First Principles and the Art of Thinking like Elon Musk

Here’s a fun idea…

If Apple wasn’t competing with Tesla and were to re-run it’s famous “Think Different” campaign, would you place Elon Musk among the group of “crazy ones?”

He’s a rebel, a trouble maker and thinks he can change the world. Elon has a certain knack for thinking different.

Like Aristotle, Euclid, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla; Elon has a method to his “thinking different” madness. It’s called First principles thinking and anyone can use it.


What is first principles thinking?

First principles are the origins, main concepts or assumptions that cannot be deduced from anything else.

Thinking in terms of first principles is basically like starting your thinking or reasoning with the most essential facts.

First principles” is a physics way of looking at the world…what that really means is that you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there…that takes a lot more mental energy — Elon Musk

Why do I need it?

Thinking with first principles is important because it helps you get a better understanding of complex problems and concepts.

Your alternative, thinking by analogy is much easier and more popular. Analogous thinking can be quite useful when comparing past or current concepts.

The problem with analogous thinking is that it has the potential to miss the finer details needed when trying to understand the unknown. First principles clears a lot of these details up by getting to the origin of the concept.

Ok, how do I use it?

The best way to use first principle thinking is to question a problem or concept until you get to the core idea ( aka no longer ask anymore questions ).

Socratic questioning is a great tool for this.


What are some good examples to use first principles on?

  • Donald Trump will never become president because he’s dumb!
  • With this many unicorns, we must be in a tech bubble.
  • All the good startup ideas are taken.
  • Engineered meat will never taste as good as the real thing.


What’s a good concept that you use first principles on? Leave a reply here or let me know on twitter ( @jhoff ) where I talk about mental models and startups.