How To Think Like Elon Musk

A few weeks ago I wrote about a warm-up exercise to prep your right brain for thinking creatively. Let's say you're warmed up and ready for the next step. Where do you go from there and start thinking creatively?

Here is a simple tool that anyone can use to start their creative process. In fact this is how Elon Musk thinks. It is called First Principles Thinking. I call it Deconstruction. It is about breaking what you know into its components until you understand its fundamental parts and pieces.

First Principles is as old as Aristotle and used as diversely by Nobel winning scientist Richard Feynman, the military strategist John Boyd, Nobel winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and his partner Amos Tversky. Michael Lewis's New York Times bestseller The Undoing Project is also dedicated to this process as you can tell from the title. 

We are all full of assumptions and preconceptions. Breaking something apart breaks helps us to break them. It opens up the possibility of a powerful thought processes--to go deep and radically change the way we think about one or more of the parts. 

Musk broke down space rockets and challenged each assumption that emerged--rockets cost a lot of money, you cannot make them lighter, you cannot have boosters that come back, and more--and made parts that were cheaper, a body that was lighter, boosters that were reusable.

He combined the new parts to make something never imagined before, the remarkable Falcon Heavy launched on February 6 of this year.  

Here is how you can apply First Principles Thinking.

1. Deconstruct an idea to examine its parts.

A rocket is made up of metal. That is obviously simple, but Musk pushed SpaceX to develop a new way of welding called friction stir welding that is much stronger than traditional welds. It allowed SpaceX to dramatically decrease the weight of Falcon rockets by welding large thin sheets of metal together, something never done before. 

What is a toilet seat? The coming together of a toilet and a seat. And a seat is meant be comfortable and ergonomic. This Deconstruction helped TOTO, my client, and me to develop a new toilet seat that was unofficially coined as the most comfortable toilet seat in the world. The idea was simple--make a toilet seat that is like a chair, except with a hole in it. 

Look at the building blocks of something you're working on and question all the assumptions you have about the parts. Challenge assumptions that hold you back to see how they can be done differently. 

2. Deconstruct it to see what it can be combined with.

Boyd, who served in three wars, called deconstruction "destruction" (no pun intended). His example, below, shows how you can destroy something and recreate a new thing by combining it with something else.    

Boyd used 3 objects to show what they're made up of: 

  • A motorboat for water skiing: motor, body of the boat, pair of skis
  • A military tank: metal treads, steel armored body, a gun
  • A bicycle: handlebars, tires, gears, and a seat

The parts can be combined together in many different ways, most of them not useful, but one of the combinations will in fact add to a whole that we now take for granted: handlebars from the bike, body and motor of the boat, skis of the skier, and thread from the tank = snowmobile.

Break something into its parts and mash it up with other products from different contexts to generate new ideas. Or in other words, deconstruct and cross fertilize from other products and industries.

To summarize, break something down to its fundamentals, question age-old assumptions to solve the fundamentals differently, either by inventing from scratch or by cross fertilizing from another product or industry.

This article first appeared on on May 4, 2018