What Would Elon Musk Do? Thinking About First Principles


If you wanted a rocket to Mars what would you do? Building one would be a pain, so probably getting someone else to build it for you, would be a good idea. Elon Musk actually tried that first. What he got was a very large estimate of $65 million dollars.

That was not a bill that he wanted to pay. So, he started thinking about what would it really cost to build a rocket. Rockets are made up of aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. He tallied up what that would cost in the market. That total was much less than the estimate. He figured he could build it cheaper than the rest, so he went into the space business.

What took governments and a string of government contractors millions of dollars to do, Elon Musk did it with a tenth of the price. The only way to do so was to rethink how to get into space. The only way to do that is to go to first principles.

What Is First Principles Thinking?

I think generally people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good.” But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up.

Elon Musk

The idea of first principles is to get down to the most fundamental level possible and build your arguments up from there.

For example, if you look at Japan (where I live) there is a current debate about the effectiveness of online education or whether to change the start date from April to September. All of this debate is more about the details of the best way or best timing to deliver the education. But what about the content of the education itself? Is it really the best to get the job done? What is the purpose of educating our kids anyway?

Probably up until 2020, most people did not think about if our current system of education actually made sense anymore. It is thinking with first principles where you start removing assumptions and get down to what you really know for sure.

Do we even know that having a teacher in the classroom talking to 30 or so students is the best way? That is the way it has always been, but that doesn`t make it THE correct way to do things.

First Principles In Hiding

Photo by Austin Distel 

It is pretty easy to get caught in normal assumptions or “common sense” of the day. Sometimes we don’t even notice the assumptions that we make. When talking about online vs offline classroom, the problem of everyone having an equal education come up.

Not everyone has a computer or the same environment. So not everyone can get the same experience from interacting with the teacher online. But the question here may not be so much a problem of technology, money, or even social inequality. That debate may be hiding a fundamental assumption.

Checking your own assumptions

That assumption is having the same experience or the same delivery of education for all is good. But is it really? People have different talents, interests, and goals. Treating everyone to the same standard education in the same standard way would only benefit some and hurt others.

If the objective is for “All people shall have the right to receive an equal education corresponding to their ability, as provided by law.” The question then becomes what does “equal education corresponding to their ability” really mean. Are we really providing this in our current system? That seems more important than arguing about a start date or the latest technology.

This just goes to show how easy it is to miss the fundamental issues. We need a way to get to first principles. How can that be done?

How Do We Start To Think In First Principles?

writing on the wall

One place to start is with the Socratic Method. Most people’s image of the Socratic method is simply to ask questions until you annoy someone. It’s like the kid that keeps asking “Why” all the time. After a couple of times you either say “Because I said so.” or “Look it up yourself.”

Actually it is more systematic than that, and the Farnam Street blog does a good job of clarifying that.

  1. Clarifying your thinking and explaining the origins of your ideas (Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?)
  2. Challenging assumptions (How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?)
  3. Looking for evidence (How can I back this up? What are the sources?)
  4. Considering alternative perspectives (What might others think? How do I know I am correct?)
  5. Examining consequences and implications (What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?)
  6. Questioning the original questions (Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?)

You can look at the case of online learning vs learning in the schoolroom through the same set of questions.

Either side could say that their way is better. But what does “better” mean? What do they mean by learning online? or learning in the classroom? It could very well be that each side has a different image of the other.

Learning online can go from reading material online, to watching a video, to interacting with a teacher live on Zoom. Each method has its pluses and minuses. Learning in the classroom could greatly vary depending on the teacher’s quality and style.

You need to clarify what you are thinking and arguing about before you can proceed. It would make little logical sense if either side was attacking the other side for something that the other side doesn’t even believe. However, it can be effective. Debaters use a version of this attack whenever they can get away with it.

Challenging Assumptions

In the case of Elon Musk, he challenged the assumptions how much it costs to build a rocket. The result of that is Space X. That is a good story, but the whole idea of challenging assumptions can be tricky.

When you want to get to the bottom of a particular problem challenging assumptions is a good thing. But you need to pick your battles. If you spent all your time challenging your assumptions you probably would not have time for anything else. That is why it is probably better to hold on to your beliefs if a bit loosely.

Putting that caveat aside, let’s look at what challenging assumptions means in the case of education.

Shouldn`t everyone know this?

Let’s look at what kids learn in elementary school. I’m going to pick Japan because that’s where I live. In Japan, the subjects are Japanese, Math, Art, Music, P.E., Science, Social Studies, and Home Economics. That seems to be a perfectly valid selection of things to study.

In the US it’s: English, Mathematics, Social Studies, Science, P.E., and Art. Here you find slightly difference in emphasis and timing.

If you look at Ancient Rome, the subjects were: Math, Reading, Writing, Poetry, Geometry, and sometimes Rhetoric. There is a bigger difference here than between two modern nations.

These differences illustrate that one set of subjects, plus their breadth and timing is not the only way. In fact, you might want to challenge the assumptions for the need for these subjects now. The need for learning those subjects may have greatly changed with the introduction of the Internet.

For example, how much knowledge do we need to teach students if they can just Google it? If computers and programs are so great at calculating, how much math do people need to know? Considering that there’s so much information and fake news, isn`t it more important to know how to filter than to memorize?

In any case, it is important to reconsider the assumptions every now and then, especially if the environment changes.

