Elon Musk with a Model of Starship

Elon Musk Interview: 8 Main Points from Tools for Productivity to Daily Habits

Elon Musk spoke with education minister Nadiem Makarim and youth at the B20 / G20 Summit on November 14, 2022.  His talk was important because it provides us with tools to improve our own educational goals.  This article contains the entire conversation and Elon’s response to questions.  This interview is one of my favorites and I hope you’ll agree! It is a roadmap for personal growth and education.  There are 8 main points that range from tools for productivity to daily habits. 

  • Tools for Productivity: A Physics framework
  • Physics is the law, and everything else is a recommendation
  • Early life:  Movies & Books that had an impact
  • Roadmap for Education: Early education in critical thinking and identifying fallacies.  Learning what is relevant and eliminating mental obstacle courses
  • Careers that will be in demand: Sustainable Energy, Artificial Intelligence, Synthetic Biology
  • Proceeding with caution: Artificial intelligence and synthetic biology
  • Avoiding Big Mistakes: Place weight on both the heart and mind and welcome critical feedback from friends
  • Daily Habits: Be curious about everything, have a fearless sense of adventure

Tools for Productivity: A Physics Framework

Elon was asked to share what his tools for productivity and principles are, and how he does the amount of work that he does,

“Well, I do put in a lot of hours and I’m not sure I would actually recommend what I do to others, in the sense that I pretty much work all the time so you know it’s quite rare for me to take even a Sunday off so I’m not sure that’s that’s really, you know, I’m not recommending that to people.  With regard to tools for understanding the world I think a physics framework is extremely helpful. In physics, they call it thinking from a first principles standpoint, where you try to understand the most fundamental truths in a particular situation, and then you reason up from there, and then you test your conclusions against what you believe to be the fundamental truths. So in physics, it would be like testing to see if you’re violating conservation of energy or conservation of momentum or something like that, and then constantly trying to be less wrong. So you should always assume that you are to some degree wrong, and you want to be less wrong. This is, I think, very important. It’s a little tougher on the ego, but it’s great for getting to the truth of things. Aspire to be less wrong.” 

Physics is the Law, and everything else is a recommendation

Elon explained how he manages to continue successfully despite the many people who insist he will fail. He replied, “Well, I would go back to physics, in that the only things that are truly impossible are breaking the laws of physics. So, as long as you’re not breaking the laws of physics, it’s possible. It doesn’t matter what anyone’s opinion is. Physics is the law, and everything else is a recommendation. I’ve seen quite a few people break the law, but I’ve never seen anyone break physics.” Elon went on to explain that laws of physics are strong, saying, “Yes, you can certainly challenge the laws of physics but, they’ve been challenged quite well, and they’ve been found to be resilient.”

Early Life: Movies and books that had an impact

Elon (left) age 6, with Tosca and Kimball Musk. Courtesy Maye Musk, A Woman Makes a Plan.
Elon (left) in 1976, with Tosca and Kimball Musk. Courtesy Maye Musk, A Woman Makes a Plan.

Elon shared some impactful moments from his early life,

“Star Wars was the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater. So you can imagine, if you see an incredible movie like that, and it’s the first time you’ve ever been in a movie theater, I think I was six years old, it’s going to have a really big effect on you.” – Elon Musk


“Well, I read a lot of sci-fi, and fantasy books, it’s not going to surprise anyone that I sort of like Star Trek, Star Wars, and that kind of thing. In fact, Star Wars was the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater. So you can imagine, if you see an incredible movie like that, and it’s the first time you’ve ever been in a movie theater, I think I was six years old. it’s going to have a really big effect on you. So, reading and watching a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, Lord of the Rings is probably my favorite book. Isaac Asimov had a huge effect on me, the Foundation Series. Robert Heinlein, ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.’ And then, in trying to find the truth of things I explored many avenues, and ultimately found that physics was the best way to explore the truth of things. At the risk of being a broken record on the physics front, I strongly recommend studying it, haha!”

Roadmap for Education: Early education in critical thinking and identifying fallacies.  Learning what is relevant and eliminating mental obstacle courses

The interviewer asked Elon Musk to describe what education ideally should look like for today’s world. “Sure, well, when you’re trying to learn something, it’s extremely important to establish relevance, to say, why are you trying to learn this? Because our minds are constantly trying to forget things. So our minds are at a subconscious level trying to decide what is relevant and what is not relevant.  So most of the things that you see and hear, your mind does not want to remember because there’s no point in remembering it, so you have to establish relevance.  Once you establish relevance, your mind will naturally want to remember.”

