Career advice: five tips for students from Elon Musk

17 August 2018 -

elon musk

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has this career advice for students as they receive their exam results

Jermaine Haughton

Known for his bold leadership as CEO of tech firm Tesla, Elon Musk is renowned for his strong views. This is his advice for students who may have just received their exam results and be planning their next steps. 

Skills over degrees

During a 2014 interview, Musk suggested young people should not be obsessed about which university degree they take and where they take it, as it isn’t always a requirement for achieving a great career. 
“There is no need to even have a college degree, at all,” said Musk. “If someone graduated from a great university that may be an indication that they will be capable of great things but it’s not necessarily the case.”
Although Musk admits that education is important, the business magnate says the development and application of key skills in real-life working environments give employers a greater indication of what talent a young star can bring to their organisation. 

Agree? Try a CMI-accredited degree apprenticeship. School leavers and even current employees can be paid to train with well-known companies such as Barclays and IBM and receive a degree qualification at the end of the programme. 

A full guide to apprenticeships is here. You can also read the personal stories of six current degree apprentices for more information. 

Elon Musk says learn the basics of any topic first

Elon Musk is one of few business leaders who can say he’s mastered the complexities of electric car manufacturing, nevermind rocket science as well. 
During a Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ discussion, Musk revealed the secret to learning large amounts of complicated information quickly is a ‘root-and-branch’ approach to research. This requires learners to understand the basics of a subject they are studying before focusing on the more detailed elements. 
“I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying,” Musk claimed. 
“One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree: make sure you understand the fundamental principles – the trunk and big branches – before you get into the leaves/details, or there is nothing for them to hang on to,” he added. 

Focus on what matters and avoid distractions 

Musk advises future leaders to focus on activities that will drive their career, business and life. He spends most of his energy and time finding ways to make his ground-breaking Tesla electric sports cars better.
Musk has said: “At Tesla, we’ve never spent any money on advertising. We’ve put all our money into engineering, design, and manufacturing to build the best car possible. When we consider spending money, we ask, ‘will this create a better product?’ If not, we don’t proceed with spending the money.”
Need to get more done in your day? Try our 12 productivity hacks

Look for criticism wherever you can find it

For successful leaders like Musk, constructive criticism is sought-after. Awareness of your weaknesses can help you make the changes needed to reach your goals. 
“You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong,” commented Musk. 
Explaining his approach to product development, Musk has recalled: “When I spoke with someone about the Tesla Model S, I didn’t really want to know what’s right about the car. I wanted to know what was wrong about the car.
“When my friends get a product, I ask them not to tell me what they like. Rather, they tell me what they don’t like. And if I’ve asked that a few times of people, then they will start automatically telling me without me having to ask.”

Read more: As a management technique, one investment firm in the USA has taken honest feedback to the extreme. Bridgewater Associates asks its employees to score each other on apps on a daily basis in the spirit of transparency and motivation. 

Be a fearless risk-taker

Having invested money in the risky SpaceX and Tesla businesses, Musk says fear should not hold people back if they have few responsibilities. 
“People tend to overstate risks on a personal level,” he said. “It’s one thing if you’ve got a mortgage to pay and kids to support… if you were to deviate from your job, well, how are you going to feed your family and pay the rent? 
“That’s understandable, but let’s say you’re young and you’re just coming out of college, what are your risks? You’re not going to starve, certainly not in any kind of modern economy.
“It’s so easy to earn enough money just to live somewhere and eat food. Very easy to do. So I don’t know what they’re afraid of. Mostly afraid of failure, I think, but people should be less risk averse, when there’s not much at risk.” 

Are you a future leader? The Chartered Management Institute has launched The Future Leaders Network for aspiring early-career professionals. Further details are here, and you can register to join here

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