Many of the world’s innovators stress the importance of principles for huge thinking. Broken down, the principles for huge thinking encompass both First Principles Thinking and Elon Musk’s Scientific Method for Problem Solving. But what exactly are the ‘first principles thinking’ and ‘Scientific Method for Problem Solving’?
Often described by Elon Musk on podcasts such as Lex Fridman’s interviews, the first principles thinking and Scientific Method for Problem Solving uses reverse engineering to find solutions to complex problems and drive workplace innovation. Many great thinkers have successfully used these concepts, including military strategist John Boyd, entrepreneur Elon Musk, Philosopher Aristotle, and inventor Johannes Gutenberg.
This post details the principles for huge thinking by describing what first principles thinking and Elon Musk’s Scientific Method for Problem Solving are, how they work, the techniques for establishing first principles, and more.
Let’s get started!
Defining Elon Musk’s Scientific Method for Problem Solving
Elon Musk is one of the most successful entrepreneurs to have ever existed. He boasts some of the best inventions, including Tesla and SpaceX. Musk has discussed the scientific method several times, but here is how he expressed it to Rolling Stone:
- “Ask a question.”
- “Gather as much evidence as possible about it. “
- “Develop axioms based on the evidence, and try to assign a probability of truth to each one.”
- “Draw a conclusion based on cogency in order to determine: Are these axioms correct, are they relevant, do they necessarily lead to this conclusion, and with what probability?”
- “Attempt to disprove the conclusion. Seek refutation from others to further help break your conclusion.”
- “If nobody can invalidate your conclusion, then you’re probably right, but you’re not certainly right.”
Closely related to this concept is the first principles thinking. This concept has proved effective in solving problems. Let’s see more below:
Defining First Principles Thinking
In simple language, first principles thinking involves actively questioning every assumption you believe to be ‘true’ about a specific scenario or problem – and then coming up with new solutions and knowledge from scratch. It’s the only approach to thinking that encourages you to think for yourself.
You see, many people reason by analogy. That is, they build knowledge and solve problems based on prior beliefs, assumptions, and widely held ‘best practices’ approved by most individuals. And while this problem-solving method may work in most scenarios, it limits individuals’ innovation abilities.
This is different for first principles thinking, however. Essentially, the concept enables you to innovate and solve complex problems in a manner that no one else can understand. It makes you an innovator and inventor.
Here are steps recommended by Elon Musk for using the first principles thinking:
Step #1: Identify your assumptions: This step involves identifying and writing down assumptions to your challenges. That is, how is the problem solved?
Step #2: Break down the problem: Next, you need to break down the problem into fundamental principles. It’s the best way to uncover the truths about your problem or challenges. Instead of following the traditionally accepted methods of solving your problems, you should ask yourself several questions to help you uncover the truths.
Step #3: Create new solutions from scratch: After identifying and breaking down your problem and assumption into their basic principles, you can create a new insightful solution.
First Principles in Action
Here is an example of the first principles thinking used by Elon Musk:
Elon Musk always had the goal of developing an electric car. But investors always told him that battery packs are too expensive, making it hard to develop an electric car.
According to Musk, this assumption was familiar in history. When cars replaced horses, people had assumptions like, “gas is too expensive” or “it’s logically impossible to supply gas to all cars.” So, gas was mainly the central problem in the invention of cars. But a solution was found, and we have cars running on fuel today.
Using first principles, Musk was able to identify the battery as the central problem to the invention of electric cars. So, he used the following steps to identify a solution to the otherwise complex problem:
Step #1: Break down the problem
What is the battery made of? Nickel, carbon, aluminum, lithium, cobalt, etc. How much money does each material cost?
Step #2: Examine the assumptions
Among the assumptions surrounding the battery include:
- The batteries can only be acquired from certain vendors
- It costs $600 per KwH (1KWH = 100 miles in an electric car).
Step #3: Create solutions
Musk came up with several solutions to the problem, including:
- Secure long-term supplier agreements to reduce prices
- Purchase bulk raw materials and manufacture batters in-house
- Hire engineers and scientists to develop new battery technology
- Manufacturer batteries at large scale
From this Elon Musk’s application of the first principles, we can tell the role of the concept in innovation. Let’s see how first principles thinking promotes innovation.
First Principles Thinking and Innovation
Many of the most outstanding ideas and inventions in history have resulted from breaking things to the first principles then creating more effective solutions to the key parts. For example, Johannes Gutenberg created a printing press using a combination of a screw press – used to make wine – and movable type, ink, and paper.
The screw press and movable type had existed for years, but no one ever thought to use their constituent parts to develop different technology. Thanks to the first principles thinking used by Gutenberg, we now have printers that solve the problem of information sharing and movement.
Likewise, we have so many problems that we can develop great inventions by breaking them into basic truths. First principles thinking and Musk’s scientific problem-solving method allow individuals to gather information from different fields to create innovations.
Challenges of Reasoning from First Principles Thinking
Yes, first principles thinking is easy to describe but difficult to practice. Among the main challenges to first principles thinking is the human tendency to optimize form rather than function.
Here is a perfect example for this problem:
In ancient Rome, soldiers would carry food and other belonging using leather bags. They had many vehicles with wheels, which they used while traveling across the countryside. And yet, no one ever thought to combine the bag and the wheel to make a rolling suitcase.
The first rolling suitcase was invented in 1970 by Bernard Sadow. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, people would use leather bags for school, hiking, travel, etc.
Before 1970, only a few improvements had been made to these bags – zippers added in 1938, nylon backpacks made in 1967, etc. Innovators just made slight improvements to the bags. No innovations, just iteration.
And that’s the challenge that faces reasoning from first principles thinking. People focus more on building better forms of a product and not the function. It’s the same with a vehicle today. Most inventors look to improve the vehicle’s appearance and performance rather than how it can promote a greener world.
The Bottom Line
Principles for huge thinking are the most effective strategies for breaking down complex problems and generating original solutions. Based on these principles, the best way to develop ideas is to break things down to the basics. Without a solid grasp of the fundamentals, the chances are that you won’t master the details that make the difference at elite levels of competition.
This post equips the reader with information on first principles thinking, including what it is, how it works, its benefits, and more. Reading it will enable you to become a great thinker. In the next post we will tackle design thinking and how these both tie in to the growth mindset. Good luck, stay thinking big, and share this with your friends and family if you found it helpful!