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.

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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.
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The Indiana Jones Method For Learning Foreign Languages

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You have no doubt heard the story of the Trojan War. The Illiad and the Oddysey are two of the most enduring and influential works of literature in the Western world.

They were created by Homer, an ancient Greek poet, most likely based on accounts passed down orally for generations. Even 3 thousand years after the supposed events took place, they remain well-known to myriads of people from around the world.

For a long time, it was thought that these stories were works of pure fiction. Yet there were always people who thought that they were based on real events, real people and real places. One of these believers was Heinrich Schliemann.

The Life of Heinrich Schliemann

Heinrich Schliemann was a true rags to riches story, a man of German origin who grew wealthy by being a shrewd businessman. However today he is most remembered as an archaeologist.

He was a real-life Indiana Jones, travelling the world, living through many adventures and discovering great ancient treasures.

As a kid, he grew up on stories of the Illiad and the Oddysey and the great adventures that the heroes of these tales had to go through. Unlike most other people who listened to these stories, he took them at their word. To him, Troy was a real place which was now buried somewhere on the Aegean coast of Turkey. He decided that he was going to find it.

What is not so well-known is that he was also a great linguist who managed to master many languages. Wherever he travelled, he tried to learn the local language. He would often write in his diary in different languages, which resulted in him keeping his diary in at least 12 languages.

What is most remarkable is that he managed to do this in a world without quick travel, without the internet and starting off as a poor errand boy.

Schliemann’s Language Learning Method

He simplified the process by developing a method that he applied consistently. Supposedly the system that he developed allowed him to learn any language in around 6 weeks.

He applied this method every time he was about to learn a new language. When he couldn’t find one of the elements of this method, he always came up with a work-around.

The main elements of the method consisted of constant writing in the target language, reading out loud in it, and trying to get as much native input as possible.

He was a self-directed learner and one of the main elements of this learning were books in the target language. The key to this was one little book: “The Adventures of Telemachus”.

This book talked of the adventures of Telemachus, the son of Oddyseus and his quest to find his father. Since it was set in the times of the Trojan Wars, the subject matter was very interesting to Schliemann and never grew old. He ended up memorizing the story in the book by heart.

When he would start learning a new language, he would always try to track down a copy of that book (or some other book that he had read previously in another language and knew the story well) in his target language.

That way, he could compare the two texts and learn new words and grammar structures by reading along in a new language, as well as in a language he already knew.
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Why Most People In The Modern World Suck

This weekend I somehow ended up at this weird party playing really strange music. Whenever I looked around, I saw people with spaced out expressions, meaning they were on drugs, bobbing up and down doing strange movements…

The first thing that popped into my head is “why“, as in “why do people do this to themselves?” Well, actually that was the second question. The first question was: “WTF am I doing here?” 🙂

One of my friends even got asked by some chick whether he knew where to get “some coke”. And by coke she didn’t mean Coca Cola.

Unfortunately, many people in the developed world have fucked up priorities and don’t know what to do with themselves. What’s worse, they think they are “cool” for doing it.

Look at me, I am so high!”

I just wanna get drunk!

Let’s go sniff some coke!

During the summer, I was traveling in Thailand and made it to the island of Koh Phangan. I ended up meeting one Dutch guy whose sole purpose for traveling was to get high. His entire time in Thailand, he spent smoking weed and chasing some shady characters to get ecstasy and cocaine…

I don’t even wanna know what type of effects these fucked up combinations of drugs can have on your body, but whatever…it’s his body. What angers me is the fact that all these people don’t realize what type of a disastrous effect their attitude has on entire communities of people in different parts of the world.

Thousands of innocent people die every year, so that some of these useless tools could get their smoke up. Entire communities of people are uprooted, families slaughtered or living in fear, just so that some unemployed druggie or failed investment banker can get their daily fix.

To put this in perspective:

Last week, the Mexican government released new data showing that between 2007 and 2014 — a period that accounts for some of the bloodiest years of the nation’s war against the drug cartels — more than 164,000 people were victims of homicide.

Much of these deaths are due to the rising cycle of violence brought on by Mexico’s drug cartels.

Thousands of innocent people were among the victims. Some of these deaths have been hugely brutal.

Why all this violence? Because some overprivileged kids want to get fucked up…

That’s not saying that all this violence is due to drugs. There would still be violence in Mexico without them, but it would be much lower.

Billions of dollars are spent to fight the “War on Drugs” every year. And you know what the main problem is: all the fucked up kids (and retarded adults) buying those drugs.

As someone said: “without demand, there would be no supply.
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How To Create One Little Tool That Will Greatly Increase Your Productivity

Today I will show you how to make one little tool that can greatly increase your productivity. Not only can this tool help you achieve your goals more efficiently, but it can also increase your day to day effectiveness and time management.

