example set by our heroes should be viewed as a personal challenge to cultivate our best in answer to theirs, and to approach their greatness, if only asymptotically.

2) Musk is guided by a powerful worldview

Repeatedly iterating through the process of reasoning from first principles and building goals on the result has given rise to a Muskian worldview that percolates through his every venture. His obvious macro-goal is to make the future safer for humanity. One way to do this is to harness cleaner forms of energy so as to mitigate whatever environmental damage may have occurred as a result of a reliance on fossil fuels. Tesla, SolarCity, and the Hyperloop are variations on this theme. If that fails, having a colony of a few million people on an adjacent planet with which to start over would provide a kind of insurance policy against extinction. SpaceX will hopefully be the first step toward that.

Having such a worldview confers several advantages. First, complex decisions often become much simpler when they can be evaluated against a firm set of principles. A comprehensive worldview is not unlike a moral “bottom line” serving the same purpose as a company’s fiduciary “bottom line”. When a CEO is trying to evaluate the merits of a change in advertising strategy, most of his questions are answered by examining the net effect on profits.

Sure, the issue might still be murky for complicated problems, and even deeply held goals might change with better information. But in observing those who seem possessed of an unusually pellucid worldview one gets the sense that beacons have been erected in their minds, the light cutting through all manner of fuliginous bullshit and revealing railroad tracks to a world beyond the horizon.

In addition, a worldview is a useful tool for leaders. Coercion and charisma are two of the only ways of mobilizing large numbers of people and getting them to work toward a common purpose. Charisma tends to be the more effective method, and few things are more charismatic than an individual passionately working for something they believe in for reasons they can clearly articulate. With this in mind it becomes less surprising that people like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs are able to inspire the devotion that they do.

Finally, a worldview motivates the person holding it. Sometimes the resources a leader is trying to marshal are internal. After a nasty setback like a global recession or a highly visible failure the aspiring entrepreneur has nothing at all to cling to but his own convictions. But these convictions are also useful in the day-to-day grind which comes with trying to build something great. There are a finite number of ways to inspire oneself to work 18-hour days for years at a time, and truly, deeply believing in a mission is one such way.

The above suggests a few next steps for anyone motivated to do their best possible work. Learning everything you can, studying the art of proper thinking, and being aggressively proactive after failures all contribute to the broader skill of reasoning from first principles, as does a cultivating a deliberate individualistic streak which makes standing outside the normal conventions easier. Frequently returning to and reflecting on your deepest beliefs provides the fuel needed to power through long days, self doubt, and the exigencies of a struggle to climb skyward.

The challenges ahead will require nothing less than our best efforts. I plan on giving mine.


[1] Of course it’s worth noting that a slowing pace of innovation can have causes other than lackluster motivation. Because much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked in many fields, scientists and entrepreneurs today are tackling harder problems than many of their predecessors.

[2] Inevitably there will still be a lot of overlap. My first point is actually covered extensively by Tim Urban, but my treatment says some things his doesn’t and adds important context. Reading them both will probably enhance each. My second point is discussed quite a bit by Ashlee Vance near the end of his Musk biography, but my version is more distilled and makes points that might have been lost in the narrative details of Vance’s book.

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