In a 2013 interview, Musk was asked how he learned rocket science, and his response was incredulously simple: "I read a lot and talked to people. The same way anyone learns anything". According to Kimbal Musk, his brother Elon sometimes reads as many as two books a day . Is there any question how he was able to become one of the worlds foremost rocket experts after founding SpaceX thirteen years ago.
Simple as it may be, I want to reify some of the subtleties of this remark.
Whether learning a new subject or digging into the depths of a familiar area, it is of paramount importance to determine (as early as possible) the resources that are most likely to contribute to your long term goals. I've found it useful to distribute my goals into three broad categories: personal, professional, and technical growth. At any given time I'm usually reading a book from two of the three categories. This strategy is a recent adoption for me. I'm hoping it will allow me to keep my interest peeked in more than one topic at at a time. I've tried reading as many as five books simultaneously, but I've found that it fractures my attention too much. I end up either not absorbing any of the books, or just picking one to move forward with. If anyone out there has opinions on this matter, I would be interested to hear them.
Sustained Incremental Growth
The part of reading that many find subconsciously discouraging, is that a given reading session is unlikely to yield any tangible results. I could easily tell you what I read about this morning, but I doubt I would be able to tell you what kind of impact it will have on my life. Reading is an investment, but unlike many investments the fruitions are often subversive. In general, the best we can hope to accomplish by reading is what I call Sustained Incremental Growth.
Bottom line, if you want to keep up with Elon Musk, you better hit the books.
First Place Doesn't Always Win the Race
In 1973, a British mathematician and cryptographer by the name of Clifford Cocks devised a brilliant algorithm. This algorithm forms the basis for modern internet security. Today it's primarily known as RSA, an initialization of the surnames of three MIT researchers (Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Len Adleman), who discovered the algorithm independently three years later.
If you're pondering the disparity between the namesake and the first inventor, you've come to the crux of the issue.
Making a Splash in the Valley
I was recently on the market for a new job, and, in my search, I spent a significant amount of time gathering advice from an uncle of mine. He's a smart man with a wealth of experience in the business world, but what really caught my attention was his general knowledge about careers. The detail and certainty with which he was able to describe a successful career development made it seem as though it's more than just "part of life", it's a craft. And like all crafts, it can be reworked, over and over, to asymptotically approach perfection. While I can't say there was one particular piece of advice that I found most useful, there was a nugget that has been stuck in my head for the last few weeks. To quote my uncle directly, "You have to ship sh**".
Rephrased, you might say: a product on the shelves is worth infinitely more than one in the closet. It is not often that a consumer will make a purchase sight unseen. An idea has little value until it has an interface to the world. Proof of concept is the unofficial seal of approval in the valley.
Back in 1973, Mr. Cocks was under the employ of the British government. His earth shattering cryptosystem, classified*. Meanwhile, at MIT, the three young researchers were able to release their intractable Hydra out into the world, garnering the fame and fortune it warranted.
In the world of technology, the only accomplishments that matter are the ones that bear the burden of proof. If a tree falls in the woods...
*Nearly twenty-five years after his breakthrough, in 1997, the British government declassified Cocks' work, hopefully giving him a modicum of the respect he deserves.