So what is this amazing tool? It’s actually a very simple thing called the task board. If you have read my post on agile self-development, then you probably know what it is.

It’s a board that you use in order to track the tasks that you have to do that day. To create a simple task board, you can take any blank space and just divide it into 3 columns: To Do, Doing, Done.

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You can do this with anything: a sticky board, a piece of paper or a spreadsheet on the computer.

The task board is very easy to use. You take some sticky notes (or anything that looks similar) and then stick them into the appropriate column depending on at what stage of the task you are. If you still have to accomplish that task, then you put it into the To Do column, if you are working on the task at that moment, you put it in the Doing column and if you have finished it, then you put it into the Done column.

All this is very simple, but very powerful at the same time. Just being able to track all the things that you have to accomplish for the day has a boosting effect on your productivity.

If you want, you can add a further column before the To Do column to keep track of all the tasks that you have to accomplish that month. This will help you get a perspective on what is required of you and will help you out if you decide to implement further elements from the agile system of self-development that I described before.

If you want, you can further subdivide this column into a section called goals and a section called chores.

The section on goals would include any tasks that you are working on as part of a project, whether it is fitness and self-improvement goals or that wonderful new product that you want to pump out and dazzle the world with. It includes any type of activity that requires the agile approach and a creative output.

The section on chores would include any task that you simply have to do, but which are not creative. This would include things like paying the bills, making that phone call or going grocery shopping. This way you know what things you need to get out of the way quickly, so that you can concentrate on the more important things listed in the goals section.

I have been experimenting with this system a bit and it’s amazing how effective and helpful it is. You accomplish so much more when you have a visual representation of the things that you need to do that day in front of you.

Try it! I am sure it will help you out.
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Hero’s Journey – The Quest To Become A Legend

When I was a kid, I was a big history buff. I read almost everything that I could find that had anything to do with history, especially ancient history. A big part of understanding a culture is through reading its myths and legends, and I devoured countless books describing the exploits of ancient heroes.

During those years, I read many stories and watched many movies, with some of my favorites usually being about an ordinary guy rising to greatness in a variety of ways. The ultimate story of this genre was Star Wars (the original trilogy), which I could watch over and over again, never getting enough. The films seemed like the modern version of an ancient tale.

Over time I began noticing patterns in all these different stories. These different tales of heroes seemed to have some common trends. Even stories coming from cultures separated by thousands of kilometers and thousands of years, still shared similar storylines and moral themes.

This finally clicked together when I ran across a book written by Joseph Campbell called “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”

Having gone through countless myths and legends, Campbell realized that there is a certain pattern inherent in all of them. The hero of the story has to go through a series of steps in order to achieve whatever he set out to achieve and to accomplish his quest.

Campbell called this the monomyth or hero’s journey. This description served to inspire several authors and film-makers of modern times. The reason why Star Wars seems to follow the monomyth so closely is because George Lucas was one of the guys inspired by the book.

“The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is not the first work to come to these conclusions, but it has certainly proven to be the most influential in the United States. For example, in the former Soviet Union, this work was preceded by the ideas of Vladimir Propp, who studied Russian folktales and broke them down into several elements.

The hero’s journey is divided into several stages through which an ordinary man turns into a hero. Let this serve you as a manual for your journey, your own Hero’s Guide To Succeeding In Life:
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Crazy Shit To Do: Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro

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If you have been reading my blog, you might have caught the fact that last summer (August 2015), I went on a crazy adventure to Tanzania. Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, camping out in the Serengeti and relaxing on the island paradise of Zanzibar are a combination that can create memories to last a lifetime.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this is one of the ultimate adventures that you can do. In two weeks, my entire worldview and beliefs about myself changed. I pushed myself to the limits and discovered what I am capable of, connected with nature and explored a set of whole new cultures up close and personal.

The most incredible part of this whole trip is that this is something that just a year before I would never have considered doing. I would never even have imagined myself being capable of doing this. Climbing a mountain was never something that I thought I would ever do, especially not one so tall.

On the surface, it seems like a daunting task. Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and rises up to 5,895 meters above sea level. It is located close to the equator, but due to its height, its top is constantly bathed in snow.

The peak of the mountain is covered by glaciers, although ones that are shrinking fast due to global warming. They have shrunk by 85% in the past 100 years and unfortunately most predictions say that they might disappear completely in a very short while.

Standing at the top is an amazing experience. Looking around, you see a desolate landscape and huge swathes of snow and ice. You are in Africa, but there is snow!

The rugged beauty that is in front of you has a special effect on all that experience it. It is as if you were suddenly transported to another world.

You are overwhelmed by the entire magic of it all. You have spent days circling this monster, getting closer and closer to its peak, to be foiled day after day. However on this final day, you have made it.

