Does Elon Musk’s “First Principles” Learning Style Work?

Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks on Oct. 9, 2014, in Hawthorne, California.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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Answer by Danielle Fong, the girl from the future, co-founder and chief science officer of LightSail Energy:

Elon Musk’s “first principles thinking” is a lot of hard work, but it is critical for invention, innovation, and true understanding in a wide variety of fields—almost anything complex or where there isn’t a simplified representation of facts that captures most important knowledge.


Reasoning by analogy is relatively quick, so it provides easy returns if others have already explored or tested a topic. That’s why it’s so tempting. But the problem is that when reasoning by analogy fails, it is extremely hard to figure out why or to fix it. Often times you won’t even notice until it’s too late.


Reasoning by first principles builds up knowledge from basics. You then have a robust set of connections in your knowledge, all the way up from the most well-tested general facts to the particular hypotheses guiding your invention or your strategy. (If you’re especially good, you’ll have a variety of different perspectives—multiple representations of knowledge that allow you to navigate the complexities of doing something truly new as you discover more challenges and more opportunities.)


A powerful metaphor that Musk suggests for learning is to view knowledge like a semantic tree: “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree,” he said. “Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

That was in reference to as question asking: How do you learn so much so fast? Lots of people read books and talk to other smart people, but you’ve taken it to a whole new level.

But it’s probably even more important when growing the tree of knowledge. When working to make or discover something new, you have to get very many things eventually right. Reasoning by analogy is far too fragile and failure-prone for this. You have to dig into the details and really understand—mastery of first principles is almost a necessary precondition for invention and discovery, unless you aim to tinker and get very very lucky.

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