Elon Musk is my real life super-hero. He knows a thing or two about solving extremely hard problems after founding and building companies in the hardest of industries. First he took on the financial industry by founding Paypal, then he went on to start a private rocket company to send humanity to Mars since NASA wasn’t about to do that at the time. Then he started Tesla to make electric cars that don’t have emission problem and while he was at it why not make the safest car ever? Tesla self-driving cars are also around and would be available soon. Then he started Solar City to solve the problem of energy production using sunlight and recently started building his Giga factory to produce more lithium ion cells than all of the world’s combined output in 2013. A couple of weeks ago, he introduced Tesla powerwall which is basically a slick no fuss battery pack for our home or business so that we can become closer to independence from utility companies. I just heard that he has filed for building a giant network of satellites in space that would provide us with wireless internet all over the world!
So it’s safe to say he knows how to think and reason. When asked about how he did all this, he humbly said “I don’t know” but he did give tips on how to think about problems. He said that we usually reason by analogy and not first principles. That’s the reason for incremental development in solving problems. e.g. you already have rockets, so you build a little better control system.
However, Elon Musk reasoning process is through the physics approach of first principle analysis when trying to solve a hard problem that is thought to be unsolvable. “That is how you finds counter-intuitive things like quantum mechanics”, he says. In first principle analysis, you should start from the very basic fact you know to be true and build up instead of relying on analogy.
For example Elon mentions his thinking about SpaceX; reasoning by analogy tells that rockets are fundamentally expensive. Reasoning by first principles was different. He thought about the problem of “why rockets are expensive?”. Is there some element that needs to go into a rocket that is so expensive and can’t be removed? otherwise it is the problem of finding a smart way for arranging the atoms in the right ordering to build a cheaper rocket. That’s how he made rockets 75% cheaper. This way of thinking is not what we teach very often at schools compared to reasoning by analogy. Analogical reasoning is useful but it has certain deficits that prevent us from finding radical solutions or tackle intractable problems.
Photo credit: The Summit 2013 – Picture by Dan Taylor / Heisenberg Media