How Elon Musk Uses a Crucial Lesson From Aristotle to Make His Decisions
Elon Musk, real-life Iron Man and forever single billionaire entrepreneur, picked up a little philosophy in the two days before he dropped out of Stanford University from the world’s first great scientist, Aristotle of Lysippus.
It’s called “first principles thinking,” which Musk learned from his very short time as an applied physics Ph.D hopeful, and it deals with solving problems from their foundation rather than by analogy, which most of us fall for.
In an interview with Kevin Rose, Musk explained, “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.”
Regarded as the father of science, Aristotle laid the groundwork for measurement and observation, where first principle thinking would start by observing anything from its most basic foundation. Musk reveals that going back to the root of anything “takes a lot more mental energy,” but that’s how all the most groundbreaking discoveries happen — and it’s saved Musk a lot of money in building his companies.
According to the blog 99u, Musk put “first principle thinking” into action when he and his team set out to figure how much SpaceX’s first rockets would cost. Rather than look at other companies and products in the market and take a similar estimation, they started from scratch, gathering numbers on the costs of rocket parts and raw materials needed for their production. Musk and his team discovered that they could actually build rockets for a tiny fraction of the cost that other companies were building them for.
In his interview with Rose, Musk used “first principle thinking” in a battery pack example.
“Someone could — and people do — say battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be because that’s the way they have been in the past. They would say, “It’s going to cost $600 / kilowatt-hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.
What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? It has carbon, nickel, aluminum, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. Break that down on a materials basis, if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost?
Oh jeez, it’s $80 / kilowatt-hour. Clearly, you need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much cheaper than anyone realizes.”
Whether it’s for your business or your life in general, you can always bet you’ll gain new insight to any problem by using first principles thinking and starting from the root of the problem.