Looking For Evidence


In making any argument for or against it is good to have evidence to support it. Without any evidence, it just sounds like someone’s opinion. But, you also need to make sure that your evidence is credible.

For example, a teenager could argue that they don’t need to go to college. After all, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs didn’t and look at where they are. Those are legitimate facts, but are they good evidence? Those are just two data points compared to the thousands of people who didn’t graduate and also didn’t start powerful IT companies. You would have to look at those that did and did not graduate and see what the statics show.

You could also look at it this way: Say, someone says, “We should keep holding classrooms with offline lectures. That is the best way for our kids to learn.” You could ask for where the evidence for that. Far too many times, the answer is that it worked out so far. But that is not evidence for it being the “best way.” It is only the first way that worked.

Thus, when we look at a statement we need to consider if there is any real evidence. If not, the statement or assumption will need to be reexamined.

Considering Alternative Perspectives

In many cases, it is fairly easy to get blindsided by your own biases and your own “common sense.” of what is and what is not possible. That is why people who are new to a field can have a lot of success. It was not like Elon Musk was an old hand in either the automotive industry or the aerospace industry. This is the guy who worked on Pay Pal, a payment transfer service before starting Tesla and Space X.

When we look at the problems facing us, we also need to consider alternative perspectives as well. There are two basic ways:

  • ask people (experts or non-experts)
  • pretend you are someone else

Just ask

People tend to be very free with their opinions. If you ask them for a different perspective on something they will be glad to give it. If you are tackling a difficult problem in the education system, it would be natural to ask teachers, principals, and also so-called education experts. But this can be limiting.

If you need a much more creative idea, ask people who are not related to the problem. You could ask a game programmer, or a musician, or even a middle manager. You might get something useful or you might not. But everyone can give their perspective and that might help you get closer to a better solution.

What would MacGvyer do?

Another way is to pretend to be someone else. There is the old phrase, “What would MacGvyer do?” MacGvyer is a special agent who uses his wits to come up with some extremely clever ways to get out of very bad situations. The question puts you in the place of the fictional character. You consider what he would do instead of you.

The human brain is very creative when it comes to games like this. You can usually come up with multiple answers this way. Surprisingly this is the case, even if you couldn’t imagine a solution if you just imagined thinking of your own situation.

In any case, imagining different people and what they would think or do will give you a different perspective on the problem. It is from there that you could find what are the first principles to that problem.

Examining The Consequences

Image by Alexandra ❤️A life without animals is not worth living❤️ 

Another problem is we often do not work what are the possible consequences of the issue at hand. Our brain likes dealing with the first possible solution and moving on to other things. It is an easy thing to do. But, examining the consequences of an idea can help you find out what is truly important.

If you look at Elon Musk, what are the consequences of Space X and going to Mars? Someone gets to go to Mars, so what? Going to space gets a little bit cheaper, so what? The consequence is that people could build a colony there. What does that mean? It means that if there was some sort of horrible disaster where humanity was wiped off the Earth, we would still have Mars.

That`s just one consequence. There were a lot of inventions due to the Space Race of the 1960s. Therefore will also be other consequences of this kind of endeavor. You need to ask yourself what else could possibly happen?

In fact, this is where a lot of people trip up. In complex systems, there can be second or third order effects. I’m not going to go into much detail here. But, just like the saying “Why” 5 times you may also want to think “then what” 5 times as well.

Thinking out all the possible consequences takes time, but can be a good exercise and it can help avoid some unintended consequences.

Questioning The Question

question woman

Questioning the question is also a good way to get to first principles. You may face a question or an argument that seems very superficial. Like “What is better for the classroom, Zoom or WebEx?” Is what tool you use really that important? Or are we arguing easy of use verse security? Are we worried about the IT literacy of the teachers? Zoom is easy and WebEx is harder.

There are a whole host of questions we could really ask. Sometimes the real question of concern is the first question that comes to mind. In fact, some questions around tools often hide a desire to solve a more fundamental problem.

For example, there are quite a few people who are on the lookout for the latest time management tool. But is the problem finding an easy to use time management tool or something else. The problem could be procrastination. This means it could really be an issue with perfectionism or lack of clarity of what they really want to do.

The thing is you need to ask yourself is this the REAL question, or is there something more?


Thinking about first principles is something as old as time, it is just that Elon Musk made it popular. It can be just as simple as digging down to that is the most basic thing you can be sure is proven. Or you can systematically think about using the Socratic method mentioned above. Any case thinking about first principles will help you get to new solutions faster. So please try it out.

Instead of just finishing this article. Pick out a news article. Then think of an issue that is related to this article. Then try to figure out what first principles are at work. Also, use the Socrates method to help you get there.

If you need more building more persuasiveness into your business presentations please, let me know. I help people effectively use logic, psychology, and rhetoric to build powerful presentations. A good presentation can make or break a business. Just contact me on Twitter, Facebook, or at the contact form here, if you need help.

Matthew Ownby

Previously worked at NASA, Cisco Japan, and other large IT Corporation. Spent more than 15 years training businessmen and women to be better presenters. Good enough at Japanese help native Japanese speakers win speaking contests. Was fortunate enough to give a TEDx Talk in Kyoto also in Japanese ;). Also aims to build the toughest communication contest ever. That will not only include being good at business presentation skills, but debate, meeting facilitation, negotiation, coaching, and more. Also runs an online communication dojo where the focus is on practical skill application not listening to a sage on a stage.

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