Elon Musk and First Principles Thinking 

First principles thinking

Some words enter our lives with authority and stay there as if there is only one meaning, one context. Now just look at the word, “Elon Musk.” It is a name I know, but it is also a personality that resonates with different meanings in different people’s heads. Take the case of him asking his Twitter followers whether he should sell his stock in Tesla?  Now, who does that? 

He may have done his tax calculation earlier yet he went on to Twitter to ask if he should sell stocks. Millions of people voted. Not everyone understands wealth gain tax, the policies, the stock market, its functioning yet the voting must be done. 

You could have one or many word associations for Elon Musk. Weirdo, Bold, Maverick, Genius, Wealthy… it need not be just one. But what comes to my mind is that he is a practitioner of The First Principles Thinking. He not only practices it, but he also brought The First Principles Thinking into the limelight years ago. In today’s habits for thinking, let me bring your attention to the concept. 

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.

It is not that Musk coined it. The thinking style is an old framework of a mental model. Aristotle, writing on First Principles, said:

In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first Principles, all the way to the elements.

Later he connected the idea to knowledge, defining the first Principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”

First Principles Thinking is a way to break down a problem into smaller bits and question every assumption associated with it. Once you do the exercise and remove the assumptions, what remains is the bare essentials. Now, these essentials can be looked at in a new light and will give birth to innovative thinking. 

Elon Musk illustrates it through an example:

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 market value of those 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.”

In the case of product-led discussions, it is simple to break down the exercise into smaller parts-  as one can focus on each input unit that goes in the making of that product as illustrated in the battery example. But how do you apply First Principles Thinking in a subjective situation? It is easy to remove one petal after another of the flower to dissect it but how does one unfold layers of a subjective issue like ‘the beauty’ of the flower? 

Let me explain this to you. Three weeks ago we were in a workshop for ‘Show, don’t Tell’ communication at workplaces. ‘Show, don’t Tell’ is a tool used in descriptive writing where the writer is encouraged to illustrate the details through words, encouraging her to show and not just tell. So for example to show ‘he was nervous’ could be shown like- ‘he couldn’t stop biting his nails.’

Show, don’t tell is one of the fifteen habits in the course SHIFT. This mental framework not only empowers users with effective communication tools but also hones thinking skills by focussing on detailing. 

In the workshop, we had an exhausted participant who was not able to adopt Show, don’t tell in his work. His writing reflected a lot of telling and less of showing. In peer correction, he received the feedback- ‘go deeper’. It has no meaning unless applied logically. This is how we used First Principles Thinking in a subjective field like thinking to write. We helped him break down the framework of the ‘show don’t tell writing assignment’ into smaller pieces by identifying the essentials that were needed in the writing piece. Firstly, the structure of the writing and secondly the content for the description. The structure can be detailed further – like two or three paragraphs, closing statement, etc. The content needs to be broken further into smaller details like the adjectives and the verbs. Can we now elaborate on each of these adjectives and verbs and see if we get closer to the objective?  The participant who had started at a sub-zero level of writing skills ended up being a confident communicator. To work on his problem, he disassociated himself from the statement – ‘not a good communicator’ to ‘the problem at hand in a structured manner ’ and through The First Principles reasoning, was able to improve.

In creative thinking and innovation, a subjective process, reasoning by First Principles helps open up more areas to look up for ideas and innovation. 

The mental model, First Principles Thinking, is an effective strategy to induce creative thinking in solving problems. To bring this framework into practice, one has to look at two steps. 

Step 1: Breakdown the challenge into smaller chunks 
Step 2: Check if each chunk can be further broken down
Step3: Address each chunk with a fresh approach

Elon Musk’s style of challenging assumptions exhibits a First Principles Thinking approach. You may have your descriptive phrase for him but what you cannot deny is his ability to think in a unique manner, courtesy First Principles Thinking. 

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