Elon Musk Problem Solving: Applications Of First Principles Thinking

The first principles approach for problem solving that Elon Musk uses is an awesome way to find unconventional solutions to all kinds of problems. However this type of thinking does not come naturally to most people.

There are numerous mental barriers that prevent people from thinking in first principles. These barriers can be overcome with certain techniques, such as the generic parts technique and also by asking lots of questions. The hardest part of this entire process, though, is the application.

How can you take this knowledge and these techniques and apply them in practice? How can you make first principles thinking a part of your life?

In Part 2, we learned how to think in first principles. In this part, we will learn how to use that thinking in order to solve real-life problems. Here we go from theory to application.

Concrete examples from history

Eureka! Eureka!” These legendary words were shouted by Archimedes, the Ancient Greek inventor, as he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse. This word can be roughly translated as “I have found it!” and since that time has become a synonym of discovery.


Archimedes was a really clever guy and discovered a lot of cool and practical stuff, but his legend was solidified by this one famous incident. The story that precedes this is the perfect example of using first principles thinking to come up with solutions to problems (and it even includes discovering some first principles themselves!).

King Hiero II of Syracuse wanted a golden crown to be made and assigned the work to a local goldsmith. When the goldsmith came back with the finished product, King Hiero suspected that the crown was not all gold and instead that the goldsmith had sneaked in some silver. However how to prove this little hunch?

Luckily, the King had Archimedes loitering around his city and so assigned the problem to him. Archimedes had to determine whether the crown was pure gold or it also included silver, without damaging it. This was almost an impossible problem and no one else in the kingdom had been able to come up with a solution.

This problem was initially also hard for Archimedes himself. He kept pondering it in his mind, but just couldn’t get around to figuring out a method to solve this little conundrum.

That’s where the story gets interesting. Archimedes was a cleanly fellow and one day was getting ready for his bath. He filled up the bath almost to the top with water, stripped down and then got in. As soon as he got into the bath, the water overflowed and spilled over the edge.

Archimedes noticed that as he got into the bath, the level of the water rose. This is what sparked the lighting bolt of discovery. He had discovered a first principle!

He summarized this principle in one of his works “On Floating Bodies”:

Any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object.

This is the first principle that Archimedes needed in order to solve the problem. If he submerged the crown in water, the crown would displace an amount of water equal to its volume. Archimedes could then use this fact to test whether the crown contained silver. If it did, then the crown would be less dense.

There is some discussion on the exact method that he used, but no matter the exact steps, it is a great example of coming up with first principles and then using them to solve a problem.

And yes, the goldsmith was a sneaky, dishonest dude and Archimedes proved it.

The Renaissance Man himself, Leonardo da Vinci, was a great first principles thinker. His primary characteristic was that he was a very curious person and always wanted to get to the bottom of things.

Now most people know him through his painting of the “Mona Lisa”, but he was not only a painter, but also a scientist, an inventor and an engineer. The guy was incredibly productive throughout his life. So much in fact, that over 13 thousand pages of his notes and drawings survive!

Seriously, imagine sitting your ass down and producing so much stuff. And not one of those pages included any mention of the twenty people who are having the worst Valentine’s ever or Kim Kardashian’s butt!

His interest in so many things was one of the principal reasons why he was so good at being able to distil essential knowledge during his career. In his book on da Vinci,”How to think like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius”, Michael J. Gelb includes a quote by Kenneth Clark:

First, there are questions about the construction of certain machines, then, under the influence of Archimedes, questions about the first principles of dynamics; finally, questions which had never been asked before about winds, clouds, the age of the earth, generation, the human heart.

He was a strongly visual person, and his main way of getting down to the first principles of things was by drawing them. You can see that his paintings are very realistic and very detailed. He was able to do this, because he asked many questions and then based on the answers to these questions draw up the different elements of the things he was examining.

One passage from Gelb’s book describes Leonardo’s way of questioning (remember questioning is the key to finding the first principles):

Da Vinci’s questioning was often striking in its simplicity, as when he wrote: “I ask why the hammer blow causes the nail to jump out” or “Why is the sky blue?”

Simple questions often come up with the most profound answers. Leonardo was a master of profound answers.