“Explain the tools in the process of solving a problem, and then the tools will make sense”
Elon Musk

“There’s, I think, two fundamentally different ways to promote education. One is by teaching to the tools, and the other is by teaching, where if you want to solve a problem, and trying to understand what tools you need to solve that problem. For example, it would be quite boring to have a series of lectures about wrenches and screwdrivers and winches and whatnot, without establishing relevance, but if you say ‘Well, let’s take apart an engine!’ Now how do we take this engine apart and put it back together? Well, we’re going to need screwdrivers, we’re going to need wrenches, we’re going to need a winch, we’ll need, maybe some Allen keys. You’ll have to take it apart, and then put it back together. and then you’ll understand in the process of doing that, why those tools are relevant. and you will remember them. This is a very simple but important principle, which is, ‘Explain the tools in the process of solving a problem, and then the tools will make sense,’  otherwise, they will seem irrelevant, and people will not remember them, and motivation will be difficult.”

The interviewer asked what needs to change from either a teacher or a curriculum perspective, and Elon replied,“Yeah, I think often, things are backwards. They’ll teach the tools, instead of teaching how to solve a problem, and then establish the relevance of the tools. So, you might take a course on calculus, for example, but you don’t know why you’re taking a course in calculus, it just seems like a mental obstacle course that doesn’t have any point. And actually for a lot of people I would say it probably is a mental obstacle course that has no point because unless you expect to use it in the future, there’s no point in learning calculus, at least at a detailed level. The principles of calculus are interesting to learn, but not the nuanced solving of equations. So, I generally say, What is it that somebody wants to do?, and then try to solve that problem and as you solve that problem, say, Well you need this tool, and you need that tool.”

“I think quite frankly, a lot of education is kind of pointless, and that people are taught a bunch of things, but they don’t actually ever use those things in the future”
Elon Musk

“So, why go to the trouble of teaching people things that they will not use in the future? Quite frankly, I think a lot of education is pointless. Unless one simply wants to go through a mental obstacle course, to test people’s ability to go through a mental obstacle course. I think it’s debatable as to whether we should force people to go through these mental obstacle courses.”

“I Would Strongly Recommend The Principles Of Critical Thinking Be Taught At A Young Age”
Elon Musk

Elon Musk with son X Æ A-Xii. Elon recommends Critical Thinking be taught in early childhood education.
Elon Musk with son X Æ A-Xii. Elon recommends Critical Thinking be taught in early childhood education.

“If I can make a strong recommendation for what should be taught in early education, it’s critical thinking.  Critical thinking is incredibly important, because it creates a mental firewall to allow children to reject concepts that are not cogent. It’s sort of like having an anti-mind virus defense system. Critical thinking, if taught at a young age, creates a mental firewall that prevents false concepts from establishing themselves in people’s minds. So I would strongly recommend the principles of critical thinking be taught at a young age.”

Elon continued, recommending learning how to defend against fallacies.  “And how do you defend yourself against mental trickery? People will often try various fallacies, and sort of trap you with fallacies. And so, having defense against fallacies would be a great course.” 

Careers in High Demand: Sustainable Energy, Artificial intelligence, Synthetic Biology

The interviewer asked which careers might become the most desirable in the future, Elon replied, “Well sure, I think some of it’s going to be pretty obvious, you know, anything to do with sustainable energy is going to be pretty significant in the future. So if it’s to do with lithium ion batteries for stationary storage or for cars, aircraft, boats, that’s going to be very significant. Artificial intelligence will obviously be very significant in all fields for self driving cars, self flying airplanes, self piloting boats.  I’d fully recommend learning those. These are very technical subjects, of course. There are many other worthy pursuits, but as a technologist, that’s what I would recommend. AI and sustainable technology.”

Elon continued, 

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity in synthetic biology with the synthetic messenger RNA. That’s going to be a revolution in medicine, I think comparable to going from analog to digital. Synthetic RNA is like medicine going digital. It’s a much more profound revolution, than I think most people realize. But I am a technologist, so there’s plenty of good things to do that don’t involve technology. But from a technology standpoint, I would say, sustainable energy, AI, synthetic biology are the three big areas.”

Proceeding with Caution: AI and Synthetic Biology

What technology scares you the most in terms of its risk? Are there any technologies that scare you? Elon replied, “Well I think we should be a little bit concerned about AI because we don’t want digital super intelligence that goes wrong and causes damage to humanity. So I think we do need to be cautious with artificial intelligence.” 

“You know, on the synthetic biology front,  that also has the potential to be dangerous, because it is possible to create a far more damaging virus than would occur in nature. These technology tools are definitely double edged swords. The more powerful the technology, the more careful we need to be in how we use it.”

Nadiem Makarim asked what Elon thinks Indonesia needs to do to become a global economic power by 2045. “Well, I think widespread education obviously makes sense. I think having high speed Internet conductivity throughout Indonesia is going to be extremely important. I mean, think about the Internet, if you’ve got a low cost device and access to the Internet, you can learn anything. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has lectures, which I believe are available for free on YouTube, so that you could learn practically anything you want from the Internet for free, providing you have Internet access, and at least some level of education to allow you to learn more from the Internet. So I think widespread Internet access is essential for that because it just allows people to learn whatever they want to learn at whatever pace they are comfortable learning.”

