Asking Questions: Elon Musk understands that answers are less important

This interview shown below with Elon Musk and the very popular YouTube Channel ‘Everyday Astronaut’ was remarkable in many ways, so it is worth sharing here for those who don’t find themselves exposed to these kinds of things. I thought both participants in this interview were covering some very extraordinary aspects of our current culture and how we are getting from here to there so to speak. For me, I think the concept and pace of engineering that is going on at SpaceX regarding the Starship MK1 is truly transitory for our civilization and is one of the most important things going on in the world today. I’m a huge fan of the work SpaceX is doing on many levels, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that Elon Musk’s primary philosophical motivation is science fiction, especially the work of Douglas Adams in his pinnacle work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There is of course a little Star Wars sprinkled in for good effect behind the scenes making this interview unusual in the boyish optimism displayed that is unheard of in government driven attempts at space travel and for one main reason, the understanding that its not always the answers we seek, but the question.

For me the work of Joseph Campbell has always been what has unlocked the ceiling of intellectual potential. It doesn’t matter what does it for an individual, it could be Douglas Adams, George Lucas or Joseph Campbell, what matters is that the creative work does something to unlock the limits of human understanding by provoking the questions that need to be asked, instead of always focusing on the answer. Answers to questions are relative to the interpretations of those responding. What matters more than anything no matter what the endeavor is in life is in discovering the questions that then need answers, otherwise the results are always ambiguous. For this Starship MK1 where conventional avionic development would favor composite construction, due to a lack of autoclave availability in such sizes and not wanting to wait for one to be built, SpaceX moved on to this stainless steel design, which is brilliant not just esthetically, but in function. It is an excellent example of how asking the right questions can change everything and bring to life the benefits of invention.

And watching Elon Musk give that interview was a true delight, not in that it was a stuffy discussion about how smart all the engineers are and how dangerous space flight can be, but it was beholding the energy of a child who just wanted to play with new toys for the sake of discovering new questions to ask where smart people could relish in answering those ponderances. To do something for the joy of it that changes our perception of reality is quite an important thing to do and it all starts with the mechanisms of discovering the questions that need answers, otherwise answers without questions have no relevancy. It is the question that matters more than the answer.

This is certainly the case with all leadership functions, and when people wonder why CEOs or presidents of companies are so important to growth and prosperity it is for this basic function. A company can hire hundreds if not thousands of people to answer questions, but often it is only a small number of leadership who knows how to ask questions drawn out from obscurity to set people on a pace to discover an answer. If the questions are never asked, then what work is there for people to do to resolve it? So the creative aspect of something like building this new Starship is that Elon Musk thought to ask the questions of, “why can’t we make it out of stainless steel.” “Why can’t we fly it to Mars.” “Why can’t we refuel in space?” “Why, why, why.”

When humans stop asking questions is when they cease to become effective in their roles, and their intellectual decline is not long behind. Children naturally ask lots of questions, but we are all taught that at some point, maturity means you have the answers and questions are less and less asked—which is the state of decline for any culture. Seeing Elon Musk and his engineers at SpaceX asking lots of questions that often outpace what reporters even think of considering was refreshing because its not something we see much of these days unless you happen to be at a SpaceX media event, or a gathering of geeks and freaks at a local comic con. The optimism of those events is not in the answers, but in asking about the possibilities—the what if scenarios, even in science fiction ponderances. For Musk ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ inspired him to ask lots of questions and the results of those pursuits is in the creation of very wonderful things, like the Starship MK1 complete with its 6 Raptor engines carried to orbit by 37 others in the Super Heavy booster powered by cryogenic methane and liquid oxygen.

Innovation is always directly connected to having the ability to ask questions and to provoke a quest for answers, and that is the reason that everyone in the world is not equipped to be a leader at the level of a CEO. Its not the work that is important, the spreadsheets and presentations that are often associated with such roles, it’s in the ability to ask what if questions and to set the mind of others on fire seeking answers. A society without questions is one that is on the decline victimized by their own stagnation. And to see Elon Musk so alive with enthusiasm the way a seven-year-old might be is refreshing because we can all see the benefit. Musk when presented with a problem such as, “sir, we can’t find an autoclave anywhere in the world where we can build the fuselage out of composites.” “Well, what other material can we make it out of?” Thus, we have a question that unleashes a new technology and means to build very large craft to enter into space. Otherwise, in less innovative companies driven by less ambitious leaders, the engineering staff would have forced the project to remain on a path to stay within the confines of the accepted practices for aviation, which would be composite construction as someone builds an autoclave of the proper size.

Perhaps more important than asking the right questions is the ability to move quickly, and in that regard, that too comes from the ability to ask questions to keep everyone’s feet moving. Entering market share while imaginations are still hot is more important than all other aspects of development and the pace of engineering at SpaceX is remarkable because the employees are allowed to ask lots of questions and to drive innovation toward the proper answer for questions that are pursued beyond relativity, but in the abstract rules of science which are not discovered by any other means but in asking questions. The more questions the better. And when questions are asked, we as human beings come alive with that same excitement that we had as children discovering things for the first time, and that is what will ultimately save us. Its not the science we discover in the process, but in the quality of the questions we think to ask no matter what the means is in discovering which questions to ask as adventure demands the contemplation of a thinking species.

Rich Hoffman

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