How To Use Your Brain Like Elon Musk: First Principles

How To Use Your Brain Like Elon Musk: First Principles


As per the Washington Post report 2024, Elon Musk is the richest person in the world. He is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and founder of many companies, including SpaceX, Tesla, Angel Investor, and Twitter. He is a computer genius and intellectual who has revolutionized the world with his innovative inventions and ideas. Not only is he a genius, but he is also a charismatic leader and a generous contributor. Elon Musk has many personas inside of him. He attributes his immense success to his “Great Thinking Patterns” and “Mental Models.” There are many mental models to learn or choose from. However, “First Principles” stands out as the most important model. Now let us learn how to use your brain just like Elon Musk.

Since Elon Musk talked about ‘First Principles’ in an interview, it has gained a lot of popularity online. The first principle of thinking means to think like a scientist. That is, thinking from where there is no assumption or imagination. This helps us to come up with original ideas. However, coming up with an original idea is not that easy because we are used to thinking through analogy. Analogy is the process of understanding something by following past experiences, ideas, or beliefs and making small changes to make it your own.

Musk talked about how to use your brain as per ‘First Principles’ in an interview:

What is First Principles Thinking?

There have always been two ways of thinking in the world.

  1. Analogy Thinking – which means thinking based on your past experiences or imitating other people’s ideas and making slight modifications to them. This is an easy process, which is why 99% of people follow this thinking process.
  2. First Principles Thinking – It is the process of breaking down a problem or idea into its fundamental components. This thinking process is difficult, which is why only 1% of people follow it.

Please note that ‘First Principles’ thinking is not a new concept. In fact, Aristotle discussed it 2400 years ago. In today’s era, Elon Musk is a prime example of this thinking process.

Musk believes that “You cannot create an original or innovative solution from pre-existing solutions. You need to understand its ‘Fundamental Truth’ or ‘First Principles’. You have to see what its components are, and how they behave. And you have to keep asking yourself “Why” and keep looking for answers. Once you have a good understanding of it, you can create something new or better by combining it.

For Example:

Thomas Alva Edison invented the light bulb. The basic idea behind the light bulb is that when you pass an electric current through a high-resistance wire, it creates a lot of heat. The heat makes the wire glow, and you get light. Using this principle and the same materials, he created a 60-watt bulb.

Later, someone made some modifications and created study bulbs, night bulbs, and table lamps. By incorporating different colors, they also made red, yellow, and green bulbs. Following the same principle and materials, they then made headlights for cars and bikes. Eventually, someone even created a flashlight torch that runs on a 1.5-volt battery.

This means that by using the same principles and materials, they were able to create a variety of different products. However, it is important to understand that you cannot simply convert a pre-existing 60-watt bulb into a flashlight torch bulb.

History of First Principles Thinking:

Aristotle is considered the originator of the ‘First Principles’ thinking. He defined 10 categories for every object. These categories were then broken down into sub-categories, and then the smallest categories were derived from all those sub-categories. These smallest categories were referred to as ‘Fundamental Truth’ or ‘First Principle.’

Socrates was one of the first to arrive at the ‘Fundamental Truth’ by applying the principle of ‘Systematic Questioning’ before Aristotle. In addition to Socrates, the principle of systematic doubt was also used by inventors such as Copernicus, Newton, and Tesla. Today, Elon Musk is one of the biggest admirers of this approach. It is this approach that has made Elon Musk so successful.

How Did Elon Musk Solve $ Million Problem Using First Principles?

The $ Million Problem:

Until today, rockets have only been built by governments. When Elon Musk’s company spent $65 million on a single rocket launch, he was deeply concerned. While looking for a solution to this problem, he founded a company such as SpaceX.

First Principles Thinking:

Musk explains, “I see problems through the perspective of physics, which is through First Principles.”

I asked my engineers, “From which metals is the rocket made?”

The answer was, “Aluminum is primarily used, along with some Titanium, Copper, and Carbon Fiber.” Then I asked, “What will be the cost of these materials in the wholesale market?”

It was found that the raw material cost contributes only 2% to the overall rocket price.

During Musk’s research, he also discovered that no single company builds an entire rocket on its own. They purchase all the components from other companies and simply assemble them. These other companies also buy smaller parts from a third party and assemble them too. This creates a long chain, where each company adds its profit margin and transportation cost. As a result, the price of the rocket increases significantly.

SpaceX now manufactures 85% of its components in-house as a solution to this problem.

Identifying the Problem:

Another issue was that rocket launches were very expensive, costing approximately $60 million per launch.

