Elon Musk and the Question of Overconfidence

Ashlee Vance’s book on Elon Musk is well read for a good reason: It’s a fascinating look at a fascinating person.

You can interpret the book however you like. It’s a tale of genius. It’s a tale of someone driven beyond all reason to succeed. It’s a tale of a brilliant, talented engineer/entrepreneur. It’s the tale of someone trying to overcome a difficult childhood by setting audacious goals for himself and accomplishing them. It’s the tale of someone creating the future instead of waiting for it. It’s the tale of a deluded, arrogant, thrice-divorced jerk. It’s the tale of a guy with an IQ of 190 who thinks it’s 250. (Munger made that claim a few years ago — we were there.)

Frankly, it doesn’t matter how you see Musk — he is who he is (which brings to mind Eminem’s lyrics: I am, whatever you say I am. If I wasn’t, why would you say I am). But however you choose to read the book, and read it you should, there’s one part of the tale that it would be hard to disagree with: The guy is chasing larger goals than essentially anyone else, he’s made a surprising amount of progress towards achieving them in such a very short time.

His mind is different than yours or mine.

Which begs a good question: Why would Charlie Munger, an admitted science/engineering nut, the guy with a fanatical devotion to the Chinese firm BYD for its engineering culture and its aggressively entrepreneurial CEO, accuse Musk of attempting too much? (“Personally, I’m scared of the guy,” Munger added.)


As Vance describes in the book, in 2001 Musk came to aerospace engineer Jim Cantrell with his most audacious question to date: How do we become a multi-planetary species? 

Musk wanted to know how we could create a sustainable colony on Mars, a sort of “backup plan” for humanity.

That launched (puns!) Musk’s now 14-year old venture SpaceX, a private business dedicated to putting a sustainable human colony on Mars. (Yes, really.) That would require first figuring out a low-cost method of launching rockets into space, to get us and our supplies to the colony.

Prior to SpaceX, Musk was best known for co-founding Paypal — he was considered a bright software engineer and an up-and-coming entrepreneur, but Rocket Man? Not so much. To that end, someone recently asked a good question on QuoraHow did Elon Musk learn enough about rockets to run SpaceX? 

Luckily, Musk’s friend and SpaceX co-founder Jim Cantrell took note and left an interesting response, interesting because Cantrell doesn’t really answer the stated question so much as (what seems to us) a better one:

Elon Musk and the Question of Overconfidence

What allows Musk to attempt and complete projects everyone else considers impossible? 

Those projects would include designing rockets from scratch, creating a successful private company to put them into orbit (it hadn’t been done), starting a car company from scratch (it hadn’t been done in the U.S. since 1925), designing a fully electric vehicle that was also considered cool and desirable, and selling cars directly to consumers, among other projects.

We reprint Cantrell’s Quora answer, and recommend you take a minute to consider the merits and demerits of his approach to life.

What I found from working with Elon is that he starts by defining a goal and he puts a lot of effort into understanding what that goal is and why it is a good and valid goal.  His goal, as I see it, has not changed from the day he first called me in August of 2001.  I still hear it in his speeches.  His goal was to make mankind a multi planetary species and to do that he had to first solve the transportation problem.

Once he has a goal, his next step is to learn as much about the topic at hand as possible from as many sources as possible.  He is by far the single smartest person that I have ever worked with …  period.  I can’t estimate his IQ but he is very very intelligent.  And not the typical egg head kind of smart.  He has a real applied mind.  He literally sucks the knowledge and experience out of people that he is around.  He borrowed all of my college texts on rocket propulsion when we first started working together in 2001.  We also hired as many of my colleagues in the rocket and spacecraft business that were willing to consult with him.  It was like a gigantic spaceapalooza.  At that point we were not  talking about building a rocket ourselves, only launching a privately  funded mission to Mars.  I found out later that he was talking to a  bunch of other people about rocket designs and collaborating on some spreadsheet level systems designs for launchers.  Once our dealings with the Russians fell apart, he decided to build his own rocket and this was the genesis of SpaceX.

So I am going to suggest that he is successful not because his visions are  grand, not because he is extraordinarily smart and not because he works incredibly hard.  All of those things are true.  The one major important distinction that sets him apart is his inability to consider failure.  It simply is not even in his thought process.  He cannot conceive of  failure and that is truly remarkable.  It doesn’t matter if its going up against the banking system (Paypal), going up against the entire  aerospace industry (SpaceX) or going up against the US auto industry (Tesla). He can’t imagine NOT succeeding and that is a very critical  trait that leads him ultimately to success. He and I had very similar upbringings, very similar interests and very similar early histories.  He was a bit of a loner and so was I.  He decided to start a software company at age 13.  I decided to design and build my own stereo amplifier system at age 13.  Both of us succeeded at it.  We both had engineers for fathers and were extremely driven kids.  What separated us, I believe, was his lack of even being able to conceive failure.  I know this because this is where we parted ways at SpaceX.  We got to a point where I could not see it succeeding and walked away.  He didn’t and succeeded.  I have 25 years experience building space hardware and he had none at the time.  So much for experience.

I recently wrote an op-ed piece for Space News where I also suggest that his ruthlessly efficient way to deploy capital is another great reason for his success.  He can almost smell the right way through a problem and he drives his staff and his organization hard to achieve it.  The results speak for themselves.  The article is here End of WWII Model Shakes Up Aerospace Industry.

In the end I think that we are seeing a very fundamental shift in the way our world takes on the big challenges facing humanity and Elon’s Way as I call it will be considered the tip of the spear.  My hat’s off to the man.

Our hats off to him too. For sure. But this first-hand account does solve the Munger puzzle to an extent.

Here’s Munger in 1998, in a speech to a group of foundation CIOs, including representatives from the Hilton Foundation and the Getty Trust.

Similarly, the hedge fund known as ‘Long-Term Capital Management’ recently collapsed, through overconfidence in its highly leveraged methods, despite I.Q.’s of its principals that must have averaged 160. Smart, hard-working people aren’t exempted from professional disasters from overconfidence. Often, they just go aground in the more difficult voyages they choose, relying on their self-appraisals that they have superior talents and methods.

We’ll leave it up to you to judge whether Musk may go aground in his various ventures — SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity among them, but it’s hard not to be impressed at the work completed so far. The world needs more people like him, not fewer.

Still Interested? 
Check out Musk’s thoughts on regulators, the 12 books he recommended in 2014, or his system of first-principles thinking.