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Learn By Doing

I know this may seem odd coming from someone who owns/runs a private academy, but increasingly I believe you learn best by doing the thing you’re trying to get good at. Broad background reading and study are helpful when learning a new skill – but they can’t replace doing the real thing. Although of course instruction plus practice beats practice alone, part of what needs to be learned is to be comfortable and even confident when faced with a task that has no immediate roadmap for success and for which you have no specific skills and experience for. 

Most if not all the tasks worth doing – let’s call this group of tasks that require “innovating” – have an element of uncertainty/complexity for which there are no real pre-existing methods or solutions for solving these tasks’ challenges. 

So everyone told Elon Musk that creating an electric car company from scratch was doomed to fail. He had no experience in the car or manufacturing businesses. The lithium battery was a work in progress when Elon started out, and there hadn’t been a new American car manufacturer that succeeded in two generations. Suffice to say there was no real roadmap for Elon to follow. He would need to constantly innovate – and inspire in those that he hired that it was possible to solve the technical and business challenges.

We know what happened – he persevered and eventually, he and his various engineering/business teams innovated and solved the challenges – but how did he do it? First and foremost, he was comfortable not knowing for sure beforehand what the solutions were. Next, the process was not trial and error, although there was some of that – mostly the solutions arose by learning while doing the work, by setting out on the road and putting one foot in front of the other. 

The 1st battery prototype he and his team came up with required many iterations, each of which added to the team’s collective experience, until they finally arrived at a working battery model that tested well enough to proceed to manufacturing a few for real-world testing. On the business side, there were no distributors and no customer base, and not a lot of banks or investors willing to take a risk on something no one really believed was possible. But Elon figured “if you build it they will come”. And so it proved to be. He just did it, and “let the chips fall where they may”.

He’s said many times he and his teams messed up a lot along the way, but the crucial thing is they learned from their mistakes and persevered. By taking a risk and being disciplined about how they went about following through. How you learn to do that – to learn from mistakes and to persevere – is by DOING.