Exploring the Edge of Possible

Will Feichter - February 18, 2016


“Maybe you guys should get some management training, or something?”

Although well-intentioned, I could hear something close to panicked frustration in my colleague’s voice. As a 22-year partner at the ever-unconventional Myriad Media, it’s not the first time I’ve received this sort of challenge. We’re determined to meet the future on our own terms in a world that eats bright ideas and best practices for breakfast. That comes at a price that my co-workers and I have paid many times: A loss of certainty coupled with an increase in anxiety. I deeply value the time and purpose of our people, so I’ve often wondered if this inclination to venture into the unknown is a good one. I call this exploring the edge of possible.

Perhaps it’s because we are in the middle of an exceptionally active period of change, but that call from my co-worker made me curious. How can we best deal with a lack of certainty in the pursuit of big dreams?

While searching for answers, I found this article by soccer player Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo describes going to the next level after meticulously studying the work of his hero, Antonio Augusto Ribeiro Reis. This surprising nugget of wisdom made me wonder, what insight would my own heroes offer? How do they navigate this so-called “edge of possible” while maintaining their equilibrium?

For me, that’s a question for explorers like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Carl Sagan. Musk in particular is an excellent case study. He states his current goal is to:

…change mankind’s outlook on being a multi-planetary species.

Specifically, he wants to save the human race from extinction by colonizing other planets. It starts with Mars. Have human beings ever set out to do something more challenged by the unknown?

At this moment, the key is to create rockets that can depart Earth and come back in tact. Without reuse, interplanetary travel simply isn’t feasible. The space shuttle was an attempt at a reusable rocket, but even its main tank was thrown away every time. The parts that were reusable took 10,000 people nine months to refurbish. The space shuttle ended up costing a billion dollars per flight (credit TED.)

10,000 people and a billion dollars!? The fact that no one has cracked this in the 58 years humans have been firing rockets spaceward makes it exceptionally daunting. Though lack of previous success makes the path steeper, it hasn’t stopped Musk and his engineers at SpaceX from venturing forth.

It’s a story chock full of imagination. A winding road of adventure, loss, and massive success. What follows are five distinct practices I’ve distilled from my own meticulous study of the most ambitious person of our time, Elon Musk.

Practice 1 – Visualize Possibility

“The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur.” Elon Musk


Renderings for the SpaceX Hyper Loop

Whether it’s Mars-bound rockets or earthly Hyper Loops, progress starts with possibility. Musk repeatedly spots opportunities others miss because his mind is tuned to see things as achievable. To me, there are three keys to this inclination:

1. A natural and relentless curiosity

2. The skill of holding different–sometimes opposite–streams of thought so as not to narrow your focus too quickly

3. The perspective to synthesize these streams into a new, better proposition.

According to Bruce Nussbaum, author of the book Creative Intelligence, “Successful mining of existing knowledge can reveal important patterns and show you possible paths to the new. Recognizing the important ‘dots’ and connecting them in different ways is what entrepreneurialism is about.”

One simple example: Musk takes the SpaceX drive for reusable, affordable rockets and connects it to another project to launch a fleet of low-earth-orbit satellites. The payoff? Cheap, high-speed internet access anywhere on Earth. Of our 7.3 billion inhabitants, there remain 4.4 billion without any internet access. Take a second to think about the multiple revolutions in the past decade with less than 50% of us having access to the web. Now, envision the change that will occur when everyone, at every distant corner, village, desert, or mountaintop can connect at a low price.

Indeed, the optimistic tendency to see things as possible and connecting diverse concepts to one another reveals opportunities others will miss.

Practice 2 – Embrace Risk

“…there’s a tremendous bias against taking risks. Everyone is trying to optimize their ass-covering.” (credit WIREDElon Musk

On one side of the ledger, Elon Musk can point to a list of notable achievements. On the other, there’s a much longer list you might think of as missteps, overreaches, and head-scratching screwups. Achievement and failure are two sides of the same coin. The key element binding them together is risk. Explorers like Musk understand the basic nature of this equation. While it’s wise to moderate risk, it’s actually unwise to eliminate it. It’s also impossible.

Think of risk as another tool in the box, just like money, expertise, and connections. If it’s not part of the equation, particularly in the early stages, your chances of long-term success will be relative. Richard Rocket, a space industry consultant, notes: “You cannot change the world the way SpaceX is trying to without having significant challenges. This is all part of the plan, not to experience launch failures, but to push things forward through iteration and innovation.” (credit Fortune.)