It was the year 2008 when Musk somehow managed to launch a privately funded liquid-fueled rocket. The average cost to send a kilogram into space was around US$18,500.

Elon Musk knew that rocket fuel costs only $200 thousand per launch, which is 0.3 % of the total cost of a rocket launch. Since the rocket launcher becomes useless after a single launch.

Train your Brain through First Principles:

Musk thought that if he could bring the rocket back to Earth, he wouldn’t have to build a new rocket every time.

This would significantly reduce the cost of rocket launching. If Musk’s space shuttle can be used 5 to 6 times, he could significantly reduce rocket launch costs.

As a result, by 2019, SpaceX had reduced the cost of rocket launches by 9 times at a cost of just $2,720 per kilogram.

Musk first identified the problem and then broke it down into sub-categories. He kept asking “Why” repeatedly and eventually reached the “Fundamental Truth”. This is what ‘First Principles’ is all about, where you have to use your brain like Elon Musk.

Musk again Solved the Problem Using First Principles:

Elon Musk wanted to create a battery car instead of a conventional petrol or diesel car. Analog Thinking says that batteries are expensive and making a car with a big battery would make it even more expensive. Now, see how Elon Musk used his brain and ‘First Principles’ thinking process:

Elon wanted to know about the workings and components of a battery. He discovered that a battery is made of cobalt, nickel, aluminum, and carbon. So, he bought all these components from the market and understood the latest techniques to manufacture a battery.

He successfully made a cheap battery that costs $80 per kWh, whereas other batteries cost $600 per kWh. As a result, Elon introduced the cheap battery to the auto market and made a sensation all over the world.

What stops you from using your brain like Alon Musk?

When you are dealing with a problem or working on a new idea, the challenge in front of your brain is just like making a dish with a new recipe.

Here is a difference, where in the physical world you first need to recognize raw materials, then understand them, and then combine them to create something new. But in the world of ideas, you don’t see raw materials.

Another reason is that we have been trained from childhood to accept and follow ideas. From childhood, we have seen ideas as a complete entity. We have seen them as unchangeable, unbreakable, and unquestionable beliefs.

That is why when we grow up and search for solutions to problems or look for creative ideas, we tend to make slight adjustments to the existing ideas and turn them into suitable ideas or solutions, and make ourselves happy.

Therefore, when you are working on new ideas most cases, you start using the established idea as it is, after refining it, as a solution to your problem.

It’s a bit like trying to make ‘Biryani’ out of ‘Frito Pie’, which is impossible. That is where First Principles comes in. First Principles teaches you to think about the raw material components of the ‘Frito pie’ dish separately, and then combine new spices and ingredients to make ‘Biryani’.

That’s why only you can make Biryani using your ‘First Principles Thinking’, while others keep mixing up the same ‘Frito pie’ with their ‘Analogy Thinking’. And this is the reason why a person who learns to think from First Principles gains a significant advantage.

He can play with ideas in the same way as people play with ‘Raw Materials’ in the material world. That’s what First Principles is all about. You can call it the raw materials of the world of Ideas.

It means that when you learn to break down complicated problems into smaller parts. Or when you break down established Ideas into smaller ideas, reaching their first principles, you can create good, creative, and innovative solutions.

How do you use your Brain as per the First Principles?

There are three steps involved in First Principles thinking.

      1. Identify the Problem and Ask the question ‘Why’
      2. Breakdown the problems into Fundamental Principles
      3. Create new insightful solutions from scratch

Let’s understand the concept of First Principles in easy language. This means that you should set aside any popular ideas, beliefs, or assumptions in the world. Ask yourself questions and then break the problem or idea down into smaller components. You will eventually reach the ‘Fundamental Truth’.

Take a step back and think from a place that no imagination can take you. Push your thoughts to the point where you don’t have any opinions, thoughts, or views. While you consider all the facts, only the absolute truth should be left. And that’s your ‘Fundament Truth’.


The world has witnessed many groundbreaking inventions throughout history, and a significant contribution to these advancements lies in the first principles thinking approach. What makes first principles thinking interesting is that you don’t have to listen to the crowd and follow the herd mentality.

Your goal from now on is to only understand and identify the ‘Raw Materials’ of ideas. You need to start visualizing the components of ideas, and the solutions will automatically come to you.

Einstein says, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solutions.”

Similar Reads:

How Can We Use More of Our Brain: 5 Techniques 

How to Increase Focus and Concentration for Students

What are the Strategies to Motivate Students

How to Transform Yourself in 21 Days: Monk Mode

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