What I Learned From Using First Principles Like Elon Musk

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Popularized by Elon Musk, creator of Tesla, Space X, and a living version of Iron Man, first principles is a radically different approach to solving nearly any problem.

Essentially, instead of trying to solve a problem by comparing it to another problem or solution, you can solve a problem by breaking it down to it’s first principle.

Here’s an explanation directly from the man himself:

First principles go waaaay back

Not only is it used in Physics, but it originates a lot in philosophy as a way of thinking and solving problems. As far as I can tell it originates back to Aristotle sometime when he was living between 384-322 BC.

Here’s what Aristotle has to say about it:

“In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first principles, all the way to the elements.” – Aristotle

René Descartes the French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist used the method of doubt, now called Cartesian doubt, to systematically doubt everything he could possibly doubt, until he was left with what he saw as purely indubitable truths.

“We must commence with the investigation of those first causes which are called Principles…It will accordingly be necessary thereafter to endeavor so to deduce from those principles the knowledge of the things that depend on them, as that there may be nothing in the whole series of deductions which is not perfectly manifest.”

It’s not too difficult to apply, but it can radically change your approach to solving problems.

Use first principles to solve any problem

The first principle approach can be used to solve almost any problem.

Elon Musk used it to build electric cars, rockets, and launch multiple successful businesses. But hey, we’re all not Elon Musk right?

Either way, you can still use first principles too.

A great example is from a podcast episode I recently discovered with Tim Ferris and Nick Kokonas (highly recommended).

Nick is the co-founder of several world-renowned restaurants such as Alinea which received the AAA Five Diamond Award, the highest level of recognition given by the AAA. He is also the founder and CEO of Tock, Inc, a reservations and CRM system for restaurants with more than 2.5M diners and clients in more than 20 countries.

Long story short, the guy is super successful in his own right.

Nick explains in the podcast interview that one day when he and his business partner Grant Achatz we’re designing their restaurant experience, they came across a problem with their tables.

They didn’t want to have the typical white table clothes everyone else had. In fact, he jokes, that the white table clothes at most fancy restaurants are there to hide the ugly tables underneath.

The problem was, you couldn’t put silverware on the table directly to stay within health code standards.

So, they asked how can this be done better?

So Nick, who is a big fan of philosophical thinking, used a first principle style approach to completely redesign the whole restaurant experience by breaking things down to their fundamentals.

Here’s a transcript of how Nick did this with his restaurant:

“Why can’t we have black, beautiful tables? It’ll show the food great. It’ll show the plateware great.” Then I went like, “Well, yeah, but the health department in Chicago doesn’t let you put silverware right on the table.” If you put a glass there, the condensation will form a little ring, and then you have a wear issue. But you’ll save $70,000 a year in laundering linens.

We started going, “Well how do we solve the water problem? Well, you create a fridge that’s just above the dew point, 44 degrees in the winter, maybe a little warmer in the summer because it’s higher humidity in Chicago, and you just get rid of ice. You have these cascading decisions that become part of the art of the place.

Some of them start from a really practical thing like, “Hey, we want to have a quality table.” Then all of a sudden you need a little pillow that the silverware goes on that Martin designed, because we didn’t want to have placemats; that’s too cheap. All of a sudden, we had to design a silverware holder. It just became this cascade of interesting little art projects that were there for good reasons, and really created a unique atmosphere.”

Essentially Nick and his team rebuilt the entire experience by starting with one problem (the table), and breaking it down. It’s no wonder as of December 20, 2017, Alinea is the only Chicago restaurant to retain a three-star status, Michelin’s highest accolade.

Just like Elon Musk redesigned building cars and rockets using this approach, Nick and his team at Alinea completely redesigned their whole restaurant experience by breaking things down.

So how can you use first principles in your life or business?

I try to use the first principle approach to solve problems throughout my day. Especially the big hairy problems.

This is how I typically approach a problem using first principles:

  1. Determine the root cause of the problem.
  2. Break apart the problem into smaller parts.
  3. Determine any external factors involved.
  4. Plan and test a way to solve it.
  5. Is it solved? Great. If not, start at step 1 again.

What if you wanted to figure out how to fix a leaky faucet in your house? Here’s how you can use first principles:

  • Determine the root cause – Where is the leak? Is there a hole in a pipe? Is there a loose part?
  • Break apart the problem – There’s only a few parts that make up the pipe so look at each of them.
  • Determine any external factors involved – Do you need to turn off the water before you fix it? What tools do you need? Where can you get the parts?
  • Plan and test a way to solve it – Can you just plug the hole with a sealant or do you need to replace the whole pipe? Can it be solved in a simple way ? Can you just hire a plumber to do the job for you?
  • Is it solved? – Was the leak fixed? If not, start over until it is.

As you can see this thought process just breaks down the issue into parts and solves them upward to get to a solution.

Think about the different areas of your life, career, or business – work, relationships, marketing, product, supply chain, systems, etc and what big problems you have.

Then think about how you can do it better using this first principles approach to solve it once and for all.