This Innovation Expert's Research Shows How Anyone Can Be Like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs

Use these three strategies to nurture your own breakthrough innovation potential.

learn more about Melissa A. Schilling

By Melissa A. Schilling

Peter Parks | Getty Images

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Elon Musk has famously said, "I think ordinary people can choose to be extraordinary." Of course, Musk is not ordinary. He is exceptionally intelligent. As Ashlee Vance notes in the biography he wrote about Musk, he can perform complex physics calculations in his head in real time, and he can rapidly absorb vast amounts of information with almost perfect recall. But, genius is neither a required nor guaranteed ingredient for making profoundly important breakthrough innovations. A close examination of Musk's life -- as well as the lives of other significant serial breakthrough innovators -- reveals some key strategies he uses, and you can use, to become a breakthrough innovator yourself.

Related: 18 Weird Things We've Learned About Jeff Bezos

1. Cultivate a grand ambition.

A huge part of what motivates innovators like Musk, Nikola Tesla or Steve Jobs, is a lofty idealistic goal. None of these innovators came to an industry thinking "how can I incrementally extend existing products?" or "what product has a high likelihood of generating a profit?" Their focus was instead on how they could revolutionize some aspect of human life. This goal was often more important to them than comfort, leisure, or even family and health. An idealistic goal can provide intense intrinsic motivation, fueling you to exert tremendous effort. Furthermore, if it's something you believe is intrinsically honorable or noble, it provides a form of ego-defense that helps you persist even in the face of criticism or failure, and may also help win others to your cause. Part of why Musk has so many supporters, for example, is that his goals of colonizing Mars and moving the auto industry to renewable energy strike a deep idealistic chord for many people.

Related: 5 Habits That Made Elon Musk an Innovator

2. Believe you can overcome all obstacles and achieve your objectives.

It sounds like something you might read on a cat poster, but another uniting feature of Musk, Tesla, Jobs, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and other innovators is an intense faith in their own ability to overcome obstacles. This "self-efficacy," as psychologists refer to it, can motivate people to take on tasks that other people would deem impossible, and to stick with them even when the going gets tough. When Musk announced his intention to create reusable rockets, space industry veterans said it was impossible, but Musk remained coolly confident and responded that he thought he could do it. That "I think I can do it" is key -- Musk's gut level faith in his ability to achieve any goal, and overcome any obstacle, is one of the most important aspects of his character that has made him a larger-than-life innovator.

Related: 21 Weird Things You Didn't Know About Mark Zuckerberg

Dean Kamen, inventor of the world's first portable kidney dialysis machine, the world's first portable drug-infusion pump, the Segway and the Slingshot machine that can turn anything wet into clean drinking water exhibits this belief, too. When people told him his goal of making a wheelchair that could balance on two wheels was impossible, he reportedly said in an Esquire interview, "Don't tell me it's impossible ... tell me you can't do it .... Tell me it's never been done," and then he proceeded to do it, creating the iBot mobility wheelchair that, among other things, can climb stairs. Exceptional self-efficacy can help individuals take on enormous challenges, and stick with them no matter how hard they become.

3. Spend time thinking and working alone; challenge assumptions, and embrace your weirdness.

Another big part of why Musk, Einstein and Jobs were able to be such original thinkers is because they had a sense of "separateness" -- a feeling of being different or disconnected from the crowd, which freed them to reject the conventional wisdom and assumptions that constrained others. Einstein wrote about this at length in an essay titled "The World as I see it," noting,

"I gang my own gait and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties I have never lost an obstinate sense of detachment, of the need for solitude -- a feeling which increases with the years .... Such a person no doubt loses something in the way of geniality and light-heartedness; on the other hand, he is largely independent of the opinions, habits and judgments of his fellow and avoids the temptation to take his stand on such insecure foundations."

Related: Amazon's Lesson About Disruption: Rattle Any Market You Can

When Musk was a child, he was small, nerdy and frequently bullied. He had few friends, and had such a curiously introspective streak that his family thought he might be deaf. However, like other serial breakthrough innovators I have studied, he was an insatiable reader who read every book in the local library, and even memorized long tracts from the encyclopedia, and taught himself to program computers. Later he taught himself rocket science. Many serial breakthrough innovators have this tendency of working on their own and being "auto-didactic" -- they enjoy teaching themselves. This helps them form their own beliefs about how the world works and what can be done, rather than letting others define that for them.

One of the most exciting things about studying Musk and other breakthrough innovators is that it reveals that even though these people often have special, difficult-to-imitate abilities or traits, the mechanisms by which these abilities and traits lead to innovation are often something we can tap ourselves. We can nurture our own breakthrough innovation potential and the breakthrough potential of others.

Related Video: Why You Shouldn't Try to Be the Next Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg

Melissa A. Schilling

John Herzog Family Professor of Management at New York University

Related Topics

Editor's Pick

This 61-Year-Old Grandma Who Made $35,000 in the Medical Field Now Earns 7 Figures in Retirement
A 'Quiet Promotion' Will Cost You a Lot — Use This Expert's 4-Step Strategy to Avoid It
3 Red Flags on Your LinkedIn Profile That Scare Clients Away
'Everyone Is Freaking Out.' What's Going On With Silicon Valley Bank? Federal Government Takes Control.

How to Detect a Liar in Seconds Using Nonverbal Communication

There are many ways to understand if someone is not honest with you. The following signs do not even require words and are all nonverbal queues.

Celebrity Entrepreneurs

'I Dreaded Falling in Love.' Rupert Murdoch Is Getting Hitched for the Fifth Time.

The 92-year-old media tycoon announces he will wed former San Francisco police chaplain Ann Lesley Smith.

Business News

Carnival Cruise Wants Passengers to Have Fun in the Sun — But Do This, and You'll Get Burned With a New $500 Fee

The cruise line's updated contract follows a spate of unruly guest behavior across the tourism industry.

Starting a Business

Selling Your Business? Do These 6 Things Right Now.

If you want the maximum price you need to make these moves before you do anything else.


5 Practical Strategies Founders Can Use to Improve Their Mental Health

Supporting your mental health is one of the most important investments you can make in your company. If you're unsure where to begin, choose one of these strategies and focus on implementing it in your everyday life.


How Great Entrepreneurs Find Ways to Win During Economic Downturns

Recessions are an opportunity to recalibrate and make great strides in your business while others are unprepared to brave the challenges. Here's how great entrepreneurs can set themselves up for success despite economic uncertainty.