How Elon Thinks
A product manager's guide to first-principles thinking
In a Reddit AMA, Elon Musk was asked,
How do you learn so much so fast?
Here was his answer:
I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.
One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.
If you’re like me, you probably have two responses to that answer:
Thanks, Elon. That’s a really cool idea.
How the heck do I put that in practice?
Today, I want to dive into the idea Elon is touching on above: first-principles thinking. This approach can help you creatively address ambiguous problems. It’s the process that helped Elon launch rockets into space, popularise electric vehicles and dig tunnels under LA.
I’ll explain the concept, its value and how you can practically apply semantic trees to the goals you have in life and work.
🌲 Trunks, Branches and Leaves
Knowledge of a topic can be thought of as a tree. The tree’s trunk is the foundational truth that shapes all of the branches and leaves. These truths often stem from the physical world — like physics, biology or mathematics. The branches and leaves, on the other hand, are details that spawn from these truths.
For example, let’s say you want to know why you feel happy on a given day. The details of your day, like the weather, may seem like the reasons for your happiness (“I’m happy because the weather was nice today”). But this is a leaf-level answer. A complete answer stems from the trunk of our happiness. But how do we find the trunk?
A popular way is to use the Five Whys. Start with a situation (in this case, a leaf-level detail) and ask yourself, “Why?” 5 times. This will help you go from the leaves to the trunk of a situation.
The Five Whys help us get to the root of our happiness: our body. Happiness is really a chemical reaction in the brain. In response to positive stimulus, the brain releases chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. These chemical reactions are the true sources of happiness.
Let’s visualise this with trunks, branches and leaves
This is an example of finding first principles. Rather than settling for a leaf-level answer (“I feel happy because of the weather”), finding the trunk helps us ground our concept of happiness onto a fundamental truth.
Thus, a complete answer to “Why do I feel happy today?” may be: I feel happy because my body has released more dopamine, serotonin or endorphins today. This may be a result of the weather, my exercise routine or my breakfast this morning.
You’ll notice a few things about first-principle reasoning:
It builds our understanding based on truths: Basing our understanding off small details leads us to incomplete worldviews. Building up from a truth is a way to have a more accurate sense of the problems and opportunities that exist.
It creates more options: In this example, rooting in brain chemistry can help us pursue multiple paths to become happier.
It helps you find higher value actions: Improving a branch (ex. spending more time outside) will have a fraction of the impact as improving the tree (ex. leading an overall healthier life). Spend your energy improving the highest leverage points of the tree.
🌌 Huge, Ambiguous Problems
First-principles may not be necessary in well-documented fields. For example, its unnecessary to derive π every time you need the area of a circle.
But first-principles thinking shines when you tackle ambiguous problems. Ones without clear solutions or people who’s lead you can follow. These are the situations where you need to find a creative way to address an ambitious goal.
Leaf-based reasoning doesn’t work in these situations. It can base your strategy off untruths or false causation. In the happiness tree above, imagine your strategy to maximise happiness was to wait for better weather.
Instead, by starting at the foundational truth (the trunk), you can explore paths that have never been charted before. In fact, some problems can only be properly tackled by someone who reasons from first-principles. Here are three examples:
How can we build a settlement on Mars?
How can I make a dent in climate change?
How can I make commuting in LA less painful?
These are hard problems. But Elon Musk charted a way forward for each of them (SpaceX, Tesla and The Boring Company). Let’s do the same.
🧐 Applied First Principles
There are a few methods of getting to the first principles (including the Five Whys we used above). But here’s one I regularly use as a product manager: algebraic structures.
These are issue trees that are broken down into equations. Each part of the equation is a “lever”. Pulling them will allow you to make progress on the overall goal. This helps make a huge problem more actionable.
Let’s work through an Elon level example: how can I make a dent in climate change?
There are only two ways of fighting climate change: removing carbon from the environment or reducing the rate of carbon entering the atmosphere. Every other action you can think of (climate protests, recycling, policy) service these two big “levers”.
But this isn’t yet actionable. Let’s go several layers further into “Carbon created every day” and create more equations.
At each stage, you’re asking yourself two questions:
What are the levers I can influence the most?
What are the levers that would have the most impact on the overall goal?
What is the relationship (i.e. formula) that connects them?
After breaking down the problem, we can brainstorm solutions to moving that lever. The best solution is one that has a disproportionate impact on solving the problem. I’ve highlighted emissions per trip as an area of focus given Tesla’s ultimate ambition.
Here’s a solution breakdown. I think we know where Elon landed…
Using algebraic structures helps you go from a large ambiguous space to a small, actionable solution. Try this next time you see a problem and don’t how to get started.
Elon Musk builds his worldview from first principles. This allows him to make progress on large issues that matter to him. By employing similar ideas and practicing, we can grow our ability to tackle ambiguous problems.
Base your knowledge of an area on foundational truths (“the trunk”) instead of peripheral data points (“the leaves”). This gives you more creative options to making progress.
Deploy the Five Whys to go from a leaf-level detail to the root of the situation.
Unlock the ability to handle ambiguous problems by starting from first-principles.
Use algebraic structures to break an ambiguous problem space into its levers. Continue this process until you find a lever that has a disproportionate impact on the space.
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