Are You Thinking Like Elon Would About Your Next Career Move?

Just this week the United States launched two astronauts back into space with technology designed and manufactured in the US. The last time that was accomplished was about a decade ago. Why this happened now, is a story 18 years in the making. It’s also the story of Elon Musk’s tenacity and supremely large vision of his contributions to industry and the planet. There’s a lesson in here for all of us. Are you thinking just as big as Elon Musk would about your next career move?

Elon has been innovating for some time now. Since his first company sold to Compaq in 1999 (Ziip2) he’s been seemingly at the forefront of innovation. This doesn’t happen by accident. 

I’ve actually been able to listen to and meet Elon in person. What comes through right away is a fearlessness in thinking about challenges in new ways. It’s a skill that is practiced and can be applied to how you approach your career.

Setting your sights on the goal

The first step is identifying the goal or the problem. Maybe that’s becoming a VP or becoming financially independent or running your own business. Whatever the goal you have to see it and own it.

For Elon that’s been solving the world’s fossil fuel dependence through electrification in the case of Tesla. Or it’s enabling humans to inhabit another plant in the case of SpaceX. All his ventures have a very clearly identified goal or problem they are solving. The solutions aren’t always evident in the beginning, but whenever he speaks about his ambitions there is an inspiring story to tell. 

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What is your inspiring story? Finding one that is worth telling is an important step. Certainly we can’t all extend quite as far as Elon, but we can have our own clear goals and a reason for attaining them.

Ask Ask Ask

The second part of thinking big is asking some pretty basic questions. 

For example, can a car be operated purely from electrical energy? Clearly the answer is yes. Or what limits human space flight to mars? Part of the story is costs, so then why is space travel so expensive? 

For your own career thinking, you should be asking some basic questions. What does it take to become a VP? What do I need to become financially independent? What kind of business would I want to run?

Ignore the noise

A key difference into how Elon approaches this process compared to most people happens right here. You better believe that in the process of understanding why space flight is so expensive someone told him that building, launching and sustaining rockets is just too expensive in the long run to enable sustainable space flight. 

It costs about $10,000 per pound to get something into space (via the Space Shuttle). That is just an astronomically high number. So getting to space is just too expensive and therefore it’s not a good business to be in.

Elon doesn’t take answers like this at face value. The next question probably went something like this – What if the cost was 1/10th of what it is today? Would that make it viable?

Responses to this question would range from, “yes, but that’s impossible” to “maybe, but there’s no way to make it that cheap”

Does it violate a law of Physics?

Again, here’s where Elon differentiates himself. He’ll push further and ask “Why is it impossible? What makes it so expensive right now?” Unless something violates a law of physics then it’s technically not impossible. It’s just challenging for a variety of reasons, but not impossible.

Responses would range from fuels costs, to construction costs, to launch costs to manufacturing costs etc. Basically all the reasons that exist today. 

In pushing further, he would learn a bit about each of those costs and realize that those are all true if every time a launch occurs the main rocket is basically thrown away. If just that one fact was different, then construction costs, manufacturing costs and a bunch of other costs would come down.

Imagine if every time you flew in a plane, the plane was basically thrown out? Air travel would basically be impossible. However if you can reuse the plane it makes it all work. Coming to that same conclusion for space travel all of a sudden doesn’t seem so far fetched.

What if “x” were true?

Would changing this one fact about space travel change the cost equation? The answer is pretty close to yes. SpaceX can now get cargo to space for an estimated $1,800 per pound. This example is of course a bit over simplified, but it’s basically accurate.

Someone like Elon in understanding that a solution is theoretically possible if a fact can be made true, will then dedicate himself to making that fact true. 

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Why can’t rockets be reused? Isn’t it physically possible to design a system that could land back on earth? Does a rocket need to be burned up on re-entry? Can’t a rocket be refurbished and re-tooled safely?

The answers to most of the questions is yes, but it’s hard (or not done today). That’s an entirely acceptable answer to someone like Elon. If it’s possible and it’s hard then that actually implies opportunity to someone like him.

What opportunity looks like

To bring the analogy back to your career. Is it possible for you to attain your goal? Can you convince yourself that answer is theoretically possible? Is it hard? If the answer is yes, to both of those things, do you react that same way that someone like Elon does to those very same answers?

I mentioned that the SpaceX story started some 18 years ago when Elon founded the company. It has taken him 18 years to realize the original vision that he had. In fact the steps taken this week to launch astronauts from US made rockets is only still part of his vision. It’s just a stepping stone to getting people to mars.

But even this stepping stone will go down in US history as the first private US space flight. A company has now done something that only nations used to be able to do. And that’s because Elon had a vision that he was passionate about, was convinced as possible and dedicated his energy over the last 18 years to make it so.

The next move is yours

Are you thinking about your career and goals in the same way? Do you have a 20-year vision for what your contributions will be?

The next time you find yourself realizing something is possible but really difficult or seemingly unattainable do you see opportunity or do you immediately move on? It’s these moments that separate someone like Elon from most people. 

It’s this bit of insight that could change how you think about your next 20 years. Now, that seems like something worth getting excited about.

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