• Eve Arnold

Elon Musk Proves Big Ideas Are Actually Quite Small

Elon Musk is a cognitive enigma. He’s a futurist thinker, an uber-intelligent business mogul and I guess most importantly to him (the arguably the world), he’s an engineer.

He’s got more job titles than there are working days in the week. CTO, CEO Chief Designer at Space X, CEO Tesla, Founder of The Boring Company, Co-founder of Neuralink, Co-chairman of OpenAI.

If anyone was going to have a complicated life, it’s probably going to be the guy with 7 job titles and 5 companies, trying to dig tunnels, transform the automotive industry and get more humans to Mars, simultaneously.

Yet, when Musk talks about all the things he’s involved in, well, he makes them unapologetically simple.

It’s Not Hard to Think Big, We Make it Complicated

Most of the subjects Musk tackles seem to hard to even think about let alone create a business around. It’s hard to understand where to start with an ambition to start a business in space travel.

Usually, business moguls have a definitive industry that they are experts in, Bezos e-commerce, Buffet Investments, Gates tech. But Musk, well he’s breaking all stereotypes as he is making waves in transportation, space travel, finance, AI and infrastructure.

Yet when Musk talks about his endeavours he talks with such simplicity. He wanted to solve LA’s traffic problem so he thought about boring tunnels. He wanted to solve online payment systems so he made it simpler, he wanted to help solve the global warming problem so he looked at what is causing the most impact and looked to change it.

Sometimes we do a great job of making easy things in life, simple things in life, really flipping complicated. Musk does the opposite and as his current net worth sits in the region of $76.7 billion, I think we might learn a thing or two from him.

Elon Says Fundamentally You Must Solve a Problem

“I’ve lived in LA for 16 years and the traffic has always been terrible and so I don’t see any other ideas for improving the traffic” – Elon Musk

You can spend a lifetime coming up with problems you think exist. You can build whole businesses around them to find out that actually, that isn’t a problem at all. It’s something you thought was a problem and assumed because you thought it was a problem that everyone else did.

Some of the biggest problems in this world are the obvious ones, the ones punching us right in the face.

Traffic, climate change, meat production, environmental concerns, education inequality.

It’s easy to find problems, look at what causes you frustration in your life. What do you find yourself getting angry each day? What do your family and friends complain about frequently?

Your idea, however big, needs to solve a real problem, not one you’ve made up in your head.

Break Something Down Into It’s Smallest Form – From Elon

This rings true in a lot of Musk’s innovation. In solving a problem you need to know what needs to be true in order for the thing to still continue to work.

For traffic, for example, cars still need to be able to go from one place to another, we wouldn’t want to necessarily change the form of transport because we already have cars and electric cars are big business. So how do move these four-wheel vehicles on land and avoid traffic? The obvious answer for Musk is to create new pathways.

Hence, digging underground.

If you know what needs to stay true, if you know what part of the problem is the real head-scratcher, you can work on solving that part.

By breaking things down into their smallest components we can solve problems with simplicity.

You Don’t Need to be Romantic About Big Ideas Failing

“We’re going to dig a tunnel and maybe that tunnel will be successful and maybe it won’t” – Elon Musk

If you were going to invest your time in something, you would argue that it would make the most sense to spend time on something that is most likely to work. Musk subscribes to that mentality also but it’s worried if it doesn’t work. In his interview in 2018 on The Joe Rogan Show, Musk stated that he’s not saying that digging tunnels underground will work, it’s an idea that he’s got and it makes sense so he’s trying it.

It would be quite interesting if we had that same unapologetic approach to your life. That side hustle you’ve been contemplating for months, that exercise routine that you spend weeks thinking about. Well, what if you didn’t worry whether it did or didn’t work and just dug a hole to find out.

Failing is an important step in any process and therefore the fear of failing is a waste of time.

Start Small and Soon — Dig a Pit

“We started off by digging a hole in the ground” – Elon Musk

When thinking about how to bore tunnels underground to solve LA’s traffic problem, you could (understandably) get lost in the details. You could be scratching your head for years thinking about where to even start. I mean who do you talk to if you want to build an underground network for vehicles to drive in. What sort of planning permission do you need for that?

Well, Musk says, you start by building a pit. Dig a pit and then see what happens.

Digging a pit is the smallest, most logical first step if you want to eventually dig tunnels and solve the world’s transportation problem. We often fall into the trap of making things incredibly complicated.

We ask questions, lots of questions:

  1. “Do I need to first write a business plan?”

  2. “Shall I test the market by building a prototype that embodies what I’m trying to sell?”

  3. “Do I first build a value proposition case for my idea”

The first, most obvious question to any problem is:

“Will this idea solve this problem?” and we can find out the answer by building something pretty crude and testing our hypothesis.

Don’t overcomplicate things, think of the smallest thing you can build and test it.

Often we can get stuck in the romance of business, between the intricacies of our ideas and spend way too much time thinking about what could happen instead of what will happen.

Big ideas come from making things simple and breaking things down their simplest variables. Understanding a problem and dissecting its components makes it easier to identify the solution.

Musk can and does come across as a super-human, you wouldn’t be judged for thinking he is part AI, in fact, he even jokes about being so. What this man teaches us though is that one person can influence the world with big ideas in simple.

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