5 Ways To Reframe Your Thinking To Be More Like Elon Musk

How do innovative minds like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs come up with their groundbreaking ideas? Here's five ways they think differently.

Drawing parallels between Elon Musk and Steve Jobs is irresistible, but how do big thinkers like them come up with their innovative ideas and how can we reframe our thinking to do the same?

In "The Shared Genius of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs" by the TED Talk curator Chris Anderson we get a bit closer to a dissection what their unique attributes actually are. But I think we can dig one layer deeper.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently, because my firm, Outthinker, is attempting to translate our strategic thinking process into a class for 5th graders. Our idea is, if we could begin instilling the kind of thinking in our young children that helps must-solve problems like global warming or human space travel, then those children may grow up and solve the big challenges the human race will face. We have begun working with an expert in child creativity from Columbia University’s Teachers College. And we initially think there are five modes of thinking that are important to begin developing:

  1. Visionary thinking
  2. Systems thinking
  3. Creative thinking
  4. Critical/analytical thinking
  5. Influential thinking

These are very similar to a framework we use to train executives and help them solve important strategic problems: Imagine, Dissect, Expand, Analyze, Sell (or the IDEAS framework). Here are the key pieces from Anderson’s article to illustrate these five forms of thinking.

Visionary thinking
Anderson writes that "One of the most exciting things about human beings is our ability to imagine alternative futures." He also gives us a peek at Musk’s thinking by writing that "A full seven years ago, he posted an article titled ‘The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan,’ which outlined the basics: three generations of cars, first the super-high-end sports car, then a sporty four-door family car, then a mass-market car. And underpinning it all, the conviction that the cars wouldn't just work, but be lusted after. No doubt at the time many in the auto industry chuckled at his naiveté. They're not laughing now."

Systems thinking
The idea here is that often an opportunity reveals itself to you because you see the interconnection of two things, the interdependence of things, that others cannot see. For example, Anderson tells us that Musk has potentially historic insights every week and describes one: Musk realizing they could build a rocket to run on methane (CH4).

He writes, "Okay, it doesn't sound particularly historic. Until you realize that a rocket of that spec has adequate range to escape Earth's upper atmosphere and travel to Mars. And that it so happens that Mars has plenty of carbon dioxide (CO2) and permafrost (H2O), which could be neatly converted into the aforementioned methane (CH4) and liquid oxygen (O2). Which means you could create the fuel for the journey home right there on Mars itself. And that transforms the long-term economics of space travel between Earth and Mars because it means that you could send manned spacecraft to Mars without having to carry rocket fuel with you."

Creative thinking
If you think using analogies from the discipline, or domain, that others are also trying to solve the problem, you will not see a new solution. You need to reach outside of the existing vocabulary. You do this by looking for patterns, or truths, that are fundamental building blocks and then applying them to your problem.

Anderson quotes Musk as saying: "Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that. Otherwise, mentally, you wouldn't be able to get through the day. But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive."

Analytical or critical thinking
After we have come up with a potential solution, there is a strong pull for us to return to attempting the solutions that have already been tried, even though we knew that we know these don’t work. This pull is not a logical one; it is a social one. Humans have a desire to fit in, and not be viewed as different. Strong analytical or critical thinking can give us the confidence to fight against this pull.

Anderson writes that Musk kept pushing his engineers to focus on building reusable rockets, an idea that cut against conventional wisdom at the time. But Musk saw that reusability, if done properly, would dramatically reduce the costs of a space program and so was a critical piece for solving a larger puzzle.

Influential thinking
Finally, all innovators run into the problem that innovative ideas are always inconsistent with prevailing logic and beliefs. This is why the ability to influence others to see your view, and reconsider their logic and beliefs, is critical. Anderson highlights this skill as central to their success: "Jobs's reputation for ‘reality distortion’ is well-documented. In his own way, Musk is equally persuasive, trusting his own internal logic and instincts in the face of intense pushback."

[Image: Flickr user OnInnovation]

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  • Elwin Green

    You say, "For example, Anderson tells us that Musk has potentially historic insights every week...". But what Anderson wrote was, " His eureka!moments happen every few months." Please correct. Thanks.

  • Roy Bettesworth

    I think there are basic rules for sucess - however a achieving them is another matter all together - Firstly create a product that is over half the price of your oppostion - a product that is just as good and reliable . You can't go wrong you will be successful - no question about it

  • MaAug

    Just slash money and investments in product so advanced they do not have any real impact on consumers. Et voila' Elon Musk

  • ben_marko

    I agree with Bullhonky - at least with who on Earth actually thinks Elon Musk is a genius. Seems more like a fad than anything. He hasn't done anything particularly creative, although I do disagree with "Not a single idea of either Jobs or Musk is their own." That is pretty much garbage. They differ from most people in that they are (or were) good at recognizing talent and making money off it. And I am sure both had original ideas of their own. Remember the story of Steve Jobs drawing the grid with the four spaces? Consumer, professional, desktop, portable. It drove Apple's business model for many years, and still is. I am sure Elon Musk has had many original ideas of his own, and like Steve Jobs, many of them failed (though their respective company propaganda machines do a good job of whitewashing the facts before they hit the public).


