First Principles: Elon Musk's Famous Thinking Technique
Elon Musk is, without a doubt, one of the most progressive thinkers of our time. His ability to innovate has been a driver for technical progress and may one day prove instrumental for the future multi-planetary survival of the human species.
No matter what you think of him, whether you like him or not, Elon Musk is a genuinely creative thinker who puts his ideas into action. His constant testing of concepts, problem breakdown, and action-oriented approach have been highly effective. So how does he do it? And can we learn from him?
During an interview with Chris Anderson, Elon Musk explains the first principles method of thinking: "Generally I think there are -- what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations."
Basically, this means approaching every problem as a beginner, asking many questions, and not using analogies and solutions, which others have already used, whether they are the same or slightly changed.
First principles thinking isn't new. It dates back to Aristotle in ancient Greece. In his Metaphysics, he referred to it as "the first causes from which a thing is known." It is a method for reasoning that breaks down problems into their fundamentals. Once you've broken down a problem to its essential parts that you know are true, then you can start building up your argument from there and achieve new solutions.
Let's talk about how you can use this technique in real life. What does it mean to break down a problem to its core? It sounds easy to "deconstruct" a problem, but it's a little bit harder in real life. What you have to do is to break the issue into the tiniest pieces you can. The most fundamental parts that you can think of, or, if that's not possible, go at least a few levels deeper than most people. When breaking down the problem, move from truths you know are true for you or your experience (subjective truths) to universally valid ones (objective truths). For instance, when understanding the concept of ice cream, focus not on what is known to you (specific flavors, colors, textures, etc.) but on what is universally known (the idea of a refreshing dessert). A common obstacle to first principles thinking is that we tend to think about form when we optimize rather than function. When innovating, try to effectively change the purpose of an object, not its appearance. The same is also true about innovating ideas.
One of the best examples of first principles thinking is the story of the shipping container. The transportation of goods by sea has been used for centuries. Still, despite the advance of naval technology, it had essentially been the same. It was ineffective, expensive, and slow until the mid-20th century. That is up until Malcom McLean reinvented it. And he did it not by using new technologies but by proceeding to the fundamentals. McLean deconstructed the principles of his truck driving business (using truck trailers), the containers used for passengers' luggage on trains, and the ineffective transportation of goods by sea. By examining these three to their fundamentals, he built the idea of the intermodal shipping container and revolutionized the transportation business.
Now let's get back to Elon Musk. His most famous use of the principle was when he had the idea to send a rocket to Mars. The first problem he encountered was the astronomical price of rockets – tens of millions of dollars. Rather than give up, he began to reformulate his problem: "So I said, OK, let's look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around 2 percent of the typical price—which is a crazy ratio for a large mechanical product." Thus, SpaceX was born, and rocket launching was revolutionized.
First principles thinking is valuable because it helps you gain new insights into a problem. Breaking down things and then assembling them in unexpected ways, sometimes even integrating parts from different fields into one, has proven to deliver highly innovative solutions. It will help you gain new insights into your life and work.
Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash