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Productivity, Success Mindset

Think Like Elon Musk With First Principles Thinking

Written by Leon Ho
Founder & CEO of Lifehack
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First Principles Thinking or reasoning from first principles is one of the best strategies to use for breaking down complex problems and coming up with original solutions. It’s also one of the best ways to learn the art of thinking clearly.

Reasoning from first thinking has 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 demonstrated the benefits of First Principles Thinking in our modern world better than Elon Musk.

At 46, Elon Musk has built three multibillion-dollar organizations that have 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 incredible work ethic.

While work ethic plays a key role in mastering what you do and succeeding, there’s more. When it comes to success, it has little to do with how much time you put in something but more to do with the way you think.

Read on and learn how First Principles Thinking helps you to solve complex problems, increase productivity, and achieve your biggest goals.

What Is First Principles Thinking?

A first principle is a logical conclusion of an assumption. In short, it cannot be deduced further. Nearly two thousand years ago, the ancient philosopher Aristotle defined the Frst Principle as the basis from which an individual knows a thing. 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.[1]

Some of the questions which they ask themselves include:

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

First Principles Thinking forces you to dig deep to find the real truths of something. The French philosopher Rene Descartes used this thinking method with the Cartesian Doubt which forced him to doubt everything that he could systematically till what he had was pure undebatable truths.


In our modern world, you don’t have to dig deep to the atomic level to understand every problem you are facing. All you have to do is go down one or two levels deeper than the ordinary person. At every level, you’ll get different solutions.

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

Imagine you have these things:

  • A military tank
  • A bicycle

You can break these items down to their constituent parts:

  • Military tank – Steel armor plates, metal treads, and a gun
  • Bicycle – Wheels, seat, gears, and handlebars

You can use these individual parts to create something different yet remarkable. This is how you use the principle of first thinking. You break down a situation to its core and then put them back together in a better way. In short, it’s deconstructing to reconstruct better.

Example of First Principles Thinking: Elon Musk and SpaceX

The most fascinating thing about Elon Musk is not what he thinks about but how he thinks. Here’s what he once said:

‘I think people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences… You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the First Principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.’

To understand reality, he starts with bare facts – not intuition. While we think we know a lot of things, the truth is we don’t know as much as we think. Studies have shown that decision-making works best when we use strategies. Therefore, relying on our intuition isn’t a good idea when solving complex problems.[2]


Musk’s way of thinking is completely different from the average person’s thought process. He starts by focusing on what he wants to achieve – say building a rocket. Then he dives into the first principles of the problem.

Rockets are expensive. And this is one of the problems that he faced when he wanted to send people to Mars. Since he didn’t have the resources to buy a rocket, he asked himself, “What are rockets made of?” He found his answer – carbon fiber, copper, aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, and titanium.

He then asked himself, “What are the values of these materials on the market?” He found that these materials were two percent the cost of a rocket.

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 thinking. He then went on to create SpaceX to discover whether he can build rockets from scratch.

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

‘I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy… First principle is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, you boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “okay, what are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there.’

The Power of First Principles Thinking

Most people use traditional thinking to understand different situations and solve complex problems. Traditional thinking involves using intuition and analogies. While we’d like to know everything to solve problems quickly and efficiently, the truth is we don’t know lots of things. Therefore, relying on our intuition can make it harder for us to understand and solve problems.

Another aspect that you should keep in mind is analogies can never replace understanding. While it’s easy for you to reason by analogy, you’ll have an easy time coming up with better answers when you embrace First Principles Thinking.


Thinking Out of the Box When Solving Problems

Reasoning from First Principles will enable you to step out of conventional and historical wisdom and discover new possibilities. When you understand the underlying principles, everything will start making sense.

First Principles Thinking is useful when you are:

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

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

Most people believe that creativity is a trait that only a handful of people are born with – that it’s either you have it or not. Research studies have shown that this isn’t true.[3]

Every human being is creative. However, during the early stages, busy parents and teachers can beat out of us. When we become adults, we start thinking conventionally because it’s easier than using first principles thinking. When you start using First Principles Thinking, everything becomes possible.

Applicable to Everyday Problems

First Principle Thinking is not just applicable when solving rocket science problems or complex scientific equations. You can use it to solve problems in your day-to-day life.

Here are two examples:

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

First Principle Thinking:

  • What do you require to grow your business? You’ll need to sell products or services to more clients.
  • Do you have to invest a lot of money to sell products or services to new clients? Not really. However, you’ll need access to these clients using inexpensive methods.
  • Who can help you access these clients? And how can you come up with a win-win deal for both parties? You can consider partnering with businesses that serve these clients and splitting the profits.

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

First Principle Thinking:

  • What do you need to create good content and make a living as a writer? You would need a good number of well-paying clients and audiences who appreciate your work and are willing to buy your articles.
  • What do you need to have 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 First Principles Thinking

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

1. Identify Assumptions

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

I’ll 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 are faced with a complex problem, write down every assumption that comes to mind. You’ll be fascinated by this exercise.

2. Break Down the Problem

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

Here is a great example that Elon Musk used during an interview with Kevin Rose:

Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be. Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt-hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”


With First Principles, I say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?” It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can.

Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange, what would each of those things cost?” It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour.

Conclusion? You just 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, much cheaper than anyone realizes.

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


3. Create New Solutions

After identifying and breaking down your assumptions into basic truths, you need to create insightful solutions. Here’s an example that will guide you:

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

First Principles Thinking:

  • 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 frequently? Yes! You can exercise for fifteen minutes three days a week. Doing high-intensity body workouts (HIIT) will help you achieve your health goals easily and quickly.
Think Like Elon Musk With First Principles Thinking

2 Actions
Think Like Elon Musk With First Principles Thinking
Identify an assumption you have on something you have always wanted to do but hesitate to do so.
Think Like Elon Musk With First Principles Thinking
Ask yourself “what do you really need to do that?” You may need to do a bit of research to find out if you’re not sure about it.

first principles thinking steps


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

    Breaking these assumptions down to discover the underlying truths will help you come up with solutions to problems that seem impossible. Learning how to develop First Principles Thinking will pay off in spades in the long run. You can apply First Principles Thinking in your daily life easily.


    Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

    Think Like Elon Musk With First Principles Thinking

    A first principle is a logical conclusion of an assumption.

    Reasoning from First Principles will enable you to step out of conventional and historical wisdom and discover new possibilities.

    First Principle Thinking is not just applicable when solving rocket science problems or complex scientific equations. You can use it to solve problems in your day-to-day life.

    The 3 simple steps to master First Principles Thinking: 1. Identify Assumptions 2. Break Down the Problem 3. Create New Solutions

    Featured photo credit: Per Lööv via unsplash.com


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