Over the past decade, Elon Musk has cemented himself as one of the most influential entrepreneurs of the 21st century (thus far).


Photo Credit: Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)

In many ways, he’s taken the place of the late Steve Jobs in terms of reverence as the pillar of success in the Silicon Valley, tech-startup community.

But it’s more than just his success, it’s his productivity. The guy runs several billion-dollar companies at the same time and shows no sign of slowing down.

What does a guy like that do each day? What principles does he live by for growth and self-improvement? Well, it turns out, there is one major principle that runs through much of his thinking and serves as a major piece of his self-improvement process: simplicity.

You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that and then see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work.

– Elon Musk

1. Break things down to their essence

According to 16 Personalities, Musk has the Architect personality.

In short, this means that his process involves breaking down any and every system he comes in contact with in an attempt to rebuild it better than before. It’s a habit all architects personalities possess, however, Musk uniquely combines that behavior with a strong vision and relentless action-oriented personality.

Musk is a master at looking at something, breaking it down into its fundamental parts, learning everything about how it works, and rebuilding it better than before. He approaches everything this way including his own learning and self-improvement.

When asked how he manages to learn at such an incredible rate, Musk responded:

It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Architects often even go so far as to ruffle the feathers of others around them because they don’t care who created the system. It’s their natural inclination to approach everything they place their attention on in the same way. Similarly, Musk mentions:

You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that and then see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work.

2. Build the best system possibleelon-musk-quote-first-step-something-is-possible

The primary element of Musk’s process when working on something is to find out how it works and then if it works as best it can or not. If it doesn’t, it’s changed until the system is optimized.

Many of us follow the examples of others. And this can be incredibly effective, at least in the beginning. However, this can lead you astray because there are several assumptions you’re often making when you do this. That:

  • Your personalities and strengths are the same
  • You have the same resources
  • And that your environment (economy, etc.) still allows for these same results

Musk bypasses this by searching out his conclusions and then building up based solely on the facts at hand. He described his process this way when discussing the early stages of his Aerospace company, SpaceX:

I tend to approach things from a physics framework…Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.

He even does this with his daily schedule, breaking things down to five-minute slots of time over 85-hour work weeks and focusing almost entirely on concrete productivity-oriented tasks:

I don’t spend my time pontificating about high-concept things; I spend my time solving engineering and manufacturing problems.

3. Pursue it relentlessly

The final piece of the puzzle is Musk’s relentless drive and optimization process. He’s constantly iterating and optimizing as he goes, never settling on that first system he built. This allows him to continue to learn and grow along the way, becoming progressively better.

I leave you with these final words from Musk on the importance of feedback loops for constant improvement:

I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.