Elon Musk and First Principles

Elon Musk has enjoyed a tidal wave of acclaim as an entrepreneur and inventor motivated by genuine altruism as opposed to short-sighted financial gain. In my opinion, Musk’s accomplishments fundamentally trump those of other similarly regarded people like Steve Jobs. No doubt Jobs revolutionized the way in which we interact with our computing devices and set the bar for what we have come to expect from them – but what did he ever do to try and save humanity from extinction?

This primary motivation is what sets Musk apart from his peers. The fact of his enormous success (hard-won though it’s been) has even prompted many to question the notion that wild, ambitious projects such as Tesla and SpaceX are inherently too “risky” for investors to take seriously. It’s clear that changing the world requires dedicated long-term vision, and that’s not a model that investors have typically had the patience for.

In several of his interviews, I’ve heard Musk describe the process by which he tests the viability of a new idea. He calls this process “extrapolating from first principles”. This means that, rather than reasoning by analogy, which is how humans generally process the world, a more powerful method is, in Musk’s own words, “to boil things down to the most fundamental truths, and then reason up from there.”

This prevents the mind from becoming trapped in the familiar and the mundane. If one were to reason solely by analogy or comparison with what one already knows, then progress would be a series of incremental improvements on what already exists, and radical leaps in technology would never emerge. Be warned, though: apparently, extrapolating from first principles requires considerably more mental energy.

Listen to Musk describe the process in the following interview. The relevant bit begins at 22:37, but the video is certainly worth watch it in its entirety.


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