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First Principles: Elon Musk on the Power of Thinking for Yourself, Part 1

First principles thinking, which is sometimes called reasoning from first principles, is one of the most effective strategies you can employ for breaking down complicated problems and generating original solutions.

It also might be the single best approach to learn how to think for yourself.

The first principles approach has been used by many great thinkers including inventor Johannes Gutenberg, military strategist John Boyd, and the ancient philosopher Aristotle, but no one embodies the philosophy of first principles thinking more effectively than entrepreneur Elon Musk.

In 2002, Musk began his quest to send the first rocket to Mars—an idea that would eventually become the aerospace company SpaceX.

He ran into a major challenge right off the bat. After visiting a number of aerospace manufacturers around the world, Musk discovered the cost of purchasing a rocket was astronomical—up to $65 million. Given the high price, he began to rethink the problem.

“I tend to approach things from a physics framework,” Musk said in an interview. “Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles.”

“What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.”

Instead of buying a finished rocket for tens of millions, Musk decided to create his own company, purchase the raw materials for cheap, and build the rockets himself. SpaceX was born.

Within a few years, SpaceX had cut the price of launching a rocket by nearly 10x while still making a profit. Musk used first principles thinking to break the situation down to the fundamentals, bypass the high prices of the aerospace industry, and create a more effective solution.

First principles thinking is the act of boiling a process down to the fundamental parts that you know are true and building up from there.

First principles thinking is the act of boiling a process down to the fundamental parts that you know are true and building up from there. Let’s discuss how you can utilize first principles thinking in your life and work.

Defining First Principles Thinking

A first principle is a basic assumption that cannot be deduced any further. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle defined a first principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”

First principles thinking is a fancy way of saying “think like a scientist.” Scientists don’t assume anything. They start with questions like, What are we absolutely sure is true? What has been proven?

In theory, first principles thinking requires you to dig deeper and deeper until you are left with only the foundational truths of a situation.

Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and scientist, embraced this approach with a method now called Cartesian Doubt in which he would “systematically doubt everything he could possibly doubt until he was left with what he saw as purely indubitable truths.”

In practice, you don’t have to simplify every problem down to the atomic level to get the benefits of first principles thinking. You just need to go one or two levels deeper than most people.

Different solutions present themselves at different layers of abstraction. John Boyd, the famous fighter pilot and military strategist, created the following thought experiment which showcases how to use first principles thinking in a practical way.

Imagine you have three things:

A motorboat with a skier behind it
A military tank
A bicycle

Now, let’s break these items down into their constituent parts:

Motorboat: motor, the hull of a boat, and a pair of skis.
Tank: metal treads, steel armor plates, and a gun.
Bicycle: handlebars, wheels, gears, and a seat.

What can you create from these individual parts? One option is to make a snowmobile by combining the handlebars and seat from the bike, the metal treads from the tank, and the motor and skis from the boat.

This is the process of first principles thinking in a nutshell. It is a cycle of breaking a situation down into the core pieces and then putting them all back together in a more effective way.

Deconstruct then reconstruct.

Next time, we’ll share more from Elon Musk on how First Principles drive innovation and how you can apply these principles to your own life.

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