The Falcon 9 Crash-n-Burn

I’m sure Musk’s coffee seemed particularly bitter the morning after Falcon 9’s June 28, 2015 crash ’n’ burn. I’m also sure he quickly re-oriented and zoned in on the data this failed risk returned. Accordingly, we’re one step closer to eating our morning flakes as we watch moons Phobos and Deimos fade in the twilight. As Musk noted, “Failure is an option here.”

In my job of preparing our company for the future, I frequently feel a pull to convey certainty even when it doesn’t exist. This can put me in an uneasy state—hardly the right mindset for doing great work. For me, Musk’s Zen-like acceptance dials back the unrealistic pressure to always be certain. This prepares me to do better work, communicate more effectively with my team, and improve upon yesterday’s results.


A Martian Sunrise

I recently attended a talk on organizational change by Ari Weinzwig. He’s the visionary co-owner of Zingerman’s Deli and other ventures in a community of businesses called ZCoB located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. ZCoB has been noted as the coolest small company in America. There were three key themes in his peppery, whirlwind talk:

1. No one person has all the answers. That’s OK.

2. The crowd is far wiser than the individual. Every person should contribute.

3. We’ll figure it out together.

Weinzwig must have said, “We’ll figure it out together” six times in 75 minutes. ZCoB is a 33-year-old cultural treasure, has 10 different employee-owned businesses, 700 employees and did $59.3 million last year. An important reminder that when it comes to risk, failure and uncertainty: Keep the unique values that drove your previous accomplishments front and center. In other words, dance with who brung ya.

Practice 3 – Connect

I am struck by the number of experts Musk has in his network to help him tackle great problems. It doesn’t matter if it requires throwing back countless vodka shots with seedy, dollar-hustling Russian space vets, joining an admirable, yet geeky club of Mars enthusiasts, or recruiting aerospace students. Musk has surrounded himself with others more experienced, and perhaps smarter, than himself.


The SpaceX Dragon docking with the International Space Station

Practice 4 – Drill to the Fundamental Truth

Another aspect of Musk’s core is his use of “first principles thinking.” According to Musk, “The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.” (credit Kevin Rose & Foundation)

Using first principles to persistently inquire rather than copy, SpaceX was able to devise a method of rocket building that costs roughly two percent of conventional approaches.

Another good example is sister company Tesla’s challenge to the commonly accepted standard of electric cars: short range, low power and, well, dorky. By questioning assumptions about energy requirements and aesthetics, Tesla created the Roadster. This evolution has changed the way we think of electric cars and made their success more likely. Given that transportation is the cause of 30% of climate changing emissions, this shift is a big deal.


A Myriad Orange Tesla Roadster

First principles thinking can lead to major steps in progress, but it’s not a magic bullet. It requires substantial mental energy and time. It’s most useful when attempting something new and complicated rather than in day-to-day matters. When using first principles thinking, it’s critical to be flexible, solicit negative feedback (from friends, particularly), and embrace such feedback.

Starting from someone else’s baseline of how they approached a challenge will result in solutions relative to their baseline. Sometimes that’s good. But when looking for a bigger jump forward, drill until you reach the fundamental truth.

Practice 5 – Work with Purpose

Simply put, Musk is a hard-ass worker who doggedly pursues a problem until it’s solved. Ex-wife Justine Musk has described him as, not altogether affectionately, a “bear.” His typical work week is somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 hours. With three companies to run, that comes out to only 28.3 hours per company. Slacker!

The point here is not that Musk is successful because he works harder. Rather, it’s because he’s found challenges that are bigger than himself, whether it’s saving humanity from extinction or powering our cars with the sun.

At Myriad Media, we are just a small company of 35 folks. But we want to make a difference for those people. Our approach is to encourage our employees to find their “thing,” too: The one that doesn’t really feel like work, to which they are naturally called to give their best.

It’s clear Elon Musk has found work that effortlessly pulls the best from him. In my opinion, this adds a critical energy and passion that has allowed him to power through when the going gets tough.

For me, the most valuable insight on how to maintain poise during tough moments of uncertainty isn’t Musk’s ability to synthesize or include just the right amount risk. It’s not first principles thinking. It’s not the network, nor his passion-powered work ethic. It’s Musk’s unbridled optimism that a better way is out there. He is an explorer who has taken up permanent residence on the edge of possible, and has made a difference by doing so.

In our unique ways, we should each wander around this tricky territory. I can’t help but think my hero Carl Sagan would agree:

“Maybe it’s a little early. Maybe the time is not quite yet. But those other worlds— promising untold opportunities—beckon.” Carl Sagan