How To Think Like Elon Musk And Come Up With Creative Solutions To Problems

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.

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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?

Elon: “Sure!

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.
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The Man In The Arena – Teddy Roosevelt’s Most Inspirational Speech

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;

but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,

and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

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In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt travelled to Paris and while there, delivered a very powerful and inspirational speech on what is really important in the world.

In the speech, he praised the virtue of hard work and of trying. For him, it is not the end result that is the most important, but the process that goes into it.

It does not matter if you win or lose, but you need to try. Oftentimes in the modern world, people laugh at those who fail, yet they themselves sit on the sidelines and do not try at all.

If you want to succeed, you need to roll up your sleeves and go down into the arena, to fight your struggles like an ancient gladiator, and not sit around complaining and not doing anything. If you fail, just get up and try again!
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Fundamental Mindset Change: There Is No Simple Hack To Life

There once was a little guy, scrawny guy who wanted to be a soldier and fight his nation’s enemies. He tried to enlist, but was turned down because physical characteristics were lacking. He was physically small and weak. Luckily for him, there was a secret government project that created a serum that could change a person’s physical characteristics and create a superhuman out of them.

So this guy, named Steve Rogers, took the serum and turned to Captain America. He fought many supervillains and became a superhero.

rsz_captain_america

Unfortunately this story is fiction. However it does speak to the way many people in this world are trying to do things.

People are often trying find that magic serum or to find that silver bullet for whatever problem they have. That’s why articles on “hacks” are so popular.

These articles are interesting to read, but they often present a simplified version of reality. Furthermore, even if people read these articles, they don’t act on them.

They finish the article, think how mind blowing it is and then go back to doing the things that they were always doing.

The “hacks” mindset creates the impression is that if you learn this one little trick or do this one special thing, you will magically solve whatever you are trying to solve. It’s the same type of thinking that gets excited about secret serums and magic wands.

The truth is a bit different though. Just like there are no magic wands or secret serums that will transform you into a superhero overnight, there are very few magic hacks that will help you take the easy way out.

In reality life is hard. There are short-cuts, but even they are usually not easy. You need to work for things that you want.

When you realize this and stop looking for short-cuts and instead start creating a vision for yourself and implementing steps to fulfil that vision, then you will start making progress. When you take the long-term view to goals and problems, then you will finally improve.
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Why Having A Goal-Driven Mindset Is Important

Last weekend I realized how powerful adopting a goal-driven mindset can be. As I have written in my previous post on goals vs. systems, you need goals in order to drive yourself towards success. Systems are very necessary, but if you don’t have the goals to focus on, then you might not get the results you are looking for.

Dockworkers in Cap Haitien

Doing things without goals can end up with you just going through the motions and not improving. A goal-driven mindset also has one benefit that I discovered last weekend.

I was walking home from a shop, lugging heavy jugs of water. I have recently set some very long-term goals for myself, those of reaching the top of Mt. Everest and also of getting to the fitness levels of special forces guys. While it is quite possible that I might not reach these goals, the thought of them still drives me.

The water jugs were incredibly heavy in my hands and I was having problems carrying them. Then I reminded myself of my goal of reaching Mt. Everest one day and of all the hard work required to do it. I reminded myself of the fact that I have always wanted to be a special forces type of guy (but never got around to doing). A guy who accomplishes those types of goals doesn’t give up and doesn’t take the easy way in these types of situations.

Those thoughts suddenly changed my perception of the entire situation and the loads in my hands seemed to get much lighter, as if by magic. I kept on going.

No, I am not describing some mumbo jumbo from “The Secret”, I am describing something real that has been scientifically tested. Studies have proven that by having a different perception of a situation can greatly affect the result.

This is related to the placebo effect. Thoughts have a big effect on the body and can sometimes greatly aid in any endeavor. Maybe similar things are at play as with cognitive biases and framing effects?

That’s how you achieve impossible things. When you are feeling pain, that doesn’t mean that you are going to break down right then and there. That only means that you are close to it, but still have a hidden reserve left.

You need to quickly evaluate whether you can push on and usually you still can. One part of the hidden mental processes that can help you with this are goals. They give you the motivation that is needed at some of these critical junctures, when you are about to give up.

It helps if you can visualize all the benefits that accomplishing all these goals can bring. This can then focus the positive self-talk in your head that often goes on during critical moments.

Of course visualization and self-talk are not some magic bullets that can solve every problem you have, you still need to set up a plan and execute it (so set up the systems), but they can give you an edge during some very important moments and push you over the top.
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Your Own Hero’s Journey – How To Grow As A Person

find hero in you

You only have one life to live and you better make the most of it. If you are like most people, then you probably didn’t get too many breaks in life and weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth.

Most people will however continue on living their own hum drum lives, never rising above their own reality. You don’t have to.

The good news is that most heroes were born ordinary as well. Joseph Campbell noticed that most hero journeys start off in the ordinary world, where the future hero is living an ordinary life. Then one day things change and they begin creating their own legend.

If you want to get on a path to a better life, you need to heed the call of adventure and take the first step on that journey.

Whether it’s your entire life’s journey or a small chapter in your life, you need to realize that it’s all up to you. You have the power to create your own monomyth.

I don’t want to waste my time on this planet. I don’t want to live an ordinary life. For years I have been refusing the call to adventure. One of my biggest drawbacks was a quitter mentality.

