Have you ever wanted to know how Elon Musk thinks? The guy came up with some pretty cool ideas and has become a billionaire. What’s his secret? How can you replicate it? Well, I have the answer for you. However I am warning you, it’s going to be pretty heavy reading and you will need to really focus and maybe re-read it several times in order to get it. The first part will focus on giving an introduction to Musk’s way of looking at problems, as well as some common barriers that often prevent people from thinking that way. The second part will give you some techniques that will help you solve problems the way Musk does, while the third part will conclude by looking at some practical examples of first-principles thinking. Another series of articles will look at paradigm shifts and how scientific revolutions happen.
Supposedly we are living in the Matrix, a world that is hidden inside a computer simulation similar to the one depicted in the famous movie. This is a statement that was uttered recently by none other than Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla and Space-X.
This is what he had to say at a coding conference hosted by Recode:
“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale. So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.”
How did he come up with this? Whether the Matrix statement is crackpot or not doesn’t really matter at this point. Musk has a track record of some incredible successes (and some spectacular failures) and so when he says something, the world listens.
Neo from the Matrix: “Whoa, Elon! So you know we all stuck in the Matrix, too?”
Elon: “Yeah, Neo. I have been sensing it for a while. It just makes logical sense.“
Neo: “How come you still plugged in? Don’t you wanna break out?“
Elon: “Not really. I am pretty happy being plugged in. I have plans to go to Mars, create a hyperloop… Don’t really feel like partying with you in Zion.“
Neo: “But we have to destroy the program!“
Elon: “Nah, no need for that. We can just create a neural lace. This way we gain control, but the AI still serves us.“
Neo: “You think we could do that?“
Neo: “But you would give up on flying cool ships like the Nebuchadnezzar and battling those mechanical sperm-like looking thingies!“
Elon: “Don’t worry. I am building my own rockets.“
Neo: “How did you figure all this out anyways? When I was plugged in, I kept on detecting irregularities, but it was Morpheus who finally snapped me out of it.“
Elon: “First principles, Neo. First principles.“
Elon Musk has a very unique way of thinking that has helped him solve some really tough problems. At the basis of this is what he calls first-principles thinking.
This is an approach he borrowed from physics, where you start from a set of basic assumptions that you hold to be true and that cannot be broken down further and then reason up from there.
Let’s analyze a bit what Elon Musk means by first principles thinking:
“I also think it is important to reason from first principles, rather than, by analogy. So the normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. We’re doing this because it’s like something else that was done or like what other people are doing, iterations on a theme. It’s kinda mentally easier to reason by analogy rather than from first principles. First principles is kinda a physics way of looking at the world and what that really means is you kinda boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say okay, what are we sure is true? Or sure as possible is true? And then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.”
Musk states that there are two basic ways that people reason: through analogy or through first-principles. Using analogies is probably the most common way of thinking for the majority of people. It is much easier for a person to take something that they already know and apply it as an analogy on how things should work. This thing is tried and tested and so they think that that’s how things should be done.
However Musk believes that this is not the best way to think about problems. In his opinion, this type of thinking can often prevent people from coming up with the most optimal solution.
For him, if you want to come up with a truly innovative solution, you need to go back to the basics. In physics, the basic propositions of the field are called first principles.
A first principle is a basic foundational assumption that cannot be broken down further and that forms the basis of the thinking in its own particular field. All the other works in that field are based on this basic assumption being true and built up from there.
If you want to make progress you need to go back down to these first principles and look at what is really true based on them and what is in fact just a stubborn orthodoxy dependent on not being able to see beyond the way things are now.
“Somebody could say… in fact, people do… that battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they’ll always be, because that’s the way they’ve been in the past. Well, no, that’s pretty dumb, because if you applied that reasoning to anything new, then you would never be able to get to that new thing. You can’t say, oh, horses – nobody wants a car because horses are great and we’re used to them and they can eat grass and there’s lot of grass all over the place and you know, there’s no gasoline that people can buy, so people are never going to get cars. People did say that, you know.”
Most people are incremental thinkers and think within established paradigms. They take the reality of the world as given and can’t really fathom that other different ways of doing things are possible.
Musk gives the example of horse-drawn carriages. For hundreds or thousands of years, that was the way people would transport themselves from one place to another. During those times, if you would ask a person to think of transportation, that would be what they would think of.
Ask a person now what transportation is for them and they will say cars, trains, airplanes… That is the transportation paradigm for people in this age. I am sure that will change soon. 🙂
You see that transportation changed and horse-drawn carriages have almost completely disappeared. This is because someone went back to first principles and completely changed the fundamentals of transportation.
“And for batteries, they would say, oh, it’s going to cost – you know, historically it’s cost $600 per kWh and so, it’s not going to be much better than that in the future, and you say no, what are the batteries made of? So first principles mean you say okay, what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? So you can say, it’s got: cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon and some polymers for separation and a steel can. So break that down on a materials basis and say okay, if we bought that on the London metal exchange, what would each of those things cost? Like, oh, jeez, it’s like $80 per kWh. So clearly, you just have 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 cheaper than anyone realizes.”
Musk gives an example on how you can challenge the common view on a certain subject by going back to first principles. He uses batteries to demonstrate this.
Most people assume that batteries are expensive and not much can be done to change that. That’s just the way things are. However Musk shows how he went down to the basic constituent parts of the batteries, the raw materials that make them up, and turned that impression upside down.