Last Sunday morning I enjoyed a rare, quiet moment. Because it was still cool enough to eat outside, the kids stuffed cereal into their little mouths in front of the pool while I lay next to them, The New York Times and coffee in hands. The article I was reading covered Elon Musk, who made his riches helping to build PayPal and is now CEO of Space X and Tesla Motors, the electric car company that went public on June 29. It was a successful IPO and the first American car company to go public since Ford in 1956.
A few years ago, while doing research for my third book, The Way of Innovation, I interviewed Musk. He is a fellow Wharton Business School grad. My meeting with him shaped the overall theme of my book and I was struck by the same thing the NYT article covered: does Musk twist reality?
The answer, I believe, is yes. He twists reality. But so does Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and any highly successful entrepreneur. Indeed, anyone who has significantly impacted the world—from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr.—does the same thing that the press and analysts are faulting Musk for.
You should learn their tricks too.
In the article, Darryl Siry Tesla's former VP for sales and marketing says of Musk, "It's a reality distortion field and it's a powerful one. He gives the facts to fit the narrative he wants out there."
Another detractor, Ray Wert, editor in chief of Jalopnik, a blog about the auto industry, says, "I don't believe him ... I don't think he is lying. I actually believe that he believes what he is saying. But I just think it's nowhere near what the reality is."
These complaints, I believe, come from a fundamental difference in the way that most of us think about reality. You see, most of us view language as a way of describing what is—describing a fixed, already existing reality. But those who really impact the world view language as a tool for changing reality. Reality adapts to fit our words as much as our words adapt to fit reality.
This is not an ivory tower philosophical point. It is a practical and critical principle that anyone who wants to create change—build a business, launch a product, or get a park built in their neighborhood—needs to embrace.
Consider that those who work with Steve Jobs describe the same "reality distortion field" that Tesla's former VP describes follows Musk around. Consider that Mohammad Yunus, who I also interviewed for the same book, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and creator of "microcredit," says that his greatest challenge has been "to change the mindsets of people." Or consider Donny Deutsch's deceptively simple but profound suggestion that entrepreneurs need to "fake it till you make it."
They all point to the same thing: to change the world you need to change reality, and to change reality you need to change perception, which you engineer with creative language. Here are three steps to begin changing the world:
1) Create a compelling idea: when I spoke to Musk about Space X and asked why he wanted to create a private space company, he said something like, "Because a future in which everyone can get into space is more exciting than one in which only the government can." Therefore, you need to describe an ideal situation that appeals to people's common sense. And keep it really simple. If your description of this ideal future is too complex, then you won't be able to understand nor explain your project well enough.
2) Diagnose the changes that need to take place: for mankind to evolve from hunting and gathering societies to agricultural ones required two major innovations to occur: A, the invention of the scratch plough and B, the domestication of the ox. If we did not have both, we would either be riding oxen to hunt or sweating under the hot sun as we scratched lines too short to plant seeds in. For bold ideas to be realized, it usually requires that multiple parts of the system undergo radical change.
Musk's vision of an electric car that could travel halfway across the country on one charge between breakfast and bedtime requires not only breakthroughs in battery technology but also the creation of a system of "gas stations" at which drivers can stop to swap out batteries. It requires the passing of new laws and regulations to encourage electric vehicles. It's a multifaceted problem that seems impossible if you view these challenges as reasons the idea won't work. However, if you view them as variables in the system that you can influence, then they become simply part of the puzzle.
3) Explore possible solutions: having identified the various interconnected elements that need to change, you must now explore never-before-tried solutions. The breakthrough usually occurs through an analogy or metaphor. Yunus, for example, banged his head against the banking sector, which refused to accept his idea of microcredit. His dream became reality when he stopped viewing his project as a social plan but rather as a bank for the poor. Then all of the previously insurmountable problems revealed simple solutions.
These three steps are the beginning of a new framework I have been developing on helping my client create innovative competitive strategies. Ideal, Diagnosis, Exploration are the start of my five-step process called IDEAS. Stay tuned to learn the final two steps in the IDEAS format.