How to think like Elon Musk using first principle thinking?

For decades the Saturn V rockets, NASA’s pride and part of the Apollo missions, led the list of world’s super heavy-lift launch vehicles (SHLLV). But on 6 February, from the same launch pad where NASA launched rockets that carried astronauts to the moon, rose a new heir to that throne – Space X’s Falcon Heavy rocket. It is the first time in history that a commercial company has sent a rocket this powerful into space, even though Space X’s less powerful Falcon 9 rocket has been carrying cargo to space for years.

Elon Musk is certainly one of the boldest and smartest entrepreneurs on the planet – the real-life Tony Stark as some describe him. He revolutionized online payment with PayPal, electric cars with Tesla Motors, renewable energy with Solar City and Space exploration with Space X. One might wonder what enables him to accomplish these extraordinary feats. The answer is simple – First Principle thinking.

What is First Principle Thinking?

In a Reddit AMA, one of the Redditors asked Elon Musk how does he learn so much so fast?


He answered the question by advising to view knowledge like a semantic tree: “It is important to see knowledge as sort of a semantic tree,” he said. “Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”


First Principle Thinking is starting your thinking or reasoning with the essential facts. First principles” is a physics way of looking at the world, what that means is that you boil things down to the most fundamental truths, and then reason up from there, that takes a lot more mental energy, “says Elon Musk.

Thinking in first principles is important because it helps you get a better understanding of complex problems and concepts. However, our educational system and social circumstances have trained us to think by analogy. We usually think of analogy by comparing experiences and ideas to what we already know. We are asked to base our argument on existing facts or works by pioneers in that field. Analogous thinking often misses the finer details needed, especially when trying to understand the unknown.

Thinking by analogy is much easier and more familiar, and it can be quite useful when comparing the past or current concepts. On the other hand, first principles clear a lot of these details up by getting to the origin of the idea.

In an interview with Kevin Rose, Elon Musk explains:

“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.”

How to think in the first principle:

A significant example of the first principle is how Elon Musk started SpaceX during a time when everyone considered space transportation an unviable business.
The simple analogical thinking would suggest that starting a rocket company is challenging, as making rockets are expensive and time-consuming.

But when thinking by the first principle, breaking down to the core elements, you will find that the first stage booster of a rocket makes up 70% of rocket’s expense and construction time. By recovering and reusing it, the cost and time required for launches are reduced drastically.

Aristotle, Euclid, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla, even Steve Jobs were practitioners of this methods. In daily life, there will be various circumstances where you can implement the first principle thinking to attain clarity and accomplish success. Remember, the important rule is to look at the most fundamental elements and not to base your thinking on experience or existing knowledge.

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