Life, Space and Transportation, How to do innovation Like Elon Musk
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Watching YouTube in the coffee shop as I pretend to be working, the interviewer asks Elon Musk
“What business lessons can you give us Elon, what advice can you give us?”
“I have always found the physics approach of thinking from first principles to be very useful” he answers in his usual low-key style.
What does that mean? It’s an answer he gives fairly regularly so I think it must be important for innovation; it turns out it’s pretty fundamental to his thinking.
A quick Google search reveals that the first principles approach revolves largely around starting from what is known for sure and reasoning from there. The video plays on…
“First principles thinking is hard as we usually think by analogy, by comparing things we see to other things we know and drawing conclusions by inferring things we know about the other thing onto the thing we are looking at. It an efficient way of thinking but it’s no good if you want to truly innovate…”
I remember when he was creating the first Tesla, the roadster. He starts by using an off the shelf electric drivetrain from one company and then trying to bolt it onto a chassis from Lotus. That sounds like reasoning by analogy, and it didn’t work. In fact, by the time they finally got it going, they had replaced 95% of the parts they start with. So when they started to build the Model S, he started from a blank slate; innovation. The laws of physics and nothing else. The result is the fastest, safest sedan you can buy that drives on sunlight (if you use the supercharger network). Impressive stuff. This first principles thing is pretty powerful.
Hang about, the same thing happened with SpaceX. He first tried to buy an off-the-shelf rocket to send some dehydrated plants to mars. In doing so, he then realised that the price of completed rockets were crazy-expensive, many, many multiples of the prices of the actual atoms in the material of a completed rocket, and they threw most of it away every time! So SpaceX was born out of a first-principles approach to rockets: assemble the atoms in a cost-effective way and try not to throw it away every time, seems like commons sense when you look at it with the fresh eyes of innovation.
The first principles approach goes so deep in this thinking that his whole life purpose came down to solving what he saw as the 3 biggest challenges that needed to be overcome for the future to be awesome, we need sustainable energy (because fossil fuels are finite), we need sustainable transportations, and we need a spare planet as a backup. Whoah!
I snap out of my reverie and realise the video has loaded up and my coffee is cold. I am, however, burning with a new inspiration. Elon has already transformed Space, Transportation & Energy and I am still procrastinating about my meagre to do list, whoah! Time to get cracking.
Item one: write blog, #smashedit!