Elon Musks’ “3-Step” First Principles Thinking: How to Think and Solve Difficult Problems Like a Genius

Mayo Oshin
Aug 30, 2017 · 7 min read
Musk (Flickr CC // Bill David Brooks)

First Principles Thinking

During a one on one interview with TED Curator, Chris Anderson, Musk reveals this missing link which he attributes to his genius level creativity and success. It’s called reasoning from “First Principles.” [1]

Musk: Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. 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.

In layman’s terms, first principles thinking is basically the practice of actively questioning every assumption you think you ‘know’ about a given problem or scenario — and then creating new knowledge and solutions from scratch. Almost like a newborn baby.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
— Albert Einstein

Here are some examples from everyday life in business, health and craft.

“It is important to view knowledge as sort of semantic tree. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” [2]

- Elon Musk

These fundamental principles are basically the most basic truths or elements of anything.

Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”

With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”
It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”

It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

This is classic first principles thinking in action.

“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”
— Mortimer Adler

Once you’ve identified and broken down your problems or assumptions into their most basic truths, you can begin to create new insightful solutions from scratch. [4]

Think Different

  1. Musk gave this answer to a question from a reader asking him how he learns so fast. (source)
  2. Musk’s interview with Kevin Rose on first principles thinking and battery analogy.
  3. This is not always easy. In fact, sometimes it can be a tough mental workout to use first principles thinking simply because it’s much easier to default back to what you already ‘know.’ Because of our prior assumptions and limiting beliefs, we have a tendency to only think of a very limited range of creative uses or solutions to any given problem. This is more formally known as “functional fixedness”.Dr.Tony McCaffery, Cognitive Psychologist and Innovation expert, has developed a simple method that can help us overcome this tendency and uncover creative solutions. You can read about his “general parts technique” here.
  4. Thanks to peter at renaissance man journal for some inspiring insights on first principles thinking.

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Mayo Oshin

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Uncovering the Hidden Science & Philosophy Behind Productivity @ Mayooshin.Com

The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org