You want to take the ‘Aspire to be less wrong’  approach versus, ‘You’re right, and let’s prove that you’re right.’ 
Elon Musk

Elon Musk at G20 Summit, November 14, 2022. Elon speaks with education minister Nadiem Makarim and takes questions from audience
Elon Musk at B20 / G20 Summit, November 14, 2022. Elon speaks with education minister Nadiem Makarim and takes questions from audience

Elon took three questions from the audience.  The first asked what mistakes he made in the past and how he coped with them.  Elon responded, “To be frank I’ve made so many mistakes, that it would take far too long for me to list them all. So I would not want to bore people with the extremely long list of mistakes that I have made in the past. But I think the higher principle here is to always aspire to be less wrong over time. So, to acknowledge that you’ll always be to some degree wrong, but that you wish to be less degree wrong over time.  If you can be a little less wrong every day, I think you’re doing great. It’s hard to be less wrong every day, but frankly, if you can be less wrong most days, that’s a pretty big victory.”

“Take the position that you’re wrong, and you wish to be, aspirationally, slightly less wrong” Elon Musk

Avoiding Big Mistakes: Place weight on both heart and mind, and welcome critical feedback from friends

“I think it’s important to place weight on both the heart and mind, not simply the mind. Some of the biggest mistakes that I’ve made in terms of hiring people was that they were strong of mind, but not of heart. Both matter a great deal. The higher principle is to just assume you’re wrong and you want to be less wrong and just try to be less wrong every day. Seek critical feedback, especially from friends. Often your friends will know what you’re saying is wrong, but they don’t want to hurt your feelings so they won’t tell you. But if you ask them to tell you, and say that it won’t hurt your feelings, then they will tell you.  I think getting critical feedback from friends is very helpful. Yeah, what I’m saying is that we’re always wrong, you should just assume that you’re wrong. Because we are. You want to take the ‘Aspire to be less wrong’  approach versus, ‘You’re right, and let’s prove that you’re right.’ Take the position that you’re wrong, and you wish to be, aspirationally, slightly less wrong.”

In answer to a question about how a small but successful online business could expand to a global level, Elon advised, “Widespread Internet is going to make a big difference, minimizing the cost per useful byte of information is very important. Over time there will be so many devices being made, PCs, iphones, android devices, there will soon be more devices made than there are humans that exist in the world. So, at least if the device is going to be secondhand, it’s going to be extremely cheap. And I think we are seeing something of a plateau in device capability. Like it’s increasingly difficult to add incremental functionality to a phone or a laptop at this point, which means that they will just become lower and lower cost and more and more affordable. But really, the key is being online and having an affordable device. I think the trends are very much in that direction, so that is a reason to be optimistic about the future.”

Daily Habits: Be Curious about everything, have a fearless sense of adventure

“Well, in terms of day to day habits, I think, being curious about the world, how the world works, curious about technology, curious about everything, really.  I think curiosity is a very important thing to have. And then, to be somewhat obsessive about the curiosity. Obsessive curiosity is probably the number one thing.  And I think having a sort of, sense of adventure is also good. I think sometimes people are afraid of things when they shouldn’t be afraid of things. Like you want to make sure that your fear is proportionate to the actual danger. And I think, sometimes our instinctive fear is not proportionate to the actual danger. So you want to try to rethink things, and say ‘Okay, is that fear justified? Will some event actually happen?’ You know you sort of have to sometimes look at your instinctive fear, and question it, and decide whether that is really a valid fear, and often it is not. And simply looking at the fear, will make it go away. “

Watch the interview here https://youtu.be/l8sMFMBfFrM thanks to Elon Alerts.

CONCLUSION

Elon Musk has some great recommendations for productivity and one of them is not to emulate him.  He says he works every day and does not take breaks.  This would not be good for you.  Elon does recommend cultivating a “First Principles” standpoint based on the laws of physics.  He says, “physics is the law, and everything else is a recommendation!” He loved watching Star Wars and Star Trek as a kid, and read such books as Lord of the Rings, The Foundation Series. and, ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.’

On the education front, Elon Musk outlines a roadmap that includes teaching what is truly relevant and critical thinking, as well as identifying fallacies and eliminating mental obstacle courses.  He also highly recommends learning Physics.  

As far as being cautious about technology, he is mainly concerned about the risks of AI and synthetic biology.  Al could possibly harm humanity, and synthetic biology could create a far more damaging virus than would occur in nature.

When Elon Musk talked about mistakes he made in the past, he said they were too many to list, and he also said, “I think it’s important to place weight on both the heart and mind, not simply the mind. Some of the biggest mistakes that I’ve made in terms of hiring people was that they were strong of mind, but not of heart.”  

Hike & Bike Trail of East Austin, Colorado River, Courtesy CVSherman
Hike & Bike Trail of East Austin, Colorado River, Courtesy CVSherman

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Exclusive to What’s Up Tesla – This article was created by Gail Alfar with the goal to preserve this interview in text or written form for the purpose of 1. education and 2. preserving the brilliant insight and words of Elon Musk. November 26, 2022.