I am sure you are the same way. You want your life to have meaning, a purpose, to stand for something. You want to experience life to the fullest and achieve great things.

The Choice: Quit or Push Through

I have already described how I was a top sprinter in high school and how one of my final runs turned from victory to a defeat. Yet the defeat wasn’t due to someone beating me, it was due to the fact that I quit. I felt the pain of running and I slowed down. I was leading and let the guy behind me overtake. He mustered his last reserve of strength and collapsed at the finish line. I didn’t. He won, I came in second.

That is something that keeps haunting me. The scary thing is that this wasn’t a one-off thing, but was representative of my inner mindset at the time. I was willing to work hard and try to be the best, but at critical junctures, I would quit. I was a quitter. When the going got too tough, I gave up.

Years later, I decided to change all that. I realized that life was passing me by and I was running out of the one thing that is the most precious commodity for all of us: time.

What set me on the path to adventure was the fact that I signed up for a trip to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Climbing mountains is something that I have never done and it’s hard. Going up in altitude is not easy and it gets harder the higher up you get. You cannot be a quitter if you want to get to the top of a mountain.
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How A Contrarian Idea Gains Traction: The Incredible Story Of James Hutton

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It is 1785. A young man is hurrying on the streets of Edinburgh, a bit late for his work appointment. On his right-hand side, he has a magnificent view of Edinburgh Castle, perched high up on a rock.

He admires the view, but thinks nothing of how that rock atop which the Castle sits was created. As far as he is concerned, the Earth is 6 thousand years old. That is the common dogma of his age and not to be questioned.

Yet not far away, a slightly-built man close to entering his 6th decade of life, is working on a theory that contradicts all this “knowledge”. In time, it will change our whole understanding of this world and usher in a new era of science.

However in 1785, that new era is still far off.

The name of the slightly built old man is James Hutton. He was a polymath who tried his hand at many different things, but his life’s work was centered around rocks and geology. His passion was to go around and observe natural phenomenon, which led him to form some very original theories.

By 1785, he felt ready to share these theories with the world. Being a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a gathering of some of the finest minds of the 18th century, provided him with a natural place to do this.

On the 7th of March of that year, his friend Joseph Black read out a part of the theory and on the 7th of April, Hutton himself presented his theory. This was followed by another presentation on the 4th of July.

What he presented was met by utter disbelief and turned into hostile criticism. He was accused of going against the established order of things, of being an atheist, of lacking logic.

Hutton decided to go back and try to find further evidence for his assertions and to better defend his thesis. For the next few years, he travelled around Scotland, examining different rock formations, trying to find further proof for his theories.

In 1795, equipped with numerous examples to illustrate his points, Hutton published a huge book on geology. It met with little success.

Two years later, Hutton died without having his theory gain wider acceptance. In fact, it seemed that his opponents had won the day and his ideas were on their way to obscurity.

Yet today they form the fundamental basis of our own understanding of how our planet evolved. How is that possible? How did ideas that were almost stamped out, succeed in gaining dominance? And how come Hutton himself wasn’t able to do it?
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Beware Of Advice: What Can You Really Learn From Successful People?

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Successful people are often used as examples for others. The message that you often hear is that if you do things like them, you too can become successful. Follow what they do, act like them and riches beyond your wildest imagination will come knocking at your door.

However one of the things that I have been thinking about lately is what lessons can you really learn from these types of cases. Are there relevant things that you can pick out and use them as blueprints for your life or is this just a case of survivor bias coming into play?

This question goes to the heart of self-improvement and any type of advice, in different kinds of fields (business, life, fitness).

It’s very hard to differentiate sometimes. I too have often used examples of successful people in order to illustrate some point or lesson. On the other hand, I have also said that you need to take everything with a grain of salt and warned against taking any type of advice without thinking whether it applies to you and your circumstances.

There are many people who try to present themselves as gurus or authorities and convince people to do what they are saying. Many of these people don’t do it to help others, but instead just to line their own pockets or to increase their influence. Sometimes this advice can be downright dangerous.

Not everyone is out to get you though and some people do offer tips in order to genuinely help others. However even this has its own problems. Most successful people downplay the influence of luck and much of this advice does not take into account randomness, survivor bias or hindsight bias.

David McRaney (author of “You Are Not So Smart”) describes the magical, almost mystical pull of survivor bias in this way:

Survivorship bias pulls you toward bestselling diet gurus, celebrity CEOs, and superstar athletes. It’s an unavoidable tick, the desire to deconstruct success like a thieving magpie and pull away the shimmering bits. You look to the successful for clues about the hidden, about how to better live your life, about how you too can survive similar forces against which you too struggle.

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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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How To Get Lucky – A Step By Step Description Of How To Bring Luck To Your Side

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What if I told you that there is one secret trick that you can use in order to bring luck to your side. It’s not something too hard to do. In fact, anyone can do it.

Derren Brown, famous British mentalist, is a master at this type of stuff and in one of his shows, demonstrated how to create a system to get lucky. He said that he could flip a coin into a bowl and have it land heads 10 times in a row and then proceeded on to do it. Watch the video below:

Do you want to know the secret of how he did it?

Well, there is nothing challenging about it. Once you read the next sentence, you will have a huge epiphany.
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