My roommate has recently being watching a lot of Elon Musk interviews. She sent me a section of transcript from the Q&A that followed his TED talk. I’d like to share it, because it’s not often that I find ideas about thinking itself to be so crystal clear.
Question to Elon Musk:
18:46 CA: My theory is that you have an ability to think at a system level of design that pulls together design, technology and business, so if TED was TBD, design, technology and business, into one package, synthesize it in a way that very few people can and — and this is the critical thing — feel so damn confident in that clicked-together package that you take crazy risks. You bet your fortune on it, and you seem to have done that multiple times. I mean, almost no one can do that. Is that — could we have some of that secret sauce? Can we put it into our education system? Can someone learn from you? It is truly amazing what you’ve done.
19:30 EM: Well, thanks. Thank you. Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. Generally I think there are — what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that. Otherwise, mentally, you wouldn’t be able to get through the day. But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive, like quantum mechanics. It’s really counterintuitive. So I think that’s an important thing to do, and then also to really pay attention to negative feedback, and solicit it, particularly from friends. This may sound like simple advice, but hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful.
Meaghan Nolan, the founder of UX Lab, said to me this week during a General Assembly event something to the effect of: “For my parents’ generation, the mantra in life was to work hard. You got to where you wanted to be by working hard. In our generation, working hard just ensures that you’ll be overwhelmed. We can’t just work hard, we need to focus.”
We all have many opportunities in life. The hard part is knowing which ones to pick. If we work hard and pick them all, how do we fit sleep in our lives? We can’t. We can only pick the opportunities that we feel most strongly about and focus on those.
Her words really resonated with me, because I work hard on all the things I do – whether it’s design related or not. That hard work brings me many interesting opportunities that appear shiny and wonderful. I always want to jump in and be a part of them.
It’s so easy to become distracted. There’s so much noise around us with people telling us how to best grow our careers, what our next moves should be and where we should go. Many people want to do it all. But doing it all comes with a price. It means that you’re getting pulled in more directions and that you won’t be moving as fast as you want in any one particular direction.
If you have somewhere you want to go, you can’t just hustle. You need to make it your focus to get there.
I use images to think. I’m not thinking with words and then using images to describe that thought. Images are how I think.
It means that I “see” something first, then that image turns into a thought. And only then does that thought turn into words.
At school, it meant that word problems in math class were the worst things on the planet. I had to process the written words, translate them into images and then think about solving them.
When the English teacher asked us all a question verbally, I had to translate those words into images, answer it with images and spit it back out in words. This generally took me a minute, so by the time I knew what to say, another student’s hand was already chosen.
At work, it means that when people problem solve things in a long email, I diagram their words afterwards. I feel like I have an extreme case of visual thinking, but I’m sure other artists and designers feel similarly.
Having these experiences has made me more empathetic to people who see the world through numbers or tones. It’s made me realize that miscommunication is more than what was perceived incorrectly through someone else’s lens. It’s also what the lens is.
So next time when someone you’re talking you doesn’t get what you’re saying, it might not be because you didn’t explain it well enough. It might just be that you’re not using the way that person thinks to get to the point.
I occasionally make posters to get and emotions thoughts out. Since I work at a product company it’s easy to get stuck working on the same types of things all the time, so I thought I’d change it up by taking some of my free time to throw up words up in the air and see where they land. I challenged myself to create each poster in 10 minutes.
No one expected me to go to art school. Not even I did. I was a bit of a conformist back in high school, taking tons of math and science classes so that I could please my parents and impress my peers. Painting was fun, but art school?
Now that I think about it, it’s probably because I had no clue what art school was actually about. People mostly see and hear about RISD through the media, which means they only get to know it as a place where kids with purple hair draw naked people (albeit, you do see plenty of that as a freshman).
What they probably don’t know about RISD is that it does the most amazing job of taking away fear – the fear of starting, the fear of trying something new, the fear of fear
Art and design push boundaries like nothing else, which is why RISD actually ended up being perfect for me. It made me do a lot of things that I was really uncomfortable with, which in hindsight ended up the best thing I could have ever done.
During my first semester as a freshman at RISD, I was given the assignment to build a violin from cardboard (FYI it didn’t have to work). I immediately started making calculations and measuring angles. The girl beside me simply traced an actual violin on cardboard, building each side as she progressed. Guess who finished first? Not me.
While high school taught me to be methodical about decisions, RISD taught me to hack things together until they worked.
RISD taught me to just start. Make something rough. Make it imperfect. Just make it, because it’ll get you further ahead than the person who’s still “measuring” the perfect way to do it.
I had never worked like this before in my life. Grade school never taught me how to make, so it was my first experience of getting my hands dirty and toying with creation.
During my time in the industrial design (ID) department, I learned how to use a vacuum-form machine, a metal lathe and a blowtorch. If you had asked me high school whether I wanted to play with these machines, I would have probably backed away pretty quickly.
But the courses I took in ID required me to use them again and again, and as a result, they broke my fear of them. I practiced and practiced, until I realized nothing bad was going to happen to me while I used them.
By the end, I had hand-machined slider cranks, built foot pedals for sinks and soldered hollow-construction rings together.
RISD made me comfortable with fear. I became adjusted to trying new things on a regular basis; instead of being risk-averse, I became very risk-tolerant.
When you do this enough, it becomes more than a habit; it turns into an attitude, a mentality that you carry with you whenever you approach obstacles at work or in life. Instead of hesitating and worrying about whether the outcome is going to be perfect, you just dive in and see what it’s about.
While I’m not saying that art school does this for everyone, I am saying that sometimes, you just have to let go. Go and jump into something you’re afraid to do. You’ll look back and wonder why you ever feared it in the first place.