    It is just cool and sexy to call Elon Musk a genius, that is all. Fast Company is no exception, the proof is right here on this page.

  • Ivor O'Connor

    Only thing I've seen Steve Jobs do is convince the cool kids they should use his hardware and software. You could call Bill Gates the first "genius" since he convinced people to use his stuff before Jobs but you don't hear that. And those that want the very best never left BSD/*NIX and buy their stuff from places like system76.com.

    Musk on the other hand is actually delivering products that are not already out there. He's putting things together and accelerating things the advancement of humans in crucial areas by 10 to 20 years. Comparing sugar water salesmen to Musk demeans the fastcompany website.

  • Bullhonky

    I'm so sick of the "Elon is a genius" internet spittle. Go work for him, or someone like him. (believe it or not, he is not a rare breed in the entrepreneur world) Then come back to me and try to make these same ridiculous claims. I guarantee you that in less than a year you'll feel sick to your stomach, too, every time you read these articles.

    Before you flame me, do your own fact checking. The first CH4 engine was built before Elon was born. SpaceX has yet to reuse an engine, though they still claim this in their "low cost" launch projections. Tesla and Solar City are bleeding out cash right now.

    There is something pathologically wrong with these personality types. Sure, they do amazing things...but they achieve their goals through methods ordinary people simply cannot grasp. These guys claim original ideas, when in reality they rehash and oversell existing ideas. Not a single idea of either Jobs or Musk is their own. Often, the ideas they claim as their own are actually the products of people working beneath them, but this personality type literally does not understand this and they honestly believe the ideas are their own.

    Additionally, normal people cannot be so incredibly full/sure of themselves to believe that everyone else in the world is just an idiot and then use that belief to convince investors that "your" truth is the correct one so that they back you. THIS is why most entrepreneurs will fail. Most of us just can't lie that well to ourselves, much less to others.

  • yildiz

    I understand your point of view..We admire these people, not because we think that they are geniuses..but they are initiators...Take Steve jobs..In the movie as well, he is not a tech genius, but business genius sort of..and he has some certain qualifications that are combined with his ambitions, etc..

  • pchap10k

    @Bullhonky, I think a lot of people have a visceral reaction to people who don't "invent" the technology they base their success on. Fundamentally I think it's because role of the "inventor" is much better understood than the role of the "innovator". Let me try to explain.

    Inventors bring new technologies into the world (e.g. the light bulb), whereas innovators generally take existing technologies and propose new ways to make them valuable or useful. For example the Sony Walkman was not the first portable audio player, but unlike other players it didn't record because it was intended as a "personal music player". Since it didn't record it was also lighter and cheaper.

    In art no one criticized Michelangelo for not inventing oil paint. However, when it comes to new products, people seem to value the inventor even when s/he isn't the one who discovers the canonical use for their invention.

    Out of all the famous "inventors" from history, those who were inventors and innovators are a small percentage. People like Edison, Hughes, Marconi, etc... most of these guys had huge egos. To be an inventor one must only invent, but to be an innovator one must convince everyone to use the invention, and this takes will. When the world tells you that you're wrong for years, maybe decades, you simply don't succeed without an unwavering, contrarian view of the world.

    I highly recommend reading this book about innovation. It's a bit academic but pretty enlightening: http://www.designdriveninnovat...

  • simmy

    You just said what makes great entrepreneurs is their ability to lie to themselves. Congratulations

  • Johnny Le

    I don't think Musk or Jobs ever said "these are my original ideas." Like everyone else, they stand on the shoulders of giants. One idea builds on top of the others. What great about them is that they solve the last piece of the puzzle, figure out the right combination, find the right people to harsh out the details. They have companies so whatever ideas come out of whatever groups still belong to the companies, belong to them. They did not do it alone.

    There is nothing wrong with rehash existing ideas. Most of us dedicate 18 years or more of our younger life to learn existing knowledge (a uniqueness of our human species). It would be pointless to learn if we can't rehash them. You have as much right as they do to rehash these ideas. So go ahead and rehash them.

    Even if the CH4 engine was built before but he can take it to the next level now, it's still his (unless he violates some patent rights). That's how it works. That's how I don't have to reinvent the wheel every time I need something round.

    Rcognizing each other's geniuses is a very important trait. Average people tend to think they're the smartest, which is why many don't go to college, while smart people see brilliant minds around them. Larry Page of Google said if he dies right now, he would leave all of his asset to Elon because Elon can get stuff done, but here you are, feeling sick just to think of Elon as a genius.

  • American Guesser

    Agree with Johnny. Many modern inventions (and inventors) are bringing existing pieces together to 'finish the puzzle' as he puts it. That is the point of innovation - it can be systemic or completely altering - but the foundation will surely be rooted in something that currently exists, though that foundation may be inspired by completely different industries, communities, nations, or even nature (check out bio-mimicry as an example) ...