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Five ways Benjamin Franklin shaped Elon Musk.

Five ways Benjamin Franklin shaped Elon Musk.

When people ask Elon Musk how he learned to build rockets, he has a simple answer. 'I read books.'

20 June 2018 · 4 min read


  • You can teach yourself difficult skills;
  • Improving yourself personally can help you professionally;
  • Manage your time and money wisely;
  • Read;
  • Innovation stems from solving basic problems.

Elon Musk has become a household name thanks to his success in the business world.

Born in South Africa, Musk’s early schooling life was difficult. Nicknamed ‘Muskrat,’ he was picked on a lot. As a result it is reported that 'in his loneliness, he read a lot of fantasy and science fiction.'

Since then Musk has gone on to become a world renowned business magnate, investor, engineer, and inventor.

But he still credits literature for his triumph. "I was raised by books. Books, and then my parents," Musk said in an interview in 2017.

One book Musk continually praises is "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life," by Walter Isaacson, the biographer who famously chronicled the life of Steve Jobs.

The biography explores the inner workings of Franklin, who, it can be argued, shared the same entrepreneurial drive Musk has.

In fact, the billionaire says Franklin is one of his personal heroes.

"I would say, certainly, he's one of the people I most admire," Musk says in an interview with Kevin Rose on his podcast Foundation. "Franklin was pretty awesome."

Franklin's story of building a printing business, inventing bifocal glasses and creating the lightning rod, among other feats, provided Musk with inspiration for creating new products and launching businesses.

"You can see how [Franklin] was an entrepreneur," the Tesla CEO says. "He started from nothing. He was just a runaway kid."

In the biography, there are five things we can learn from the American author, inventor, scientist and diplomat that inspired Musk.

1. You can teach yourself difficult skills

After running away from from his hometown, Boston, to Philadelphia at age 17, Franklin found work at a printing house. Surrounded by books and newspapers at his apprenticeship, he felt his own writing skills were not up to scratch.

So he decided to teach himself the craft.

Isaacson's biography features this telling account from Franklin: "I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again."

Similarly and arguably slightly more impressive, Musk is said to have taught himself about space exploration and rocket science simply by reading textbooks and talking to experts.

2. Improving yourself personally can help you professionally

Franklin was very keen on improving himself. When he was 21, he started his own kind of book club for intellectuals and artists. They would come together to talk about what they were reading and ideas they had on how to improve their community.

The club, called "Junto," had the two ingredients Musk credits with his own success: books and inspiration from other like-minded people.

Through this club, he learned about the importance of networking, which helped him throughout his career. The author and diplomat would go on to become the first U.S. ambassador to France and was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence.

Franklin also worked to refine his communication skills, which helped him gain trust and respect from his peers. According to Isaacson, he was a "consummate networker" who was "gifted" in making diplomatic deals come to fruition.

3. Manage your time and money wisely

Isaacson recounts how Franklin would take every measure possible to stay focused on using his money and time wisely, vowing, "to apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand".

Franklin developed a strict daily schedule for himself, which included time for learning, physical exercise and self-reflection.

And though he took measures to hide it in front of company, he made an effort to save as much of his income as possible. Franklin was always thinking about he could improve himself as well as the city of Philadelphia. In addition to playing a crucial role in local and national politics, Franklin started a library, a hospital, an insurance company and a fire station.

He also took care to "not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich," he wrote, "for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty".

Musk's career was also years in the making.

He started coding when he was 12 years old, tried his hand at finance, toyed with the idea of getting a Phd and had to deal with multiple setbacks while becoming an entrepreneur, including the more recent failure of some of his rocket launches. Despite this, he kept working.

4. Fast-track your career by reading

Franklin, like Musk, loved books. They helped him save money and gain skills faster than his colleagues.

For example, after the writer and inventor read a book on vegetarianism, he embraced the diet, realising it would help him out financially. He used the money he saved by not purchasing meat to buy books, Isaacson recounts.

While his coworkers left work to eat large meals, Franklin would eat a lean meal of biscuits and raisins and use his free time to study.

"I made the greater progress from that greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension which usually attend temperance in eating and drinking," Franklin wrote.

5. Innovation is born from solving the most basic problems

"[Franklin's] focus tended to be on how ordinary issues affect everyday lives, and on how ordinary people would build a better society," Isaacson writes. "But that did not make him an ordinary man.''

The inventor changed the way people read with his bifocal glasses as well as the way people heated their homes by creating the Franklin Stove, which could be used to cook food and heat a home from the center of a room.

And of course, he verified the nature of electricity during the 1750s with his famous kite experiment, which would fast-track the exploration of technology.

Musk appears to have a similar mentality for how he approaches the world. His drive to improve the process of making online payments and create more energy-efficient transportation helped shape PayPal and Tesla.

"I like autobiographies," Musk says. "I think [they] are pretty helpful."

It's no surprise then that Franklin is someone the billionaire entrepreneur looks up to.

If you want to find out more about ‘The Newton of Electricity,’ we have taken a deeper look at his life in a previous blog post titled: Be Patient, It’s Worth It.

The information in this article is prepared by Spaceship Capital Limited (ABN 67 621 011 649, AFSL 501605). It is general in nature as it has been prepared without taking account of your objectives, financial situation or needs.

Lachie Brown is a growth marketer here at Spaceship. With experience as a regional journalist and a curious bent of mind, he enjoys writing about absolutely anything.

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