Why Elon Musk impresses me

For not being that into TED talks, I saw another one recently that features an interview with Elon Musk. It’s worth the 20 minutes to hear him talk about the big ideas he’s pursuing related to electric cars (Tesla motors), solar energy (Solar City), and space exploration (Space X).

He impresses me, and here’s why.

Doesn’t follow the herd

In a world where most investors (and inventors) are chasing the herd to discover the next Google, Facebook, Angry Birds, or hot mobile app, Elon Musk is attacking big ideas that will influence the future of humanity. He’s spearheading an effort to make electric cars viable and affordable with Tesla Motors. He’s working toward building a distributed utility by making solar electricity generation ubiquitous through his involvement with Solar City. He’s working on the foundation that will permit humanity to explore and potentially colonize other planets through his investment and work in Space X.

These are big, game-changing ideas that most people, whether inventors or investors, just aren’t interested in taking the risk to develop or fund these days. Elon Musk has chosen to break away from the pack and go after these ideas, even though the easy money can be had by just chasing the herd and investing in or building upon the latest fad.

Sees the big picture

I have a philosophy that ideas are cheap. Anyone can have them, and almost any idea you think of already exists. I’ve been there, done that. Every idea that I’ve thought was novel and unique was shot down through a Google search. Even the ideas Elon Musk is pursuing are not new ideas. What makes it different is that he sees the bigger picture, understands where the challenges are, and attacks the problems systematically by going after the key issues holding back the viability of the technology.

For example, with electric cars, it was the overall weight of the car due to the size of the battery pack required to get the proper range. Therefore, he worked to reduce the weight of the car outside of the battery and to streamline the car as much as possible to reduce drag. Furthermore, he understood charging stations were an issue, so he funded and built a charging network to support the Tesla vehicles.

With solar energy, he saw that the up front installation cost was the issue, so he developed a plan that financed the installation of the product in return for long-term lease payments.

For space exploration, reducing the cost of getting into space was the big issue, so the primary focus of Space X is reusable rockets. The goal is to make the cost of space travel equivalent to the fuel required, much like it is for every other mode of transportation.

While I’ve come to recognize that ideas are cheap, implementation is not. The ability to execute and follow through on an idea is where the real money is made, and his ability to see the big picture is enabling him to reap the rewards of his ideas. His ability to see the big picture┬áis also why he stays away from dead end projects. For example, in the TED talk he says that rockets have to use propellant instead of electricity because there is “no way around Newton’s 3rd Law.” Likewise, in the Colbert interview below, he tells Steven that a jet pack is not a fundamentally viable idea to the physics involved. I don’t understand the why behind it not being possible, but I’m inclined to believe him based on his past track record.

Takes (big) risks

More than the top two, he is willing to take big risks. Dreaming big and having a plan is one thing, but it is another to take the big risk on ideas that make people think that you’ve lost it. I’m sure Musk has heard these comments from many people:

A viable electric car? It’s been tried and won’t work. Why will you succeed?

Solar panels will never take-off. What makes you think you can do it?

Reusable rockets are a stupid idea. How would someone ever pull this one off?

He has the confidence, guts and determination to follow his dreams and plans. He’s willing to take on the status quo. He’s so confident that he’s done things like make Tesla’s patents public domain, and most of the primary technology for Space X hasn’t even been patented due to national government agencies being his primary competition. In other words, the patents would be hard to defend if violated by the same governments that issue them.

I wish the world had more people in the mold of Elon Musk, He’s truly a unique individual that very few measure up to. Richard Branson may come close, but I think he’s more of a risk-taking business man who doesn’t have the same depth of scientific knowledge or capability of Elon Musk. In any case, the world would be a more interesting place if there were more people who were willing to take on bigger, game-changing ideas rather than just trying to make the quick buck by following the herd.

As a bonus, I’ve embedded the video from the Colbert Report where Elon Musk is interviewed. While Colbert plays his typical character pandering for audience laughs, Musk takes the interview seriously. Some of his answers are very interesting, in spite of Colbert’s tone.

Colbert interview, part 1


Colbert interview, part 2


And finally, one more bonus video with Elon Musk. I have an interest in watching the development of artificial intelligence. Specifically, I wonder about the trajectory we’re on and if we’re properly supervising the development of the technology. When I hear Elon Musk mention that we need more oversight in AI development, it concerns me. He’s way smarter than I am. If he’s raising warning flags about development of the technology, then I think all of us had better heed his advice and take the warning seriously.

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