The three traits that turn ordinary people into modern superheroes

It turns out Hollywood was right all along. Besides making great documentaries about space like The Martian, movie studios are also remarkably on point about superheroes. They just got the powers real people use to transform into legends slightly wrong. Rather than flight or invincibility, real superheroes share three traits:

  1. The ability to teach themselves
  2. Speaking and writing persuasively
  3. Technical literacy

Take Elon Musk, founder and/or CEO of PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity, Neuralink, and the Boring Company with a net worth north of $20 billion. How was Musk able to create Tesla, the first successful American car startup in over one hundred years which, at times, has been worth more than GM despite selling less than 1/100 the number of cars? How was he able to start and keep alive SpaceX, a private spaceflight company that started out with three disastrous failures? Simple: Musk used all of these superpowers better than other any human alive.

Teach Yourself, Free Yourself

If you cannot teach yourself, then you will only learn from others and will be limited to what they want you to know. Autodidacticism, the ability to educate yourself, frees you from the constraints of a traditional education.

Totally valid excuse to skip class

Conventional studies tend to focus on a narrow topic. This severely limits career flexibility and innovation potential of those who cannot learn on their own. As Steven Johnson points out in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, all significant innovations have come from connections between fields, not from deep within a specific field. This blurring of boundaries is called the “adjacent possible”, and is created by the ability to cross from one topic to another, a trait not instilled in us by structured education.

Further, we corner ourselves into a specific career definition because we focus on a single topic in school and do not feel comfortable trying to learn a new subject. Change is difficult, and we tell ourselves we can’t leave an awful job because we don’t know anything different. This not only makes you a terrible conversation partner (trust me, no one wants to hear the particulars of your mechanical engineering education at dinner), it also means you will be stuck working for others in unsatisfactory conditions your entire life. Education, specifically self-education, is the best way to ensure you get to live life on your terms.

Musk, a business and physics major by training, took this lesson by heart. There was nothing in his college education that would have prepared him to start an online payments company, a rocket company, or an electric vehicle company. Musk has never been constrained by his education. Instead of backing away from the challenge of starting a rocket company despite knowing little rocket science, he defined his goal and then devoted himself to a study of aerospace engineering. He also surrounded himself with the brightest individuals in the field, demonstrating that a necessary part of self education is never being the smartest person in the room.

By teaching himself what school would not, Musk was able to learn enough to figure out how to get stuff into space cheaper than anyone else — and build a multi-billion dollar company in the process. If Musk becomes the first man to set foot on Mars, it won’t be because a professor taught him how to get there in class.

Make them Believe Anything

Musk’s autodidacticism allowed him to create his companies, but his ability to convince people these businesses would prosper is what has allowed them to succeed. When Musk first announced the Tesla Model 3, over 500,000 people deposited $1000 for the opportunity to buy a car they hadn’t seen in person and wouldn’t be delivered for years. Tesla conducted no mass-marketing sales campaign, they merely gave Musk a stage and he did the rest. While Musk’s talks are not the polished deliveries of business school classes, he makes up for it with his exceptional portrayal of the future. He is persuasive because he sells not products, but a vision of utopia that will be obtained only by buying into his companies.

I want to live in Musk’s Future

Painting a vision of the future was a tactic also employed by another extraordinary CEO (and great salesman), the late Steve Jobs. Numerous companies developed mobile phones and tablets before the iPhone or iPad, but only Jobs was able to convince us we actually needed them. His speech announcing the first iPhone in 2007 makes the smartphone seem extraordinary even today. People do not willingly adopt a new argument based solely on its merits, you have to show them that your idea will improve their lives and is something they can’t live without.

Writing clearly and persuasively is another critical aspect of achieving superhuman power. Think of a physicist. Who was the first person to come to mind? Probably Stephen Hawking or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, not because they are the most brilliant in their field, but because they have the best public outreach. Some people take the length of a work to be the measure of sophistication, but in fact, it's the opposite: those who can communicate their ideas in the shortest amount of time or words best understand those ideas.

A study conducted at Princeton showed people rate papers with understandable words as more intelligent than papers with long, complex words. Moreover, they were more likely to accept the author’s ideas when they were presented in clear language. As the studies author’s conclude: “All in all, the effect is extremely robust: needless complexity leads to negative evaluations”. Great speakers and writers aim for the fewest words with the greatest impact. Whenever I write or speak I think of the following single word:

cogent: clear, logical, and convincing

There is no better summary of how to communicate.

Harness Technology to do your Bidding

When I say you need to be technically literate, I do not mean you need to understand how to build your own computer. A simple knowledge of how to make things easier with the appropriate tools can make you seem like a genius. While interning at NASA, I saw the country’s smartest individuals literally doing rocket science in Excel. I knew a little Python (a common coding language), and building on some code I copied from the internet, I was able to automate colleagues’ tasks and save them hundreds of hours. Instantly, I was transformed from a lowly intern into the hero of my division. Technical literacy is often not about inventing an answer from scratch, but rather adopting an existing solution to fit your problem.

Our two model CEOs were no strangers to the idea of building upon tech that already existed. Apple was successful by creating a user-friendly product and acting at the right time when the technology — the PC, the smartphone, or the iPad — had matured to the point that anyone could figure it out. Often, the inventor of a technology does not reap the benefits because they are too early or do not see the potential applications. Finding ways to implement an invention is often more important than developing the idea. Musk did not create the internet or online commerce, but he was able to take advantage of existing platforms to found his first successful venture, PayPal.

One doesn’t need to understand neural networks or artificial intelligence to be a tech wizard. Often, just being able to get a computer working by turning it off and on will win you immense adoration. One of the principles of technical literacy is to solve the problem using the easiest solution. Making a useful calendar with reminders does not require machine learning, only Google and a few minutes of tinkering. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, and with a little trial and error, we can harness it for that purpose.

While Musk and Jobs demonstrated all three traits, you don’t need to master all three to become a productive member of society. Simply keep these superpowers in mind as you go through daily actions. The next time you want to learn a topic, don’t look first at a list of college courses, but consider if you can teach it to yourself, preferably with real examples. If you have to give a presentation, work on making your point with as few slides as possible and try writing cogent emails. Finally, don’t be intimidated by our digital world and understand we control our technology. By harnessing these superpowers you might not get a movie made about you (although Jobs did), but you will be better equipped to construct a life on your own terms and shape the world to your liking.

As always, I welcome feedback and constructive criticism. I can be reached on Twitter at @koehrsen_will. I would like to thank Taylor Koehrsen PharmD for her help in editing this post!

Data Scientist at Cortex Intel, Data Science Communicator