By standing on the top, you get a sense of something more powerful than yourself. It makes you reflect on the world and your place in it. What you are experiencing is awe and it can really change your entire world view, not only of yourself, but others. This has actually been proven by scientific studies:

New research from UC Berkeley and UC Irvine suggests that experiencing awe can actually prompt us to act more benevolently toward others. In other words, awe can help make the world a better place.

You literally come back a changed person. The top of Mt. Kilimanjaro is something only a select few get to experience and you are lucky to be one of them.
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Your Simple Guide To Being Funny 4: Joke Forms

Most people think that humor is a free-flowing thing without any structure. That’s not true at all.

Most theories of humor state that the act of finding something funny is a result of things like surprise or incongruency. However these things don’t arise by themselves, but are highly dependent on delivery.

You can create these incongruities and surprise by putting in the right words, following a certain word order, and through the use of highly-paid actors (optional).

That and anything with O.J. “Orange Juice” Simpson in it, is funny. 🙂

The surprise or incongruency comes from the way the joke is structured. You can make or break a joke just by the specific form you put it in.

We’ve all heard someone bumble up a joke really badly. Fat Joe hears a great joke, jots it down into memory and then later tries to retell it in front of a crowd. Nobody laughs.

What makes it funny was lost on him. He did not get the essence of the joke right. The problem was that he did not put the joke in the correct structure and did not use the right form.

Let’s start off with a little exercise. Look at the jokes below and try to identify what makes them funny (well at least to some people 🙂 ):

Never argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.” George Carlin

War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” Bertrand Russell

I chased a girl for two years only to discover that her tastes were exactly like mine: We were both crazy about girls.” Groucho Marx

I had a flight attendant on the last flight who was so old, after she demonstrated the oxygen mask she left it on.” Bob Hope

A drunk was in front of a judge. The judge says “You’ve been brought here for drinking.” The drunk says, “Okay, let’s get started.”” Henry Youngman

Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best policy.” George Carlin

We live in an inherently sexist society, in the sense that a lot of women who get ahead do so through the sexualisation of everything.” Omid Djalili

People who lose sleep over the stock market are lucky. I lose money.” Melvin Helitzer

Got it? We will come back to looking at these jokes in a little bit. First let’s get familiar with the basic joke forms.

There are many comedians, countless jokes and even more people trying to be funny, but luckily most jokes can be broken down into a limited number of formulas. If you learn to recognize these formulas, you can construct your own jokes much more easily.

A mathematician about his late colleague:
“He made a lot of mistakes, but he made them in a good direction. I tried to copy this, but I found out that it is very difficult to make good mistakes.”

Learning to tell jokes is a lot like learning any other skill. You will make a lot of mistakes at first, but over time you will get better and better. Having some joke frameworks in your head will help you get started in the right direction.

The trouble with learning from experience is that you never graduate.” Doug Larson

As the great Cicero observed more than two millennia go, all the different joke formulas can be divided into two categories: those based on words and those based on things. So between verbal and content based humor.

How do you tell the two categories apart? You use the translation test! 🙂

If you can tell the joke in different words and it still remains funny, then it is content-based humor, a play on things. If the joke depends on the particular meaning of a word or phrase and if you use different words, it loses its humor, then it is verbal humor, a play on words.
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Your Simple Guide To Being Funny 3: How To Write A Joke

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Now that we know about the structure of a joke and the different parts that it consists of, how do we actually go about writing it?

What creative process do you need to go through in order to come up with an idea for a joke and then craft it in a funny way?

Watch the video below to see Jerry Seinfeld’s process:

A lot of humor is based on things happening around you, whether in the news or in your own life. These are the basic starting points of all jokes or funny stories. You just need to be able to capture that, process it and then deliver it in the right way.

You can write a simple story about your day, job, life and use a specific comedy formula to shape it in order to create laugh points that will make the audience start rolling in the aisles.

Aside from velcro, time is the most mysterious substance in the universe. You can’t see it or touch it, yet a plumber can charge you upwards of seventy-five dollars per hour for it, without necessarily fixing anything.” Dave Barry

Edgar E. Willis (author of “How to be funny on purpose”) states that every joke has what is called an expressed idea and an inferred idea. The expressed idea is what the joke teller says in an explicit form, while the inferred idea is the idea that the listeners should get out of what he is saying.

So basically the joke is delivering two ideas simultenously, what is said literally and what those words are implying.

Since you have two basic ideas in a joke, you also have two main starting places for a joke: either think up the inferred idea (what you want the audience to draw out of what you say), or come up with the expressed idea (material that will lead audience to make inferred idea).

Listen again to Jerry Seinfeld’s description of his joke creation process. In the example he gives, he is starting out from the inferred idea: Pop Tarts are weird and food is crazy.

