Reasoning by First Principles

June 16, 2020

Tesla, SpaceX, Starlink, Solar City, Neuralink, The Boring Company, and OpenAI – What do all these companies have in common? They are all working at the frontiers of science, innovation, and technology. These companies will shape our future. There is something else that they have in common. They are being led by one of the greatest visionaries of our generation, Elon Musk. It takes a lifetime to build a company with a profound impact on the world. Even then most fail. Most companies are derivative, unimaginative, and uninspiring. But how has Elon Musk pursued such a prolific entrepreneurial journey?

Tesla wants to build driverless cars by eliminating our dependency on oil. SpaceX wants to send humans to space and make space travel more accessible to common people. Solar City wants to harness sunlight into renewable energy for homes. Neuralink wants to build a human-machine interface by inserting a chip in our skulls. The Boring Company wants us to travel in underground tunnels at unprecedented speeds. OpenAI wants us to open the dialogue for more transparency in AI development to be more observant of the Singularity.

It’s beyond difficult to grasp the immensity of these projects. How do you even build the courage to dream this big? How do you even begin to go about it? The answer lies somewhere in how Elon Musk has wired his brain to think. He reasons from the First Principles, rather than drawing from analogies. The First Principles is an approach popularly used in scientific endeavors that works its way from bottom up. It starts with the most fundamental principles. It begins by asking, what are we most certain about a proposition? What are its fundamental truths? This approach ensures that your work out is not premised on somebody else’s assumption.

Drawing from analogies, on the other hand, is looking at something from the perspective of how it has been done in the past by others. It’s how most of us are wired to think. But we must learn to shift from this line of thinking to the former if we want to come up with anything original. Or, if we want to solve a problem that hasn’t been solved before. Reasoning by First Principles is important if you don’t want to limit your imagination by the limitations of others. Only because nobody else has done it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an impossible feat. Visionaries and inventors use this approach to take on the Big Problems. It is essential to think this way when you are trying to solve a problem nobody has tried or has tried and failed.

This must have been true in the case of Bill Gates as well. His fight in eradicating malaria from the face of the Earth is nothing short of spectacular. Imagine his train of thoughts when he discovered how many people die from malaria worldwide. He must have thought to himself, this doesn’t have to be the case. If a problem doesn’t exist in some parts of the world but does in the other, there must be a solution. There must be a breakage in access to sanitation and health facilities. There must be logistical problems. And more problems will come to shore down the road. But if there’s a solution, I shall find it.

It wasn’t an easy solution by any stretch of the imagination. But if you think that because things are the way it is, it must be how it should be, you can never hope to find the solution. Most people can’t come up with something original precisely for that reason. However, people who are known for great innovations down the course of history have had to think in this way. The solution to Big Problems that we face doesn’t have well-trodden paths. In some cases, there are no paths, to begin with. The road is filled with uncertainties, anxiety, and no sure answers. But beyond lies greatness.

© Amitabha Dey. All rights reserved.