You know what they say: Jack of all trades, master of none.
Everyone always says to keep your sights set on just a couple of subjects. Find your niche and stick with it. It seems like sound advice, right? Focusing on one or two areas will likely make you an expert on them. However, this way of thinking doesn’t apply to Elon Musk.
With four billion-dollar companies under his belt in different industries (software, energy, transportation, and aerospace), it seems like Musk is one of those enviable people who can become an expert on just about anything.
Is it because of his 85-hour work weeks? His endless appetite for books? Or is he simply just “one of those people”?
But maybe he has a secret learning strategy. Here’s how Elon Musk sets himself up to become an expert on any subject.
1. Read about everything (not just your field)
Elon Musk has often said how he was raised by books. Even his mother has described how young Elon always had his nose buried in a book while growing up. From Artificial Intelligence and space to biographies and economics, Musk isn’t picky when it comes to learning.
While many people prefer to stick to books that are relevant to their fields, Musk allows himself to learn about anything. Why? Because what you learn now can tie into something else in the future, creating something unique. This is called learning transfer, and it’s what Musk does when he applies his knowledge in one area to another. Like software and economics blending together to create PayPal, for example.
Fun fact: Steve Jobs was also known for learning things beyond his industry. He once randomly enrolled in a Calligraphy class, which he ultimately used to help define the typographies used by Mac when he founded Apple years later.
2. Surround yourself with intelligent people
When Musk began dabbling in the aerospace industry with SpaceX, he hired the rocket engineer Tom Mueller, who is considered the smartest propulsion expert out there. Musk hung around him and learned everything he could from him.
Jim Cantrell, an aerospace consultant at the time, told Business Insider, “In the same way that Musk absorbed books, he tried doing that with other people’s expertise. It was as if he would suck the experience out of them. He truly listens to people.”
Musk is known for doing this around everyone in his network who knows something he doesn’t. So maybe start evaluating if the people you’re spending your time with are helping raise your IQ.
3. Think of knowledge as a tree
In a Reddit thread, a user asked Elon Musk how he manages to learn everything so quickly. In response, Musk wrote,
“One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
This approach makes total sense. Imagine trying to drive a car without having learned how to turn on the engine or what each pedal is for. If you don’t know the basics, you’re not going to understand how to apply them to other areas either, like driving a truck.
Musk’s entire career is based on this principle. First, he learned the fundamentals of AI, physics, and engineering; then he deconstructed these ideas and reconstructed them in new ways, creating PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, etc.
While many of us may think, “Okay sure, but he’s a genius. I sure won’t be able to learn so many things!” Well, Elon Musk has something to say about this too:
“I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.”
So, give yourself the benefit of the doubt and give it a try. You may surprise yourself.