Once he has the message he wants to pass in his head, he goes about crafting the words that would deliver it.

Here is another Jerry Seinfeld clip which has as its inferred idea the craziness of the shopping experience. Notice the words he uses in order to show this:

How do you craft the words themselves? Even if the inferred idea is good, the actual words that you use can be the difference between the audience giving out a slight chuckle or breaking out in roaring laughter that makes half the people end up in the hospital due to the fact that they were cracking up so hard that they forgot to breathe.

One way to do this is visualization, describing in such a way as to paint a vivid picture in the head. Another good joke formula is the use of exaggerations, either overstatements or understatements in order to better convey your idea.

This can be done by combining metaphors or analogies with hyperboles. Your brain often thinks using metaphors and analogies and that’s why their use can really underline what you are saying.

These are very powerful ways of expressing an idea. Using these tropes in different contexts can often give a very different spin to your message.

A metaphor basically says that A is B. For example the “war on drugs” is saying that there is a war on drugs.

On the other hand, a simile compares two things that are similar in some way. A simile often states that A is “like” B. In order to tell apart a simile from a metaphor look for words like “like” or “as”. For example when Forrest Gump said that “life is like a box of chocolates” or when you say something is “as cute as a kitten“.

An analogy is essentially an extended, more elegant simile. For example this quote from the character Matt McGrath in the movie “Broken Hearts Club” is an analogy: “Dumb gorgeous people should not be allowed to use literature when competing in the pick-up pool. It’s like bald people wearing hats.
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Your Simple Guide To Being Funny 2: The Anatomy Of A Joke

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George Washington was the first President of the US and is often given to kids as an example of what they should aspire to. When he was in his late teens, he wrote out a list of rules that a gentleman should abide by.

The list contained such wise rules as don’t turn your back to someone when you are speaking, or that the gestures of the body must be suited to the discourse you are upon.

Do you know what his number one rule was?

🙂

Don’t scratch your balls in public! 🙂

🙂

Well, actually it was number 2!

🙂

The list itself can be found here, but that was not the point of this little section.

The short story above (inspired by an A.J. Jacobs presentation) very nicely demonstrates the anatomy of a joke, as well as many elements inherent in comedy.

First there is some sort of an introduction, which explains the premise and leads the audience to think in one direction.

Then boom, an element of surprise suddenly appears, and the joke teller comes up with an unexpected unravelling of the story.

Sometimes this can be followed by another element that continues the joke, an add-on joke.

These things are called the set-up, the punchline, and the tagline and form the basic structure of a joke.

This is a formula that can be replicated in any type of story or joke on whatever subject you want. With any joke, first you need to set up the scene, then you finish it up with a punchline.

The key to the audience laughing is surprise. With the set-up you lead the audience to assume one thing and then suddenly hit them with something totally different, something that they weren’t expecting.

You can feed off of this by quickly adding up another short phrase which is called the tagline or topper. This is basically a short second joke that builds upon the punchline and in many cases can make you look spontaneous and witty.

An important part of any joke is what is sometimes called the connecter, which is something in the set-up that has a double meaning or can be interpreted in different ways. It can be a punch word or even an entire phrase.

My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.

Let’s illustrate the structure of a joke by decomposing this classic Rodney Dangerfield joke:

The set-up:My wife and I were happy for twenty years.” This sets up the audience to paint a picture of an old happy married couple.

The punchline:Then we met.” However this line totally destroys any image of a happy married couple that the audience might have had in their heads. It gives a totally different spin to the previous set-up.

Watch this Rodney Dangerfield video and try particularly to notice how he structures his jokes, how he sets them up, when he delivers his punchline and when he uses taglines.

You can use this with any of your favorite comics. Go find their videos, watch them and try to pay attention to how they structure their jokes and where the laugh points are. Most comics will usually use some sort of a version of the standard set-up, punchlines, taglines structure.

The overall themes of humor structure are based around tension, surprise and relationships. Melvin Helitzer in his book “Comedy Writing Secrets” describes what he calls the THREES formula, which are the very basic elements needed for a joke to be successful.

THREES stands for target, hostility, realism, exaggeration, emotion, surprise and I have broken down this concept in more detail in a previous article which you can read here.

EXERCISES:

Now for the exercises:

1) Start creating a collection of jokes that you come across and write them down somewhere. To start off, find 30 short jokes. They can be about anything you want. Once you have found them, try to look at how they are structured. Try to find the punchline, the set-up and any potential taglines.

2) Find videos of your favorite comics. Watch the videos and look for the laugh points. When does the audience laugh? Then go back and rewatch the clips, noticing how they structure their jokes and stories. Which part is the set-up, which is the punchline, which phrases or words serve as the connecters and are there any taglines? When watching, also try to look for elements from the THREES formula.

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