Think like Elon Musk with First Principles of Thinking

6 min read

First Principles Thinking or reasoning from first principles is one of the best strategies to use to solve complex problems and come up with original solutions. It is also one of the best ways to learn the art of thinking clearly.

Heuristics from first thinking have been used for years by many successful people such as John Boyd (military strategist), Johannes Gutenberg (inventor) and Aristotle (ancient philosopher). However, no one has proven the benefits of first principles thinking better in our modern world than Elon Musk.

At the age of 46, Elon Musk created three multi-billion dollar corporations that revolutionized our world – Tesla Motors (Automotive), PayPal (financial services), and SpaceX (aerospace). His success is linked to his ability to solve complex problems and his amazing work ethic.

While work ethic plays a major role in mastering what you do and being successful, there is more. When it comes to success, it It has nothing to do with the time you spend on something but more to do with the way you think.

Read on and learn how thinking on first principles can help you solve complex problems, increase productivity, and achieve your biggest goals.

What is first principles thinking?

The first principle is the logical conclusion of the proposition. In short, it cannot be deduced further. Nearly two thousand years ago, the ancient philosopher Aristotle defined the Frst principle as the basis by which an individual knows something. This is a way of thinking that scientists have embraced for years. Research studies show that scientists do their best to eliminate all forms of bias from their research.

Some of the questions they ask themselves include:

  • What has been proven?
  • What are we sure of?

Thinking on first principles forces you to dig deeper into the real facts of something. French philosopher Rene Descartes used this way of thinking with Cartesian skepticism that forced him to systematically doubt everything he could until he had pure, non-arguable facts.

In our modern world, you don’t have to delve into the atomic level to understand every problem you encounter. All you have to do is go down one or two levels deeper than the average person. In each level, you will get different solutions.

John Boyd, a famous military strategist, created an experiment that will help you learn how to use elementary principles of thinking in your everyday life:

Imagine you have these things:

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  • military tank
  • bike

You can break these elements down into their component parts:

  • Military tank – steel armor plates, metal struts, and a gun
  • Bike – wheels, seat, gears, handlebar

You can use these individual parts to create something different but awesome. This is how you use the First Thinking Principle. You can break the situation down to its core and then put them back together in a better way. In short, it’s a dismantling process to build back better.

An example of first principles of thinking: Elon Musk and SpaceX

The most amazing thing about Elon Musk is not what he thinks but how he thinks. This is what he once said:

“I think people’s thought process is very restricted by convention or analogy to past experiences… You have to build logic from the ground up — ‘from first principles’ is the phrase used in physics. You look at the basics and build your reasoning from that, and then see if you have A conclusion that works or not, and may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.

To understand reality, it begins with abstract facts – not intuition. While we think we know a lot of things, the truth is that we don’t know as much as we think. Studies have shown that decision making works better when we use strategies. Therefore, relying on our intuition is not a good idea when solving complex problems.

Musk’s way of thinking is very different from the way the average person thinks. He begins by focusing on what he wants to achieve – eg building a rocket. Then he dives into the first principles of the problem.

Missiles are expensive. This is one of the problems he faced when he wanted to send people to Mars. Since he did not have the resources to purchase a missile, he asked himself, “What are missiles?” He found his answer – carbon fiber, copper, aluminum alloys used in the manufacture of aircraft, titanium.

Then he asked himself, “What are the market values ​​of these materials?” He found that these materials were 2 percent of the missile’s cost.

So why is it expensive to get a rocket to Mars? Since Musk spends most of his time learning, he started learning rocket science. He found that getting a rocket is expensive because people don’t use first principles of thinking. Then he moved on to creating SpaceX to find out if he could build rockets from scratch.

During an interview with Kevin Rose, he summed up his approach by saying:

“I think it’s important to think from first principles rather than analogy… The first principle is kind of a physical way of looking at the world, you summarize things down to basic facts and say, ‘Well, what are we sure is true?’ …and then think from there.

The power of first principles thinking

Most people use conventional thinking to understand different situations and solve complex problems. Conventional thinking involves the use of intuition and measurements. While we would like to know everything to solve problems quickly and efficiently, the truth is that we don’t know many things. Therefore, relying on our intuition can make it difficult for us to understand and solve problems.

Another aspect to keep in mind is that comparisons cannot replace understanding. While it’s easy for you to think by analogy, you’ll have an easy time coming up with better answers when you embrace first principles thinking.

Thinking outside the box when solving problems

Deduction from first principles will enable you to break out of conventional and historical wisdom and discover new possibilities. When you understand the basic principles, everything will begin to be understood.

First principles Thinking is useful when:

  • Trying to solve a complex problem
  • Doing something for the first time
  • Do your best to understand a complex issue

In these three areas, your thinking will improve when you avoid making assumptions or allowing others to frame problems and solve them for you.

Most people think creativity is a trait that only a few people are born with – you either have it or you don’t. Research studies have shown that this is not true.

Every person is creative. However, during the early stages, busy parents and teachers can overwhelm us. As we become adults, we start to think traditionally because it is easier than using first principles thinking. When you start using first principles thinking, anything is possible.

Applies to everyday problems

The first thought principle does not apply only when solving rocket science problems or complex scientific equations. You can use it to solve problems in your daily life.

Here are two examples:

Assumption: I will need a lot of money to grow my business

Initial thinking:

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  • What do you need to grow your business? You will need to sell products or services to more customers.
  • Do you have to invest a lot of money to sell products or services to new customers? Not right. However, you will need to reach these customers using inexpensive methods.
  • Who can help you reach these clients? How can you reach a win-win deal for both parties? You can consider partnering with companies that serve these clients and split the profits.

Assumption: I should put in a lot of time and energy to become a successful writer

Initial thinking:

  • What do you need to create quality content and earn a living as a writer? You will need a good number of well-paid clients and audiences who appreciate your work and are willing to buy your articles.
  • What do you need to get a larger audience? You need to learn about the most effective marketing methods. Focusing on selling your pieces to improve the lives of your audience will help you achieve your goal.

How to master the first principles of thinking

The First Thinking Principle will help you develop a different view of the world and solve complex problems in ways that no one else can understand. Here are 3 simple steps that Elon Musk advises you to use:

1. Define assumptions

We all make assumptions in different areas of our lives. Some common assumptions include:

I will need to invest in expensive equipment to boost my productivity level. I don’t have time to work on complex projects…

The next time you encounter a complex problem, write down every assumption that comes to mind. You will be impressed with this exercise.

2. Break the problem

As we said earlier, basic principles are the basic elements of the facts of something. To discover these facts, you have to ask yourself powerful questions.

Here’s a great example used by Elon Musk during an interview with Kevin Rose:

Anyone can say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s how they always will be. Historically, it cost $600 per kilowatt-hour. It won’t be much better than that in the future.”

With first principles, I say, “What are the physical components of batteries? What is the stock market value of the physical components?” It contains cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation, and a canister sealant.

Break that down on a physical basis and say, “If we buy that from the London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost?” It’s like $80 a kilowatt-hour.

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conclusion? You just need to think of clever ways to take that material and combine it into a battery cell form and you could have batteries that are a lot cheaper than anyone realizes.

You don’t have to follow traditional ways of thinking to achieve your goals. Thinking differently is the way to go.

3. Create new solutions

After you have identified and broken down your assumptions into key facts, you need to create insightful solutions. Here’s an example to guide you:

Assumption: I don’t have time to exercise and achieve my health goals.

Thinking First Principles:

  • What do you need to achieve your health goals? You need to exercise for five hours a week (an hour every day).
  • Can I achieve my goals by exercising less? yes! You can exercise for fifteen minutes three days a week. Doing high intensity bodyweight exercises (HIIT) will help you achieve your health goals easily and quickly.

What can you do now

  • Make an assumption about something you’ve always wanted to do but have been reluctant to do.
  • Ask yourself, “What do you really need to do that?” You may need to do a little research to see if you’re not sure.
The first step in thinking principles


As you strive to achieve your goals, you will face a lot of problems. Your mind will always come up with assumptions when you are trying to solve a complex problem.

Breaking these assumptions to discover basic facts will help you come up with solutions to seemingly impossible problems. Learning how to develop first principles thinking will pay off in the long run. You can apply First Principles Thinking in your daily life easily.

Featured Image Credit: Per Löv via

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