Another guy who applied first principles thinking in practice and was good enough to come up with first principles themselves was the synonym of genius himself: Albert Einstein.

In a biography of Einstein “Albert Einstein: His Life and Universe”, Walter Isaacson has a passage which illuminates his way of working:

Once again, he was deducing a theory from principles and postulates, not trying to explain the empirical data that experimental physicists studying cathode rays had begun to gather about the relation of mass to the velocity of particles. Coupling Maxwell’s theory with the relativity theory, he began (not surprisingly) with a thought experiment. He calculated the properties of two light pulses emitted in opposite directions by a body at rest. He then calculated the properties of these light pulses when observed from a moving frame of reference. From this he came up with equations regarding the relationship between speed and mass.

This little description of Einstein’s way of working is a good example of how he used the technique of visualization to deduce his theories from first principles and postulates, instead of relying on the empirical data from other scientists.

Here we are already getting into the territory of scientific paradigm shifts.

We will examine them a bit later, but let’s now look at how this type of thinking can be applied in business.

In the examples, the scientists even took the extra step of discovering (as in thinking up) the first principles themselves. Most businessmen have it easier, they just have to uncover them and then build up from there. Going back to first principles can really revolutionize an industry and shake up the usual way of doing things.

And no, posting videos of Kim Kardashian twerking does not count as shaking up the industry!

We will start off by looking at a guy who most people probably haven’t heard of, which is a shame, since his techniques really exemplify the first principles of business. His name is Samuel Brannan and he was a true contrarian thinker.

When the Gold Rush was taking off, he moved to California, being one of the thousands of people who moved there in order to take part in this “gold fever”. However he realized that the real money was not in digging for gold, but in the equipment used in this activity.


Hitting pay dirt was a matter of luck, but what did every gold prospector need? He needed the shovels to dig for that gold.

So what did Brannan do? He set up a store and bought all the equipment he could find (picks, shovels, pots, pans, you name it, he bought it) and then ran up and down the streets of San Francisco shouting: “Gold! Gold found on the American River!

Let’s just say he made a killing. He bought his equipment cheap, but sold it at many times its purchase price to all the guys who thought they could strike it rich.

The funny thing is that very few of those guys actually got any riches out of it. Instead, it was the guy who sold them the shovels that got rich. He made over 36 thousand dollars in 9 weeks, which was a huge sum of money in those days.

So remember, oftentimes the money ain’t in the gold, it’s in the shovels!

Now let’s turn to a more traditional business leader, one most of you have certainly heard of: Henry Ford.

Henry Ford was a veritable business genius. Out of many of his great ideas, one stands out: producing the car on an assembly line.

Before Henry Ford came along, cars were manufactured manually. Each car was almost like a piece of art and no car was alike. That’s what also made them expensive and out of reach for the normal person.

Ford realized that if he was going to make huge profits on his cars, he needed to get them out to the masses as cheaply as possible. That was the problem he was facing: how do you make a cheap car in a fast and efficient manner?

Contrary to popular belief, Ford did not invent the assembly line, he just made it more efficient. This required a mix of applied, but also first principles thinking.

Ford went back to some basic first principles: Adam Smith’s notion of the division of labor, the use of interchangeable parts, and to tie it all together a moving conveyor belt to allow for a continuous workflow.

Adam Smith postulated that a division of labor is a much more efficient system than a jack of all trades doing everything. Specialization allows for making the process faster, more efficient and less error prone. Ford used this insight as a basis for the way his companies worked.

Specialization in labor was not the only beneficial factor in Ford’s eyes. His second first principle was the standardization of parts, making them interchangeable. This made it much easier for them to be produced in mass quantities and also to be replaced later if needed.

How to link these two things together? By a moving conveyor belt which would bring the part to the worker who would work on it. Once finished this part would move onto the next worker who would then perform the next step in the process, while the previous worker would get an identical copy of the part that he worked on previously and would perform the exact same operation that he did on the previous part.

In his autobiography “My Life and Times”, Henry Ford lists his principles of the assembly line:

The first step forward in assembly came when we began taking the work to the men instead of the men to the work. We now have two general principles in all operations—that a man shall never have to take more than one step, if possibly it can be avoided, and that no man need ever stoop over.

