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First Principles Thinking: Elon Musk On How to Solve Problems in Life?

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By the age of 46, Elon Musk has managed to build up 3 revolutionary multibillion-dollar companies in completely different fields—PayPal (Finance), Tesla Motors (Automotive), and SpaceX (Aerospace)

We are not even counting the companies like Boring Company or Solar City which were bought for $2.6bn.

At first glance, one may link his success, his ability to solve unsolvable problems, and his genius-level creativity to his rigorous worth ethic.

Musk himself has said many times that he worked approximately 100 hours a week for over 15 years and recently scaled down to 85 hours. According to some rumors, he doesn’t even take lunch breaks. He multitasks between eating, meetings, and responding to emails all at the same time.

No doubt work ethic plays an important role in unleashing your creative mind and mastering your work. But it’s not just hard work. As many people clocks 12 hours a day and still live as poor and die before sharing their best work.

There must be more to this…

So, what’s the secret for innovative creativity and accelerated success? 

Similar to Musk, there were many brilliant minds of the time – Aristotle, Nikola Tesla, Edison, Feynman, etc.—who tend to use this secret for faster learning, solving difficult puzzles, and creating the best work of their life.

The secret has less to do with how hard they work. And it has everything to do with how they think.

And here is how you can use this secret to solve problems in your life.

The First Principles Thinking

In Musk’s own words, during an interview with TED curator Chris Anderson, he reveals this secret which he attributes to his genius-level creativity and success. He called it reasoning from “First Principles”

“Musk: Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is in physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. Generally, I think there are — what I mean by that is, you boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, instead of 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.

To put it in simpler words, first principles are basically the practice of questioning every hypothesis/belief you think you ‘know’ about a certain problem—then building a new solution from scratch.

Whereas, solving problems through analogy means using your pre-existing beliefs and assumptions. That’s the reason you and all of us search on google “the best way to do…….”

Here we try to avoid wasting time and energy by figuring out things on our own. This method also has its uses. After all, there is no point in reinventing the wheel again and again.

But, first principles thinking allows you to develop a unique perspective to define and solve problems.

Here is how to use First Principle thinking in 3 steps explained by Musk himself.

Step 1. Label and Define Your Pre-Existing Assumptions.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and only 5 minutes on the solution” —Albert Einstein.

Here are some of the examples of assumptions that we have about business, health, and art.

  • “To start a business requires a lot of money”
  • “I have to struggle and starve a lot to become a successful writer.”
  • “I just don’t have that much time to exercise every day.”

So, whenever you face some challenges or problems, simply write down your current thoughts about those problems. (Basically, why a particular problem is unsolvable or hard to solve). And then you move on to…

Step 2. Break Your Problems into its fundamental principles.

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” —Sherlock Holmes

The fundamental principles mean the most basic elements of anything. And the best way to uncover these principles is to ask some powerful questions, especially regarding the validity of these assumptions.

Let’s take a quick example from Musk himself, where he explains how his Gigafactory produces battery.

Someone can say, “Battery packs are very expensive and they always will be…Since the beginning it has the cost of $600 per kilowatt-hour. And it’s not going to improve anytime in near future.

Now, with first principles, you say, what are the constituents of the battery packs? What is the stock market value of those materials?

It requires cobalt, carbon, aluminum, some polymers and a seal can. Just calculate their separate cost. And “if we try get these materials from the London Metal Exchange how much would they cost?”

It would be no more than $80 per kw-hour. So, all was needed to do was to think of some cheap ways of getting those materials and combine them in the shape of a battery cell.

This is a classic example of thinking on first principles basis.

Instead of following the pre-existing beliefs that batteries will always be expensive, Elon challenges these beliefs by simply asking the validity of that belief. How is battery expensive? Is it because its constituents are expensive? Or is it the manufacturing that takes a lot of effort?

Simply answering these questions lead him to produce cheap batteries, through his Gigafactory, on a very mass scale.

Step 3. Rebuild Your Problem from Scratch.

“A genius is a man who can do the average thing when everyone else around him is losing his mind.”

