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

First Principle

A first principle is a basic assumption that cannot be deduced any further. 


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

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


Key Ideas

First Principles Thinking

Is the act of deconstructing something to the fundamental parts that you know are true and building up from there.

Also called reasoning from first principles, it effectively helps many great thinkers to break down complicated problems and generate original solutions while teaching how to think for oneself.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk

“Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.”

First Principle

A first principle is a basic assumption that cannot be deduced any further. 

Using First Principle Thinking in Practice

In theory, first principles thinking requires you to dig deeper and deeper until you are left with only the foundational truths of a situation.

In practice, you don't have to go down to the atomic level to benefit from first principles thinking. Just going one or two levels deeper than most people is often enough. 

One Method, Different Solutions

Different solutions present themselves at different layers of abstraction. Depending on how deep and thorough is your breakdown of the situation, putting them all back together may yield different solutions. 

Cartesian Doubt

Method used by René Descartes in which he would “systematically doubt everything he could possibly doubt until he was left with what he saw as purely indubitable truths."

First Principles as An Innovation Drive

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

The best solution is often not where everyone is already looking. After getting to the facts, first principle thinking helps you make a plan to improve each little piece, which often leads to exploring for better substitutes, even in other disciplines.

The Challenge of Reasoning From First Principles

One of the primary obstacles to first principles thinking is our tendency to focus on making slight iterations on the same theme. The problem is that, old conventions and forms are often accepted without question and they set boundaries around creativity.

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

The Power of First Principles

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.



First-principles thinking

Breaking down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up.

It’s one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself, unlock your creative poten...

A first principle a foundational proposition or assumption that stands alone. We cannot deduce first principles from any other proposition or assumption.

Reasoning by first principles removes the impurity of assumptions and conventions. What remains is the essentials. 

Cutting through the dogma

If we never learn to take something apart, test the assumptions, and reconstruct it, we end up trapped in what other people tell us.

We remain trapped in the way things have always been done. When the environment changes, we just continue as if things were the same.

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First Principles Thinking

Also known as Deconstruction, it’s a way of thinking supported by Elon Musk and many scientists. It consists of breaking what you know into its components until its fundamental parts can be ...

Applying First Principles Thinking

1. Deconstruct and look at the components of what you're working on and question all the assumptions you have about them. Think of different ways the same function can be accomplished.

2. Deconstruct it and mash it up with products or concepts from different contexts to generate new ideas. 

Comparison vs. First Principles Thinking

Comparison Thinking (reason through analogy)

When you make decisions and judgement calls based on what you or others have experienced. An easy mode of thinking but also

Advantages of First Principles Thinking
  • Allows for a more personal, customized mode of thinking and application.
  • A key to doing any sort of systemic inquiry.
  • Even though it does take far more mental energy to work in this mode, the results can be quite staggering.
  • A new and innovative way of thinking.
Applying the First Principles Thinking

Identify the Problem

What is something that I want to change in my life?

Deconstruct the Problem

What are the causes of my problems? How does it affect my life?

Solve the Problem

Start creating your new framework. You could think of multiple ways to achieve your goals easily.

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