The principles of assembly are these:

(1) Place the tools and the men in the sequence of the operation so that each component part shall travel the least possible distance while in the process of finishing.

(2) Use work slides or some other form of carrier so that when a workman completes his operation, he drops the part always in the same place—which place must always be the most convenient place to his hand—and if possible have gravity carry the part to the next workman for his operation.

(3) Use sliding assembling lines by which the parts to be assembled are delivered at convenient distances.

The net result of the application of these principles is the reduction of the necessity for thought on the part of the worker and the reduction of his movements to a minimum. He does as nearly as possible only one thing with only one movement. The assembling of the chassis is, from the point of view of the non-mechanical mind, our most interesting and perhaps best known operation, and at one time it was an exceedingly important operation. We now ship out the parts for assembly at the point of distribution.”

This allowed Henry Ford to solve his problem of how to bring cheap cars to the masses and become a rich man in the process.

Henry Ford was not the only businessman who was introducing new techniques of production to his companies and thereby raking in huge profits. Another one was Tomas Bata.

Tomas Bata was a Czechoslovak businessman who founded a shoe company which became one of the first truly global companies already back in the 1920s and 1930s. His company, based out of the city of Zlin in what was then Czechoslovakia, set up factories in different countries and exported its products around the world.


We could probably come up with a giant list of first principles thinking that Tomas Bata did in order to achieve this, however one interesting example can illustrate the point.

Back in 1922, there was a huge deflation wave in Czechoslovakia and no one was buying any products, as everyone kept on waiting for the price to drop. Manufacturers, among them Bata, had stocks of their products lying around, but without anyone actually purchasing them.

How do you make people buy these products? Bata came up with an ingenious solution.

He went back to first principles and looked at how people think. He knew that the thinking process of people was not rational, but often fell victim to what we now call cognitive biases.

Before his time, prices usually ended in round numbers like 10, 20, 100…etc. However Bata decided to make the prices appear lower by having them end in 9. So instead of 10, the price would be 9.99, instead of 100, it would be 99 or even 99.99.

While he based this decision on his own intuition and the observation of the behavior of his customers, modern psychological research has proven this strategy to be true and based on sound scientific principles. The customers notice the lower numbers and anchor them in their minds, resulting in an anchoring effect.

The product then appears much cheaper than it really is, which promotes the sale of this product. Furthermore, with these types of prices, Bata could start different marketing campaigns: “Shoes for under 10 bucks” or “We lowered our prices!”

This gambit worked and customers started buying the products. In fact, this strategy was so successful that other companies began adopting it as well and now it’s a very common practice.

How I applied first principles thinking

Hold on a second though, these guys were real-life geniuses. How can I apply this type of thinking in my own life and not necessarily in order to discover the secrets of the universe?

Remember my article on how to quadruple your salary and get the job you want?

Well, the key lesson from that article is that I applied first principles thinking in order to do what I did. The state of affairs was that people were doing reports in Excel, some of which took over 2 hours of work to complete!

The process seemed very inefficient to me. There were certainly ways to improve the process and make it shorter, easier and less tedious.

For most people the innovation would happen within the process itself, tweak a step here, diminish the amounts of columns in one of the steps, maybe learn a few keyboard short-cuts there (so resulting in the process taking 1 hour and 55 minutes, instead of the previous 2 hours).

However I went back to first principles. How? I questioned the process itself.

I had a long hard look at what was on the table. Without realizing it at the time, I dug down to the first principles and used them as my starting point. There were some basic assumptions that I was making:

1) These are Excel tables.
2) Excel has VBA (which is a programming language based on Visual Basic).

Another key to the puzzle and a building block of the path towards the solution was the concept of an algorithm. An algorithm is basically a step-by-step way of solving a problem.

Here is a very handy definition of it:

An algorithm is a procedure or formula for solving a problem, based on conducting a sequence of specified actions.

The people doing the reports were following a series of steps manually. Writing code implies writing a sequence of steps, but in a specific way so that the computer can read them and carry them out. You see where I am getting at?

So instead of doing the process itself, why don’t we just get rid of it? VBA allows us to automate the entire process (you write a series of code (algorithms)) and instead of doing the process manually, you just click a button and the report gets created by itself!).

