Earlier this month, Forbes reported that Elon Musk was worth almost $265 billion. That’s enough of a success metric for many, but there are other markers, too: the founding of Tesla and SpaceX sitting at the top of the list. In broader scope, he is pushing the limits on electric and self-driving cars and setting new bars for space travel. Now, rumor has it he’s eyeing ownership of Twitter.
How on earth did he get accomplish all of that — all by the relatively young age of 50?
Musk revealed his “success secret” recently at a TED Talk in Vancouver, inspired by Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” It’s the kind of counterintuitive thinking that trailblazing CEOs in every industry should absorb and operationalize. He said:
“Adams makes this point that it’s actually the question that is harder than the answer.”
Okay, but why? If you take the premise a step further, you uncover an opportunity for innovation, bar-setting, and unfettered exploration. Most leaders frantically look for answers to questions that others ask. Trailblazers like Musk, however, are the ones who shape our narrative, direction, and strategy by asking the questions.
Obvious case in point: Tesla. Musk didn’t set out to answer the question, “How can a car company make a better car?” That’s been the driving force behind automaker development since time immemorial. Instead, he asked bigger questions that stretched the very idea of what a car could be: How can we use AI to reduce human error in driving and, as a result, dramatically reduce fatalities? How can we make a car that’s affordable, uses 100% renewable energy, and leverages automation to simplify driving and remove driver stress?
There are two critical components to the question-asking, however. The first is framing the question around human need. This requires keen observation — not just within industries or sectors of society, but more broadly. What do our communities need that’s not being addressed?
The second is an understood intention to follow up each question posed with the search for an answer — not just a convenient answer, but a truthful, impactful answer.
This is how Musk has managed to overturn industries and amass a quarter of a trillion dollars in wealth. Yes, he is seen as eccentric by some and prone to Twitter outbursts, but his genius is in owning both the question and the answer that gird his massively successful enterprises.
Most leaders forget that trailblazing requires asking original, thoughtful questions and finding an answers rooted in truth. They ask, and forget to answer. Or they scramble to find answers to questions already in the ether.
If you want to blaze your own trail, take a page from Musk’s book. Be observant. Ask big, challenging questions. Then seek out answers rooted in truth and value.