How Elon Musk went from an average thinker to genius
You Can Be a Genius, Just Learn How They Think
How does Elon Musk think?
He applies methods in his thinking that you can learn. He wasn’t “born” Genius. He may have had something going at the start, but he knew if he simply applied discipline and organized his thinking he could reach another level of reality that seems magic to us ordinary mortals.
In an intriguing article by Michael Simmons,How to Tell if Someone Is Truly Smart Or Just Average, he revealed the system of thinking Musk uses.
Have you ever noticed how some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and leaders see reality in a fundamentally different way? When they talk, it’s almost as if they’re speaking a different language.
One writer who interviewed Musk describes his mental process like this: “Musk sees people as computers, and he sees his brain software as the most important product he owns — and since there aren’t companies out there designing brain software, he designed his own, beta tests it every day, and makes constant updates.”
He constantly, reevaluates, modifies and perfects what he calls his thought “models.” He analogizes mental tools with physical tools. We cannot build a birdhouse without hammer and nails and saw. Those are tools to get a birdhouse, or any carpentry done. We seldom think of having mental tools that we need to create new realities, and that is just what he and other highly successful people do, create new realities by using the mental tools he has, and we all can have.
Mental Models Are the New Alphabet
“You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain.” — Bo Dahlbom, philosopher and computer scientist
The result of applying these mental tools by concentrating on them, new ideas and realities emerge and from them branch new ideas and new realities. These men know how to do this and reach a whole new level of thought beyond what we ever dreamed is possible, but it takes discipline and a drive to do it. That is one of the characteristics of genius, drive based on a purpose.
The Difference Between Average and Brilliant: Effective Mental Models
“Mental models are to your brain as apps are to your smartphone.” -Jayme Hoffman
What are Models?
We all constantly use mental models in our thinking. The technical definition is: “Mental models are mental representations of real, hypothetical, or imaginary situations.” Basically, a mental model is a simplified, scaled-down version of some aspect of the world: a schematic of a particular piece of reality. A model can be represented as a blueprint, a symbol, an idea, a formula, and in many other ways. We all unconsciously create models of how the world works, how the economy works, how politics works, how other people work, how we work, how our brains work, how our day is supposed to go, and so on.
Models Based on False Data
The more effective the model, the more effectively we can act, predict, innovate, explain, explore, and communicate. The worse the model, the more we fall prey to costly mistakes. The workability of any model depends upon the validity and relevance of the data in the model.
Once it was believed that Malaria was caused by the vapors at night, and until recently, medicine thought that insanity resulted from being “possessed” by evil spirits. Bleeding patients once was the epitome of Medical Science. They bled George Washington to death. It is now considered highly dangerous. You can think of hundreds of models based on false data, and their consequences.
The difference between great thinkers and ordinary thinkers is that, for ordinary thinkers, the process of using models is unconscious and reactive. For great thinkers, it is conscious and proactive.
All of the extraordinary people we call genius collect the most effective models across all disciplines, stress-test them, and creatively apply them to their daily lives. One of the most common pieces of advice that Elon Musk gives is to think from first principles. Mental models and first principles (fundamental truths) are similar in that they each model goes into deeper levels of reality
While most people think about knowledge just horizontally (ie — across fields), these great thinkers also think about knowledge vertically in terms of depth. Musk explains: “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles (Musk calls these ‘first principles’), i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.” In another interview, Musk gives an example, “I tend to approach things from a physics framework. Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy.”
By understanding verticality and depth, you can see how learning mental models connects things that were previously separate and disconnected. Just as every leaf on a tree is connected by twigs, which are connected by branches, which are connected by a tree trunk, so too are ideas connected by deeper and deeper ideas.
The 80/20 Rule
A thought model is a group of thoughts, that constructed together, constitute a whole. A tree starts with roots, trunk, branches twigs and leaves. The leaves won’t stand without the other elements of a tree. That is a thought model of a tree. Musk says he thinks in branches from a starting point and uses what he calls the 80/20 rule, the idea that 20 percent of inputs can lead to 80 percent of outputs.
To apply the 80/20 Rule, at the beginning of the day we can ask ourselves, “Of all the things on my to-do list, what are the 20 percent that will create 80 percent of the results?” When we’re searching for what to read next, we can ask ourselves, “Of all the millions of books I could buy, which ones could really change my life?” When considering who to spend time with, we can ask ourselves, “Which handful of people in my life give me the most happiness, the most meaning, and the greatest connection?” In short, consistently using the 80/20 Rule can help us get leverage by focusing on the few things that really matter and ignoring the majority that don’t.
Hedgefund Billionaire Ray Dalio says: “I’m very much stepping back. I’m much more likely to go to what I describe as a higher level. There’s the blizzard that everyone is normally in, and that’s where they’re caught with all of these things coming at them. And I prefer to go above the blizzard and just organize.
