Elon Musk isn’t your typical CEO. For that matter, he’s not what you typically think of when you picture a man worth almost a quarter trillion dollars. His habits are a little different than what you might typically expect.
For example, he lives in a $50,000 home on the property of his rocket company, SpaceX, after selling most of his physical possessions, including his homes. He also has a particularly unconventional Twitter habit that has sometimes gotten him in trouble.
Of course, it’s hard to argue with the success Musk has had over the past few years. Tesla, the electric vehicle company he runs, is the world’s most valuable automaker. SpaceX, the rocket company he founded, is years ahead of its private space company competition. Those two companies together have made him worth more than $230 billion–more than anyone, ever.
All of that success means that a lot of people are particularly interested in how he stays so productive. The answer, in a lot of ways, comes down to habits–even the unusual ones.
The thing about habits is that they have a lot to do with how we act without even thinking. We condition ourselves to do things a certain way, out of habit. Habits can be pretty small. For example, some people get up early and work out before they start their day. They’ve made it a habit.
Other habits are bigger. You might have a specific daily routine for the things you have to accomplish. By creating a process and doing them in the same order, it becomes a habit, allowing you to focus your mental energy elsewhere.
Here’s an interesting habit: Assume you’re wrong. The next time you have to make an important decision, what would you do differently if you assumed your way was wrong? Or, the next time you have a conversation, how would you listen differently if you assumed the person you’re talking to had information that can help you?
That’s exactly what Musk suggests, and it might be his most unusual habit of all.
“You should take the approach that you’re wrong,” Musk said in an interview in 2014. “Your goal is to be less wrong.”
Notice, he didn’t say the goal is to be right. That’s an important distinction, especially for entrepreneurs, who have invested their time and resources in an idea. You very much want your way to be right. Hearing that your approach might be wrong is sort of an anathema. The problem, however, is that sometimes you actually are.
Your goal should be to succeed, not win the argument. Your goal shouldn’t be to protect your pride, but to build the best thing you can. The people close to you are often in a unique position. They understand you and what you’re trying to accomplish, but they aren’t so close that they can’t see what’s in your blind spots.
“A well-thought-out critique of whatever you’re doing is as valuable as gold,” Musk said. “You should seek that from everyone you can, but particularly your friends. Usually, your friends know what’s wrong, but they don’t want to tell you because they don’t want to hurt you.”
The point is to realize you have blind spots and assume that whatever is in them could derail everything. Then, ask people you trust to reveal what’s in those blind spots.
I say it’s unusual, because, well, for the type of person who becomes the wealthiest man on earth, hearing “you’re wrong,” can’t be easy. Thinking that you’re wrong is even harder. For that matter, CEOs–whether they happen to be a billionaire or not–aren’t very good at hearing those words. As a result, they end up shutting off a valuable source of information.
Musk’s position is that you should assume that whatever you think about a situation is probably missing something important. Your job, then, isn’t to find out how right you already are but to find the information you need to be more right. Maybe it will turn out that you had it all figured out. Good for you.
Most of the time, however, you’ll learn something. Most of the time, someone will have an important piece of information. As a result, you’ll make a better decision. Ultimately, that should be the point.
I’ll admit this approach isn’t just unusual, it’s downright difficult. That’s why it’s helpful to practice. After all, the way you turn something into a habit is by practicing over time. Start with one conversation. It doesn’t have to be something big.
It might even be easier if you take this approach with something minor. That way, it’ll be easier to swallow your pride and open your ears to hear whatever it is your team has to say. It might even become a habit.