Known for: entrepreneur, innovator, humanitarian, futurist, founder of SpaceX, Co-founder of Paypal, Zip2 and Tesla Motors
Primary soft skills: Critical thinking, Goal Setting, Resiliency
Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.
It’s easy to believe that the age of grand invention has passed. Modern innovations seem to be limited to incremental improvements over technology whose foundation hasn’t truly been revolutionary for probably 20 to 30 years.
Elon Musk has spent his life changing that image, however. As the founder of SpaceX, and co-founder of Paypal, Tesla Motors and Zip2, Elon Musk’s contribution to the world of technology go beyond app development. Driven by humanitarian desires, this real life Tony Stark would probably say that he’s not so much redefining innovation, as he is reviving it.
His soft skills
Musk’s willingness to see common objects and technologies as worthy of critique has allowed him to innovate in areas that few have imagined…like the car you drive, for instance. While electric cars have been around since the 1970’s, Musk’s pioneering work has turned them from tiny niche vehicles with limited driving range into Tesla Motors’ sleek, futuristic sports cars that get 200-300 miles out of a single charge.
How about your home power grid? Tesla is also responsible for the Power Wall, a large battery that can store and more efficiently provide power to your house during peak energy usage times. It’s probably not too big of a surprise that the power wall also works swimmingly with solar technology Musk himself touts as the future. The Power Wall’s 92% DC power efficiency is just another symptom of the type of future-thinking that drive both Musk and Tesla.
Even our home planet is not safe from Musk’s self-critique. His company SpaceX lists, on their website, their goal:
SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.
Musk knows that at the heart of innovation is a willingness to question the way things have always been done and ask if there is a better, smarter and more mutually beneficial way to accomplish these tasks. In his own words:
Constantly think about how you could be doing things better, and keep questioning yourself.
Speaking of lofty goals, Elon Musk perfectly demonstrates the important skill of setting goals in the mission of every venture he leads. If you were to interview 5,000 CEOs about their goals for their business, 4,998 would tell you it was to increase profit. 1 wouldn’t return your phone call, and 1 would be Elon Musk who, in a quarterly letter to Tesla investors, wrote:
Profits are not our primary goal…
To many companies, that message may be unpalatable, but for Elon Musk, it signifies higher goals – goals like interplanetary exploration, moving humanity away from dependence on fossil fuels, and the opportunity for every human being to contribute to the collective knowledge.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, Tesla’s stock went up in value following Musk’s bold and transcendent declaration of goals. Staying focused on these goals keeps Musk from being encumbered by failure. Which leads us to…
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again is a standard phrase among schoolchildren. When Musk’s SpaceX company tried to launch its first rocket, it did not succeed. Musk paid heed to this idiomatic wisdom and tried, tried again. Two more times the rocket didn’t launch. On the brink of losing all investment, Musk tried one more time and finally succeeded in launching a rocket and subsequently, the SpaceX name.
Does failure weigh on Musk? It seems to, but not the same way it does with many people who give up when they’ve failed. He puts it this way:
If something is important enough you should try, even if the probable outcome is failure.
So even though Musk has had his run-ins with failure (SpaceX rocket launches, Paypal’s undervalued sale to eBay, etc), he has always continued to try and innovate allowing his vision for a world of cleaner electricity, equal opportunities and space exploration to keep that failure from knocking him down. Don’t just try, try because you believe so much in the outcome you are trying for.
What can we learn from Elon Musk?
Perhaps the biggest, and most apparent way we can learn from Elon Musk is to value and incorporate the same skills that have placed him at the helm of innovation and technological progress into our own lives and lines of work.
We learn to question the processes and statuses of our own day-to-day routines. We learn to set goals that are bigger than the goals we had yesterday, and maybe even so big that the people around us think they are outrageous and impossible.
Finally, when our critique of the status quo mixes with our goal to change it for the better, we learn to be resilient and not back down from this new vision in the face of failure. Like Elon Musk, we learn to embrace failure as a symptom of innovation, and run at full speed toward the kind of ideas that define the future.