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First Principles Thinking: How Elon Musk Solves Problems

First Principles Thinking—fundamentally—is about reasoning by practical analysis rather than by analogy. This means looking at a problem directly and analyzing its constituent components rather than following what has already been done before.
First Principles Thinking: How Elon Musk Solves Problems

We all know Elon Musk, one of the most innovative and prolific entrepreneurs of our time, but do any of us ever ask: what made him this way?

Well, aside from being born with an incredible intellect, he has actually talked quite extensively about the way he thinks and solves problems.

One of the best ways to learn from incredible people is to look at why they do what they do and how they are able to make the decisions and choices that they make.

For Elon Musk, his fundamental decision making philosophy can be boiled down to a concept called First Principles Thinking.

First Principles Thinking—fundamentally—is about reasoning by practical analysis rather than by analogy. This means looking at a problem directly and analyzing its constituent components rather than following what has already been done before.

This process can be broken down into three important steps and applied to almost any problem we need to solve.

Step 1: Identify and analyze your current assumptions about the problem

To solve any problem, we first need to understand exactly what we are up against.

However, oftentimes we are up against more than just the problem itself. Sometimes our assumptions about a particular problem are actually worse than the problem.

For instance, when Musk was originally considering starting SpaceX, he realized that many people whom he reached out to for help had firm assumptions about what it would take to make a venture like this successful.

Many people told Musk that building rockets would simply be too expensive and thus wouldn’t be feasible. Musk, understanding the philosophy of first principles thinking realized that these concerns were actually just assumptions rather than fact. Because of this distinction, he was able to ask some important questions that eventually led to the success of the business. Questions like why would this be so expensive and would it have to be?

Step 2: Break the problem down to its fundamental principles

Once we’ve defined the problem and separated our assumptions about it from the factual challenges that we face, we can start to solve the actual problem. To do this, we must break it down to its fundamental principles—or, in other words, its first principles.

What this means is tossing aside the assumptions we’ve identified in step one and analyzing it for what it really is.

For Musk and SpaceX, this involved answering the question: would building rockets have to be as expensive as people say it is?

To answer this, Musk simply began researching the individual components that would go into building a rocket and creating a budget based on his own research. He broke down the actual cost of materials rather than looking at the already manufactured costs.

When looking at this in retrospect it seems so simple and obvious, however, that is the genius of this approach.

Identifying the fundamental principles of a problem often is much harder than we imagine. It involves a great deal of precise thought and a very clear grasp on our assumptions about a problem.

Step 3: Build your solution on first principles rather than on preconceived notions

There’s a quote by Alvin Toffler—an American writer, futurist, and businessman—that goes:

"The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."

If we can learn one thing from the concept of First Principle Thinking it’s this: learn to recognize the difference between actions that are being done because they’ve always been done that way and actions that are based on a fundamental objective.

Oftentimes, to solve a complex problem in a new way, we have to learn how to unlearn things that we already know.

Building a solution on first principles requires us to really see the problem for what it is and have the courage to go against the conventional ways that other people might attempt to solve it.

Without First Principles Thinking, Musk would not have been able to create SpaceX and thus would have never been able to get past the naysayers who simply followed what had already been done.

Conclusion

If there’s a problem in our life that seems unsolvable, we can use this approach to break it down and find out if there’s a better solution.

Where in our life are we doing things simply because that’s the way they’ve always been done before? Where in our life are we unsatisfied with the results we are getting? Where in our life are people telling us there isn’t another way to solve a problem?

Asking ourselves these questions can really open up the possibilities for radical change and transformative innovation.

Stay well, and remember to solve problems like Elon.