Several years back I read through an answer to a question on Quora from Elon Musk’s ex-wife Justine. The question was “How can I be as great as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Sir Richard Branson?”
Today, years after reading the answers, what stands out in my memory is the part where she basically said: Elon doesn’t spend time reading stuff like this on the internet. He’s just out doing things.
I struggled with this one for a while, because I think there’s a lot of truth to it: it’s the difference between energy and motion, between light and heat. It’s one thing to dream, it’s another to quit your job and jump in.
But I am a total junkie for this kind of writing. A good portion of the posts on Farnam Street Blog are right up my alley. I loved High Output Management, and I will devour anything from books to academic papers authored by Ron Heifetz.
So how do I reconcile this?
As I’ve worked and sweat and struggled at my own startup, where we create and support a community of entrepreneurs, innovators, and creatives who are out to put a dent in the universe, I’ve found a lot of this kind of reading invaluable even as I’m out “doing shit.” It’s true that nothing teaches like experience, but there’s no question that the experiences of others are critical in guiding my journey.
I happen to be a reader. I have read more than 20 books this year, all of which have influenced my thinking and decisionmaking in some way. Others take their guidance in other forms. Conversations, videos of talks or interviews, even classrooms. But every successful entrepreneur, even Elon Musk, faces their struggles and takes their guidance from somewhere.
Elon may not be scrolling through Quora questions about his own life, but he is reportedly a voracious reader, and a famously quick learner of everything from UX design to actual rocket science.
Ultimately I think his ex-wife’s answer is misleading. Some of the stuff you can spend time reading will help you only a little — narratives constructed after the fact, voyeuristic peeks into other people’s “setups.” But a lot of what’s out there can be very useful as you tackle the challenges you will inevitably face. The trick is to know which content is which.
In fact, Justine Musk agrees with me on this. She later left a second, clarifying answer:
I said that a) extremely successful people tend not to waste time surfing the ‘Net and b) they are more likely to read books. They read more than the average person and they read deeper than the average person.
There’s a difference between gawking and learning; Elon does the latter. So should we all.