Elon Musk has emerged as one of the world’s most popular entrepreneurs. As the guiding force behind Tesla, SpaceX, and OpenAI (among a host of other companies), he’s confronting some of the world’s biggest challenges head-on.
I recently interviewed Elon Musk, and his advice resonated with me. His lessons are aimed at entrepreneurs, but the final point can be applied by anyone.
Here are the highlights:
1. Get ready for a whole lot of hurt.
“Starting a business is not for everyone,” begins Musk. “Starting a business, I’d say, number one is have a high pain threshold.”
Musk goes on to share one of his favorite sayings, which he learned from a friend:
“Starting a company is like eating glass and staring into the abyss.”
“That’s generally what happens,” explains Musk. “Because, when you first start a company, there’s lots of optimism. And things are great. Happiness at first is high. And then you encounter all sorts of issues–and happiness will steadily decline. Then, you’ll go through a whole world of hurt. And, eventually, if you succeed–and in most cases you will not succeed … And Tesla almost didn’t succeed. It came very close to failure. If you succeed, then after a long time, you will finally get back to happiness.”
This is so true. When I started working for myself several years ago, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of pain I’d have to endure. And I’ve failed more often than I’ve succeeded.
But every failure was a lesson learned–and the successes wouldn’t have been possible without them.
2. Don’t waste time on minor improvements.
If you’re building a product or offering a service, says Musk, it can’t be just a little better than the competition–it has to be great.
“If you’re entering anything where there’s an existing marketplace, against large, entrenched competitors, then your product or service needs to be much better than theirs,” he says. “It can’t be a little bit better, because then you put yourself in the shoes of the consumer … you’re always going to buy the trusted brand unless there’s a big difference.”
This reminds me of the vital lesson Guy Kawasaki learned from Steve Jobs many years ago.
“You have to jump curves, not [create] better sameness,” Kawasaki said in a keynote. “You don’t do things 10 percent better; you do things 10 times better.” Think of how the iPod replaced the Walkman. Or how the iPhone replaced Blackberry. Or how the iPad replaced … the Palm Pilot?
As Musk says: “It can’t just be slightly better. It’s got to be a lot better.”
3. Constantly seek criticism.
This is my favorite lesson from this interview, because it’s a vital reminder for everyone.
“A well-thought-out critique of whatever you’re doing is as valuable as gold,” says Musk. The famous founder then encourages listeners to seek criticism from everyone, but “particularly your friends.”
“Usually your friends know what’s wrong,” explains Musk. “But they don’t want to tell you because they don’t want to hurt you. It doesn’t mean your friends are right. But very often, they are right.”
This is so true. When it comes to your ideas, those who are closest to you typically want to encourage. The last thing they want is to bring you down.
But these people are also a valuable resource: They can tell you, in-depth, where your weaknesses are and what you need to improve.
Of course, it hurts to hear that you’re wrong. That something about you or what you created isn’t perfect. But with a little emotional intelligence, you can see that feedback for what it is–an opportunity to get better.
As Musk brilliantly sums it up:
“You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”