4 questions to ask which will help you think like Elon Musk

Elon Musk praises first principles thinking — here’s how can you apply Elon’s thinking in your own work and life.

  1. Prove that what you’re doing builds back better on something that already exists.

“Boil things down to the most fundamental truths… and then reason up from there.”

The key component of first principles thinking is refusing to stay stuck with a belief about something; thinking that it simply can’t get better. It’s surprisingly simple — but in practice, most people accept what works, and leave it at that.

Applying first principles thinking can be tough

And even that can be a tough thing to remember given a world wherein critical thinking and focus appear to become finite, rare frameworks of human endeavour.

Here are the 4 questions to ask in order to apply first principles thinking in your own life:

First Principles Thinking throws you deep into the weeds and roots of what you’re thinking about

1. What is the problem I am essentially looking at?

Let’s say I want to reinvent how people grow crops by making them grow twice as fast.

2. Exactly what problem am I fixing == what solution do I want to create?

In this example want create a solution which solves the timing problem — i.e. waiting for plants to grow.

3. What do I know is already (or likely) true?

Continuing with this analogy: I know that some plants grow best as long day plants, and others as short day plants. I also know that some plants are stimulated by noises in the ground that may replicate the sounds of groundwater. I also know that the plants need optimum water and nutrition, so I look at which nutrients enhance each plant’s growth the most.

4. Using only these truths, how can I create a new solution?

Remembering that I want to solve the time problem, and knowing that it is likely true that some plants like sub-bass, water-esque sounds, I decide to create a floorless, partially echo-chambered nano greenhouse designed to sit on the earth, which only removes mechanical and man-made acoustic pollution, but lets in all organic sound from animals, insects and other plants within the ecosystem.

1. What is the problem I am essentially looking at?

2. Exactly what problem am I fixing and therefore what solution do I want to create?

3. What do I know is already (or likely) true?

4. Using only these truths, how can I create a new solution?

What are the benefits of “first principles” thinking?

First Principles (FP) thinking is usually thought to be braver in its application to both enhancing creativity and solving problems. From an innovation perspective, FP allows you to make huge, sometimes drastic improvements rather than making little bits of iterations and updates.

When did Elon Musk mention first principles?

Elon Musk gives an example of the first car. Many inventors were simply looking to capitalise on what already worked, by improving on the horse-drawn carriage. However, those that truly innovated were the ones who truly invented something new only by using first principles thinking.

  1. Plants Use Sound To Locate Water: Gagliano, M., Grimonprez, M., Depczynski, M. et al. Tuned in: plant roots use sound to locate water. Oecologia 184, 151–160 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-017-3862-z [Accessed March 2021]
  2. Maximum Yield, Article: Definition of Long Day Plants, <https://www.maximumyield.com/definition/1673/long-day-plant> [Accessed March 2021]
  3. Oregon State University Extension: Gardening Techniques, <https://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/techniques>[Accessed March 2021]
  4. The First Principles Method Explained by Elon Musk, Innomind channel, YouTube <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NV3sBlRgzTI>[Accessed March 2021]

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