Is a 'Lack of Focus' Behind Elon Musk’s Ongoing Success?

A sketch of Musk's proposed Hyperloop capsule with passengers aboard Photograph by Tesla Motors via AP Photo

A few weeks ago, Elon Musk revealed his initial designs for the Hyperloop to the world. Musk has labeled the super-speed transit system a “cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.” Whatever the final designs are, Musk likely hopes the end product will look like disruptive innovation for mass transit.

The Hyperloop represents Musk’s attempt to disrupt a sixth industry. He began with news, dropping out of graduate school and founding Zip2 as a content-publishing platform for newspapers. With the money earned from selling Zip2, Musk turned to banking, co-founding the company that would grow into PayPal and be acquired by EBay. After that sale, Musk made the transition to aerospace. He founded Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which has dramatically pushed launch technology forward and even replaced the space shuttle as the system for supplying the International Space Station. While still working on SpaceX, Musk shook up the automobile field when he co-founded Tesla Motors, where he still serves as head of product design. Musk was also the impetus for SolarCity, one of the dominant providers of solar energy services in the United States. Musk remains chairman and largest shareholder at SolarCity, even as he heads Tesla and SpaceX.

Musk’s career seems counterintuitive, marked by a constantly shifting focus. He holds one bachelor’s degree in economics and a second in physics, but his range of activities goes far beyond just those domains. It’s perplexing that any one person can have such a series of successes in seemingly unrelated fields.

Indeed, Musk’s career stands in contrast to what I call the Expert Myth, one of many myths, or faulty beliefs, we have about creative people. The Expert Myth claims that innovation is typically the result of the most experienced or knowledgeable person in a field. In reality, breakthroughs are often made by people at the fringes of an activity, by those with a base of knowledge and the ability to bring fresh ideas to the table—people such as Elon Musk.

Musk isn’t the first of his kind, nor will he be the last. Consider Paul Erdos, one of the most famous mathematicians in history. Erdos published more papers than anyone else, at least 1,525 that we can verify. Erdos, too, was known for his tendency to constantly shift the focus of his research, sometimes arriving at the front door of a potential collaborator’s home and announcing, “My brain is open.” He and his collaborators would share knowledge from their respective specialties and provide each other with the benefits of an outsider’s perspective. This constant movement allowed Erdos to influence more areas within mathematics than any other academic.

It’s worth noting that Erdos stayed within the overall disciple of mathematics, just as Elon Musk’s companies tend to utilize his understanding of physics and technology. But within those broad disciplines, both men sought to keep a fresh mind by constantly shifting their focus. While it might be tempting to wonder what either could have accomplished had he focused on a specific niche (a common bit of career advice), both men seem to have benefited from shunning any single niche. Perhaps it was a lack of focus that drove both to produce disruptive innovation.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.