”Warren Buffett uses “decision trees.”
His problem-solving checklist, shown below, lays out the path to a successful business strategy, and counteracts any internal biases that impede him from reaching his desired destination:
- Brainstorm. Dream up as many possible solutions as you can. This helps you avoid availability bias, which often results in us choosing the first solution that comes to mind rather than the best solution.
- Test as many potential solutions as you can afford to. This avoids the confirmation bias of rationalizing the one solution you chose.
- Have a minimum success criteria for each experiment. This allows you to avoid doubling down on bad ideas that aren’t working in an effort to recoup sunk costs.
- Dive deeply into the data and learn from EVERY experiment, not just the one that worked best. Avoid taking mistakes personally and feeling shame over something that did not work.
“Even if this checklist helps you make big decisions just slightly better, it will change the entire trajectory of your life and business. It has for me,” Goodwine says. (The Mission)
Models All Have a Foundation
Start with a foundation, just as a builder does in building a house. On the foundation he knows there must be walls, a roof and doors and windows. That is a rudimentary model of how he thinks, but he usually knows everything needed to build it, including electrical, plumbing, air conditioning, etc. Then an architect building a skyscraper must have a much bigger model in his mind, and he has a hugely diverse group of models to manage in his mind which together constitute a skyscraper.
Let’s Build a Model
A person who has never seen a dog would not know what one is. Show a picture of a German Shepard. Now it is known that it is an animal with its tongue out and pointed ears. Add to this early model of dogs a Pomeranian, then a Collie and a Dachshund build more dogs on, along with their characteristics. You have a thought model of dogs. Now, add other small animals like cats. Expand to all quadrupeds, and then to birds, reptiles, etc. until you have a huge assembly of models which is called “living creatures on earth.”
Create Many Diverse Models
Many, diverse models also lead to heightened creativity. Nothing is truly original. Everything has been thought of, but few have been assembled in models that resulted in that “Eureka!” moment from the birth, by the catalysts of models, of something incredibly useful and revolutionary.
Everything is derived by combining existing building blocks. We can build more complex mental models by combining simple mental models. For example, by understanding cause-and-effect mental models better, we can more effectively prioritize what’s important for us to do now to cause something we want in the future. The larger our base of mental models, the more creative combinations we can form. The more unique our mental models are compared to other people, the more we can think in ways that they can’t even fathom.
Good Models/Bad Models
A model is a way of thinking about a subject. Bad ones are black/white thinking—no gray area in between. All mothers in law are bad! And there is prejudice—against religion, political party, race and anything you can dream up that being stuck in the black or white that can limit expanded thinking out of the box where the real ideas live.
Good models are the idea that cars may be made safer, giving us back up lights, seat belts, air bags, and turn signals, just to mention a few ideas derived from modeling. Think about any improvement you see around you, and it invariably started with someone using a mental model of how things could be made better, safer, more convenient, easier to use, even tastier. He or she probably used the idea of “What IF,” and branched out into possibilities and that brought on new possibilities that made a catalyst and birth of a brand new item of concept.
Learn, Learn, Learn
Through constant and diverse learning, we can organically build better and more varied models of reality. And those models will help us navigate the world far more effectively and creatively. Just as a blueprint is necessary for constructing a stable building, mental models of how the world works help us construct a better — and more stable — life. Geniuses are constantly studying, learning.
Every Self-Made Billionaire Has A Model
Every self-made billionaire has created or used some model of action that resulted in success. Many fell by the wayside, and many are mediocre winners, but those who really made it to the top had a goal, created mental models that they all used in a similar way to create genius new ideas that turned to gold.
They all did it through a method based on type of modeling concept—visualizing through the haze of barriers and “it can’t be done’s,” negativity, self doubt and fear of failure to a successful ideal scene.
Many times that initial ideal scene changed to an even better one, and sometimes diametrically different than the first dream, because putting together thought models creates thought babies that can grow up to be amazingly different, and better, than their parents.
These men have raised their dreams and models to a sublime art form that have made entrepreneurial products equivalent to the Pieta, or the Mona Lisa. They had a dream that something was needed and wanted, and many times may not have known precisely what it was, but using their agile minds in putting together systems like the models included in this article, came up with solutions and end products that exceeded the original concept. Using the model concept the culmination of many model ideas cross breed, as in creating a beautiful new flower by cross pollinating lesser strains.
And the beautiful truth of this is that anyone can apply these systems and reach into the deeper recesses of reality and bring forth new needed and wanted products as well.
 Michael Simmons is Recognized as a leading entrepreneur (White House, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year, Inc. 30 under 30, Businessweek 25 under 25, Bank Of America).
Built a multi-million business from scratch. Creator of the largest online community in the world dedicating to learning how to learn. Have read thousands of books. Bestselling author and contributor to leading business publications.