If you haven’t seen Elon Musk‘s commencement address to the USC Marshall School of Business, watch it now — there’s a trove of advice for up-and-coming business leaders that’s applicable in every industry. (Yes, it’s a few years old, but I think it’s important to revisit some of these essential lessons — especially in new year reflection mode.)
No matter what you think of Musk as a person, there’s one key piece of advice he noted that has relevance for each one of us:
Improve your focus by homing in on signal, not noise.
“A lot of companies get confused,” he said. “They spend money on things that don’t actually make the product better.”
There are two key points here worth digging into.
First, think of “product” as anything you’re working on, small or large.
From writing update emails to putting together an investor presentation, ask yourself: What does the best version of this look like? What is the outcome I want? Then work backwards, building steps that allow you to make your “product” better.
Second, train yourself to differentiate signal from noise.
Signals are those events, comments, experiences, and observations that can improve you, your employees, your product, or your company as a whole. Noise is what we confusingly identify as signal, but is really just pressure to go with the crowd or kowtow to others’ demands.
In short, signal moves you closer to the achievement of your goals. Noise moves you further away or stops you in your tracks.
To avoid getting lost in a sea of noise, ask yourself before making a decision, taking an action, or voicing a thought/opinion: Does this get me closer to or align with my goal(s)?
Admittedly, finding the line between noise and signal can be difficult. That’s why having trusted friends, colleagues, and advisors around to consult is so important. If you’re not sure what impact specific actions or words will have, bring them to those who understand your goals and can offer a measure of objectivity.
This aligns perfectly with another of Musk’s exhortations, offered during his commencement speech: “Attract great people — [people] you really respect.”
It really is that simple. Identify the right signals and the best people and success will be wholly attainable.