Once you’ve written down and broken your problems into its fundamental form, you can begin to create new insightful solutions from scratch.

A Tip from Experience: – Sometimes just restating your problems will be enough to find an actionable solution to it.

Got a problem? Just flip it around.

Now let’s take a few practical examples from our daily life.

(After all, not all of us can create an inter-planetary colony, let’s just give our best in this world only.)

Problem: I want to make more money.

Restate it: Other people have a lot of money; I want them to give to me. But why they will give me their money?

So, your revised problem would be:

What can I do for the people so that they will give me their money?

Now thinking in First Principles: Your answer will be in similar lines to this….

I need to sell… either a product or some service.

Does it cost a lot to sell?

Not necessarily. But I need to find and get access to a group of needy customers

Who has the access to this group? I guess I can partner with some other businesses that serve the same group of customers and split the profit.

Problem: I want a girlfriend

Restate it: Probably, girls also want to have a boyfriend.

So, your revised problem would be:

How can I get access to the group of girls who want a boyfriend like me?

Sometimes simply restating the problems would be enough. If you ask: “What will people pay me for?

You will start listing real services and solutions that people actually need! And this is a much better way of thinking about a problem.

Now, you may start to think, well it’s all right to solve these material problems related to money, business, etc.

But what about the depression I am going through because of the breakup I had last week?


Can the first principles of thinking be used for emotional challenges as well?

The answer is Yes. And here is how…

Tackling the Emotional Side of Life Through First Principles thinking

Well, to save your time the short answer will be the same.

You write down your assumptions, break them into their most basic parts, and rebuild the solution from scratch.

But to tackle emotional challenges…

You will write the problem…… isolated from your personal story.

and the rest of the two steps will the same as earlier.

And here is how you go about it…

Further Reading: Why Building Better Habits Won’t Solve Your Life Problems?

Isolating the problem from your personal story.

Most people have very common problems which have very common solutions. Unless you are a scientist trying to make a vaccine for corona, the problem you’re dealing with has been faced by so many people.

The only reason you think you are dealing with a unique crisis is because of the personal story you have attached to your problem.


Your story is unique, but your problem isn’t

Let’s take an example…

There wasn’t a day in my school when those bullies didn’t torture me. They used to call me by many names…laugh at me. Always making fun of me for my size and eating habits. This led to me being insecure and ended up eating more and more. The sadder I become, the more things I stuffed into my mouth.

And that’s why, today, I’m so fat that no one likes me. Girls don’t want to talk to me and always tries to laugh at my audacity to come over and try to chat with them…. I don’t know what to do.

Now this individual is thinking that his problem is enormous because of all the emotions, ‘scars’, and baggage he has attached to his problems.

But when you try to isolate his problem from all of his dramatic stories, you will find that problem is simple….

He’s fat and it is hurting his self-esteem.

Now that’s a solvable problem. And certainly not a unique problem. It’s a very common problem with all kinds of solutions available over the internet.

Once you’ve got the simplified version of your problem. Just simply write down your assumptions about those problems. Like, I don’t have time to exercise, or I can’t resist hunger pangs, etc.

Now tackle your problems by addressing the assumptions you have about it.

Assumption: I just can’t find enough time to Exercise

First Principle Thinking:

Well to lose weight, I have to exercise more. But how many times a week would be the minimum requirement to achieve my weight goal. Probably 5 days a week for an hour. Could you still lose weight by exercising less frequently? Probably 4 days a week will do the job for you.

What are other ways to weight control than exercising?  You can skip breakfast and do intermittent fasting, coupled with a high-intensity cardio 3 days per week. Sounds Interesting… right?

That’s why Think different

“Good ideas are always stupid until they’re not”

Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future.

Many times, when faced with difficult problems, we tend to fall back on our pre-existing beliefs and opinions.  With First-principles thinking you can easily break out of this herd mentality, think creatively, and create some unique solutions to very common problems. Thus, make your valuable contribution in any field.

If you’d like to get more well-researched articles to think better, solve difficult problems, and make better decisions subscribe to Lessons to Learn.

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