Elon Musk’s "3-Step" First Principles Thinking: How to Think and Solve Difficult Problems Like a Genius
By the age of 46 years old, Elon Musk has innovated and built three revolutionary multibillion dollar companies in completely different fields— Paypal(Financial Services), Tesla Motors (Automotive) and SpaceX (Aerospace).
This list doesn’t even include Solar City (Energy), which he helped build and acquired for $2.6 Billion recently.
At first glance, it’s easy to link his rapid success, ability to solve unsolvable problems and genius level creativity to his incredible work ethic.
Musk himself stated that he worked approximately 100 hours a week for over 15 years and recently scaled down to 85 hours. Rumour also has it that he doesn’t even take lunch breaks, multitasking between eating, meetings and responding to emails all at the same time.
No doubt work ethic plays an important role in unlocking your inner creative genius and becoming the best at what you do—but there’s more to this—there are extremely hard-working people who still make little progress in life and die before sharing their best work with the world.
What then is this missing link for innovative creativity and accelerated success?
Just like Musk, some of the most brilliant minds of all-time—Aristotle, Euclid, Thomas Edison, Feynman and Nikola Tesla—use this missing link for accelerated learning, solving difficult problems and creating great work in their lifetime.
This missing link has little to do with how hard they work. It has everything to do with how they think.
Let’s talk about how you can quickly use this genius problem solving method.
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.” 
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.
On the flip side, reasoning by analogy is building knowledge and solving problems based on prior assumptions, beliefs and widely held ‘best practices’ approved by majority of people.
Essentially, first principles thinking will help you develop a unique worldview to innovate and solve difficult problems in a way that nobody else can even fathom.
Here’s how you can quickly use this in 3 simple steps recommended by Elon Musk himself.
STEP 1: Identify and define your current assumptions
“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.
“Growing my business will cost a lot of money.”
“I have to struggle and starve to become a successful artist.”
“I just can’t find enough time to workout and reach my weight loss goals.”
When next you’re faced with a familiar problem or challenge, simply write down your current assumptions about them. (Note: You can stop here and write these down now)
STEP 2: Breakdown the problem into its fundamental principles.
“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.” 
– Elon Musk
These fundamental principles are basically the most basic truths or elements of anything.
The best way to uncover these truths is to ask powerful questions that uncover these ingenious gems.
Here’s a quick example from Elon Musk during an interview with Kevin Rose on how this works. 
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.
Instead of following the socially accepted beliefs that battery packs were expensive, Musk challenges these beliefs by asking powerful questions that uncover the basic truths or elements i.e. carbon, nickel, aluminium.Then, he creates ingenious innovative solutions literally from scratch.
STEP 3: Create new solutions from scratch
“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. 
Here a three simple everyday examples of how this works (Step 1 to Step 3).
Assumption: “Growing my business will cost too much money”
First principles thinking:
What do you need to grow a profitable business? I need to sell products or services to more customers.
Does it have to cost a lot of money to sell to new customers? Not necessarily, but i’ll probably need access to these new customers inexpensively.
Who has this access and how you can create a win-win deal? I guess I could partner with other businesses that serve the same customer and split the profits 50:50. Interesting.
Assumption: “I just can’t find enough time to workout and reach my weight loss goals.”
First principles thinking:
What do you really need to reach your weight loss goal? I need to exercise more, preferably 5 days a week for an hour each time. Could you still lose weight exercising less frequently, if so how? Possibly, I could try 15 minute workouts, 3 days a week. These could be quick high intensity full body workouts that will speed up my fat loss in less time.
Assumption: “I have to struggle and starve to become a successful artist”
First principles thinking:
What do you really need to create great work and make a good living as an artist? I would need a reasonably sized audience that will appreciate and buy my artwork.
What do you need to reach a larger audience? I probably need to do some marketing, but I don’t like self-promoting so I’d rather not do this.
Ok, is there any way for you to promote your work without being sleazy? Yes, if the focus of selling my artwork is meaningful with a purpose of serving the audience—then I could make more money to make more art, so I can serve more people. Interesting…
“Good ideas are always crazy until they’re not.”
― Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future (Audiobook).
Usually, when we’re faced with complex problems, we default to thinking like everybody else. First principles thinking is a powerful way to help you break out of this herd mentality, think outside the box and innovate completely brand new solutions to familiar problems.
By identifying your current assumptions, breaking these down into their basic truths and creating solutions from scratch—you can uncover these ingenious solutions to complex problems and make unique contributions in any field.
- In this interview, Musk talks about this 100 hour work week. This is his interview on TED about first principles thinking.
- Musk gave this answer to a question from a reader asking him how he learns so fast. (source)
- Musk’s interview with Kevin Rose on first principles thinking and battery analogy.
- 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.
- Thanks to peter at renaissance man journal for some inspiring insights on first principles thinking.
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