Elon Musk is one of the world's smartest, richest, and most powerful people, and he's not shy about his aptitude for taking on new projects.
Musk has a restless pursuit of knowledge and a talent for applying his learning across a range of disciplines. He is the quintessential modern polymath.
This infographic from Resume.io has collected insights from Musk and other pioneers and entrepreneurs to inspire you to pursue your own ambitions. Musk offers his key to learning and retaining new information:
It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.
An expert generalist
Musk's statement goes against much traditional advice that in order to become successful, you have to specialize and become proficient in a single field of expertise. "The jack-of-all-trades is master of none," goes the old adage. And yet Musk has proved numerous times that it is not only possible but profitable to generalize.
An "expert generalist" by definition is someone with the capacity to gain expertise in various disciplines, industries, skills, and topics. Polymaths throughout history, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla, have made innovative use of such broad knowledge.
As a modern polymath, Elon Musk demonstrates that studying widely across many different fields of knowledge can give you an information advantage that fuels innovation. Musk is able to integrate unique combinations of skills and knowledge and transfer his learning across disciplines.
You might not have the time or energy to devote 85 hours a week to honing skills and knowledge, but it's still worth investing a little effort to branch out. The beauty of being an expert generalist is that it's most likely easier to achieve and more rewarding than becoming a leading expert in just one field.
Musk's "semantic tree" concept
The "semantic tree" concept is all about deconstructing knowledge into basic principles so that you can build your learning on a solid foundation. Musk has read widely since adolescence to satisfy his thirst for knowledge, and establishing a varied and methodical reading habit is a useful learning technique for any aspiring generalist.
Here's a simple four-step process to approaching a new subject:
- Identify your subject. Find some introductory lessons or source some foundational texts such as undergraduate textbooks or reputable journal articles, so you can get a reliable overview of the fundamentals.
- Take notes. Summarize key facts and ideas in your own words to make sure you understand what you have read. Reread your notes until they make sense.
- Broaden your scope. Once you've got the fundamentals from one text, seek out additional resources by checking the references and citations of your original source.
- Test yourself. If the information you have been learning is practical, try it out in real life. If it's theoretical, try to explain it in simple terms to a friend or colleague to check your understanding.
Expanding your understanding of different fields can be both personally and professionally rewarding. You might find that you actually enjoy being a jack-of-many-trades, after all.