Exceptional Performance

In an old interview at Tesla, Elon Musk shared some insights into his highering practices:

“There’s no need even to have a college degree at all or even high school. I mean if someone graduated from a great university, that maybe an indication that they will be capable of great things, but it is not necessarily the case… we are looking just for evidence of exceptional ability, and if there’s a track record of exceptional achievement then it’s likely that that will continue into the future.”

Elon Musk

So, what is exceptional?

1, Forming an exception; not ordinary; uncommon; rare
2, Better than the average; superior due to exception or rarity.


When searching for ‘Exceptional performance’, I found this interesting appraisal quote from the University of California, Davis’s HR pages:

“Exceptional Performance: Performance consistently or far exceeded expectations.” UC Davis

And ability and achievement?

Ability: possession of the means or skill to do something.

Oxford Languages

Achievement: A thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage.

Oxford Languages

Can you define what exceptional ability and achievement look like in your field? If not, the Global skills and competency framework for the digital world (SFIA) is a good place to start.

Elon Musk’s Semantic Trees

I am a big fan of Elon Musk. He was born gifted, but he has been able to master how to learn, he reads a lot, surrounds himself with experts, and does a lot of experiments. Has been able to identify industries such as banking, energy, transportation, and space, that are important to the future of humanity and apply his unique thinking and resources to disrupt these fields.

One of the things that makes him unique is his ability to identify and master the core principles of a chosen field and then apply these to disruptive solutions. Elon Musk believes that most people have limited their capacity for creativity by not knowing how to outline their information in a way that leads to new connections.

Elon Musks has two stages of learning:

  1. Semantic trees – build the trunk on first principles
  2. Make connections – add peripheral knowledge as connections to these principles

Semantic trees

Not everything you learn in a field is equally important; some elements are central, and others are peripheral. Identify these central elements and then master them first before moving on to the peripheral elements.  

the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” Elon Musk

Taking this semantic tree approach, you can create a conceptual framework of the fundamental ideas and central debates of a discipline to help you come up with new ideas that have value. Naval Ravikant suggests a similar idea when talking about aiming to be able to pick up any book in a library and understand it. By learning the fundamentals of a subject first, and then you can pick up and understand any text in that field.

Introductory textbooks are a great place to start building a conceptual framework for a new field. You can usually find the reading list for many university introductory courses on their websites as a starting point when looking at a new area. These introductory courses for some of the best universities in the world can also be found on Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) platforms like EdX and Coursera if you need a more directed starting point. 

Make connections

We remember things better by associating them with something we already know. The fundamental knowledge of an area can be used as ‘hooks’ for new learning to be attached, speeding up your understanding and helping you remember more of what you read. Once you have built the foundational truck of your semantic tree, you can start to read more widely around a subject to construct vast trees in across multiple sectors. By starting with the core knowledge and then adding the peripheral knowledge to the truck of core principles, you will find that although slower, in the beginning, you will be able to go much further and faster with your learning in the long term. 

One approach that Bill Gates suggests is to find the leading thinker in a field and read everything they have published. This approach allows you to quickly find interesting peripheral knowledge and understand how these have been linked to the core principles by an existing expert. Once you have your semantic trees, over time, you can start to connect your current knowledge and new ideas as you come across them, using these connections to come up with new usable insights that can help you build experiments in your work.

Build your first tree

When approaching a new area, first learn the core principles and then move on to the advanced material, making connections to these core principles for faster and better learning. Build the truck first and then read everything you can to make the connections.

Try building a tree now; 

  1. Open a blank document (paper or digital) and write the disciple as a title at the top of the page. 
  2. Have a go at listing five to six fundamental principles in that area; these might be a formula in a maths-based subject or rules in a non-technical discipline.
  3. Try to find the reading list of an introductory module at the top university for that subject and edit your list with these new items.
  4. Now you have the trunk for your semantic tree, add any peripheral knowledge, ideas, or debates you can think of, using the core text and a google search to help. 
  5. Connect the peripheral elements to the fundamental principles you believe they relate to in your tree.

Connect with me on Twitter if you want to discuss these ideas.