And now an analogy ( 🙂 ) for those of you who have no idea how Excel works or what Visual Basic is. Just imagine a person is working on a field all day picking some random plants. Sure that person can improve the efficiency of their work by maybe tweaking their picking technique or using some new tools.

However that’s like tweaking a step here or learning a few keyboard short-cuts there. You will still have to do the work manually. What I did was like having you sit on your chair, clicking a button and having a robot go pick up the plants for you!

Your real-life application of first principles thinking

Now some application to your own life. What are the problems that you are facing? At work, school, home? How can they be solved using first principles?

Write them down! Putting them down on paper will help you concentrate your head and come up with a fundamental question/problem that you need to solve. Once you have this fundamental question/problem figured out, then you can proceed on breaking it down and coming up with the first principles of it. After that you can then try to come up with solutions to solve it.

So the first step is figuring out the question you want to ask and the problem you want to solve. Then you can dig down and solve it. These are the basic steps of the process:

1) Frame the question.

2) Break it down into smaller parts.

3) If you are having trouble dividing the part from its usual function, apply the generic parts technique.

4) Find the first principles (by asking a lot of questions).

5) Solve up from there!

Got it?

When to use first principles thinking and when not to use it

There is a little joke dating back to the Space Race comparing the American and Soviet approaches (not sure whether it is true).

Scientists from both countries were faced with the problem of how to write in space in zero-gravity. Traditional pens didn’t work in that type of environment.

The Americans thought long and hard about it and spent millions of dollars designing a state-of-the-art pen that could write in space.

What did the Soviets do?

They used a pencil! 🙂

This little joke/example illustrates the basic friction between the two ways of doing things. Do you invent something new or do you just reuse something that already exists? This is one of the main challenges when deciding how to approach a problem.

How do you determine when to apply first principles and when to apply best practices?

Actually in most cases it doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel and so you will be thinking using analogies and not first principles. Even Elon Musk doesn’t go around all day trying to figure out a first principle way of doing everything. Just imagine him going around the house and trying to figure out a novel way of slicing bread every day! 🙂

Even the concept of first principles thinking as Musk describes is an analogy borrowed from physics!

If you look at my VBA programming story that I described previously, yes I did approach the entire problem using first principles thinking, but when I was doing the actual programming I used a lot of analogies from other projects to be more efficient and get the work done faster.

I searched on the internet and reused code that I found. No point (in fact it wastes time and effort) in you trying to find a novel way for a coding problem that has already been solved.

Often it comes down to a choice between radical and incremental innovation. With radical innovation you come up with something new. The internet was a radical innovation, as it did not exist before and when it appeared, it changed the way society functions completely.

However most of the time, you won’t really have a need for coming up with something new. For example, if you are running a website and have a need for a certain functionality, most likely you are not going to develop it from scratch, but instead get an existing widget to fulfil it and maybe tweak it here or there.

On the other hand, sometimes you do need to get to the root of the problem. For example when you get sick, it’s much better to fix the root cause of the sickness than just trying to lessen the symptoms.

When to use first principles thinking and when not to use it will have to come ultimately down to you. You will have to make a judgment call.

The key is to keep an open mind in the entire process, a beginners mind. There is a Buddhist concept called “shoshin” which can help you with that. This concept is translated as “beginners mind” and means that you should always lack preconceptions when studying a subject, just like a person who has never heard of the subject before: a beginner.

With a beginners mind, you can easily overcome all the different barriers to thinking in first principles that you have. One of these is functional fixedness. You are seeing the object for what it is, not what it could be.

With a beginners mind, or a baby’s mind even, you will be able to see both.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki

First principles thinking is something that you will have to practice in order to be able to apply it. You will have to see the world from different perspectives.

Luckily this is a thing that is not limited to the Elon Musks or Albert Einsteins of this world.

You too can be a MacGyver, even if your first name isn’t Angus. 🙂

Continue reading the article on paradigm shifts.

Read More:
If you haven’t already, go back to read Part 1 on thinking in first principles.

How To Be A Critical Thinker And Develop Your Mental Powers

When To Be A Contrarian Thinker And When Not To Be
Credit: 1; 2; 3; 4;

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