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First Principles: Elon Musk on the Power of Thinking for Yourself, Part 2

First Principles, Idea

Today we continue our understanding into First Principles thinking with Elon Musk. Read the first part here if you haven’t already.

How First Principles Drive Innovation

The snowmobile example in part 1 highlights another hallmark of first principles thinking, which is the combination of ideas from seemingly unrelated fields. A tank and a bicycle appear to have nothing in common, but pieces of a tank and a bicycle can be combined to develop innovations like a snowmobile.

Many of the most groundbreaking ideas in history have been a result of boiling things down to the first principles and then substituting a more effective solution for one of the key parts.

For instance, Johannes Gutenberg combined the technology of a screw press—a device used for making wine—with movable type, paper, and ink to create the printing press.

Movable type had been used for centuries, but Gutenberg was the first person to consider the constituent parts of the process and adapt technology from an entirely different field to make printing far more efficient.

The result was a world-changing innovation and the widespread distribution of information for the first time in history.

The best solution is not where everyone is already looking.

First principles thinking helps you to cobble together information from different disciplines to create new ideas and innovations. You start by getting to the facts. Once you have a foundation of facts, you can make a plan to improve each little piece.

This process naturally leads to exploring widely for better substitutes.

The Challenge of Reasoning From First Principles

First principles thinking can be easy to describe, but quite difficult to practice. One of the primary obstacles to first principles thinking is our tendency to optimize form rather than function. The story of the suitcase provides a perfect example.

In ancient Rome, soldiers used leather messenger bags and satchels to carry food while riding across the countryside. At the same time, the Romans had many vehicles with wheels like chariots, carriages, and wagons. And yet, for thousands of years, nobody thought to combine the bag and the wheel.

The first rolling suitcase wasn’t invented until 1970 when Bernard Sadow was hauling his luggage through an airport and saw a worker rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid.

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, leather bags were specialized for particular uses—backpacks for school, rucksacks for hiking, suitcases for travel. Zippers were added to bags in 1938. Nylon backpacks were first sold in 1967. Despite these improvements, the form of the bag remained largely the same.

Innovators spent all of their time making slight iterations on the same theme.

What looks like innovation is often an iteration of previous forms rather than an improvement of the core function. While everyone else was focused on how to build a better bag (form), Sadow considered how to store and move things more efficiently (function).

How to Think for Yourself

The human tendency for imitation is a common roadblock to first principles thinking. When most people envision the future, they project the current form forward rather than projecting the function forward and abandoning the form.

For instance, when criticizing technological progress some people ask, “Where are the flying cars?”

Here’s the thing: We have flying cars. They’re called airplanes. People who ask this question are so focused on form (a flying object that looks like a car) that they overlook the function (transportation by flight). This is what Elon Musk is referring to when he says that people often “live life by analogy.”

Be wary of the ideas you inherit. Old conventions and previous forms are often accepted without question and, once accepted, they set a boundary around creativity.

This difference is one of the key distinctions between continuous improvement and first principles thinking. Continuous improvement tends to occur within the boundary set by the original vision. By comparison, first principles thinking requires you to abandon your allegiance to previous forms and put the function front and center.

What are you trying to accomplish? What is the functional outcome you are looking to achieve?

Optimize the function. Ignore the form. This is how you learn to think for yourself.

The Power of First Principles

Ironically, perhaps the best way to develop cutting-edge ideas is to start by breaking things down to the fundamentals. Even if you aren’t trying to develop innovative ideas, understanding the first principles of your field is a smart use of your time.

Without a firm grasp of the basics, there is little chance of mastering the details that make the difference at elite levels of competition.

Every innovation, including the most groundbreaking ones, requires a long period of iteration and improvement.

The company at the beginning of this article, SpaceX, ran many simulations, made thousands of adjustments, and required multiple trials before they figured out how to build an affordable and reusable rocket.

First principles thinking does not remove the need for continuous improvement, but it does alter the direction of improvement. Without reasoning by first principles, you spend your time making small improvements to a bicycle rather than a snowmobile. First principles thinking sets you on a different trajectory.

If you want to enhance an existing process or belief, continuous improvement is a great option. If you want to learn how to think for yourself, reasoning from first principles is one of the best ways to do it.

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