Behind Elon Musk’s Management Philosophy: First


Or at least that is what her first staff-wide memo as Twitter CEO suggests. In it, she showed she was in tune with a key management philosophy of her new boss, Elon Musk. That is his total embrace of the so-called first principles approach for problem solving, a mixture of physics and philosophical reasoning that breaks issues into their very basics and doesn’t simply rely on what has been done before.

“We need to think big. We need to transform. We need to do it all together,” Yaccarino wrote Monday, a week into her new role at the social-media company after a longcareer in the television advertising industry. “And we can do it all by starting from first principles—questioning our assumptions and building something new from the ground up.”

Her public adoption of the first principles method is the latest example of how the approach has become part of the fabric of Musk’s business empire, which expanded with his acquisition of Twitter in October.

During his career, Musk has often talked about his first principles reasoning—whether it is in his work at his rocket company, his electric-car maker or even his children’s education.

The origin story of SpaceX, for example, is premised on Musk eschewing conventional wisdom at the time that rockets couldn’t be efficiently reused and his stubborn gamble that he couldmake reaching outer space more affordable based on the fundamental math of how rockets worked and the economics of their raw materials.

At Tesla, he also built the automaker on the belief that electric cars could be made affordable. Such a mind-set was at odds with yet another prevailing convention at the time that vehicle batteries were just too costly to make them practical.

Those who have worked with Musk over the years say the first principles ethos often comes into play—sometimes maddeningly so—when justifying certain engineering decisions or when he is trying to motivate them to make new advances. While it can lead to breakthroughs, it also can lead to overcomplicating things.

“When you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach,” Musk said in 2013 during a TED talk. “Good physics is really sort of figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive, like quantum mechanics.”

The challenge, according to Musk, is that it is easier to make decisions by looking at previous experiences, past practices or, as he describes it, analogy. These can be mental shortcuts. That is fine for most things in life. But that approach, he said, can be limiting when it comes to discovering something new.

For breakthroughs, he advocates the first principles approach. In the most basic sense, Musk has described the approach as such: “Boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, ‘OK, what are we sure is true, or as sure as possible is true?’ And then reason up from there.”

In a telling sign of how much Musk believes in first principles, he insisted his children be educated in its way of thinking, setting up Ad Astra School in 2014 built around that philosophy. “It’s so foundational to Elon,” Joshua Dahn, the school’s co-founder, said in an interview.

Creating the school, which served children ages 8 through 14 at SpaceX headquarters until 2020, required Dahn to deploy first principles thinking at every step.

“Part of the superpower is once you understand the first principles approach—and you expect Elon to question you on it along those lines—then there’s no other path if you’re going to find success other than to sort of operate that way,” Dahn said.

The first principles process involves envisioning what ultimate success looks like and then being open to any path that leads there. Even something so ingrained in traditional schooling, such as accreditation, showed how Musk’s mind applied first principles reasoning in decision making, raising very simple questions: “What’s accreditation? Why does it exist? What’s it for? What’s the cost? What’s the opportunity cost of doing that?”

And the answers can’t simply be: That is what other schools do.

“Reasoning by analogy, especially in the early days, is the thing that’s a total killer,” Dahn said.

Musk’s business successes and his often-stated focus on first principles have sparked interest in others. James Clear, the bestselling self-help author, has written about the approach, writing that while great minds from Aristotle to Johannes Gutenberg have employed such reasoning, “no one embodies the philosophy of first principles thinking more effectively” than Musk.

Ad Astra closed at SpaceX in Hawthorne, Calif., when Musk’s children moved on. Dahn has since spun off his work into Astra Nova School, an online offering for a broader population of students.

Still, it isn’t an easy approach. For Musk’s engineers, the work of unlearning assumptions can be challenging, especially at times when the tried-and-true method would be quicker.

A recent example is his decision a few years ago to forgo a proven way of automating windshield wipers when it rains in favor of using artificial intelligence.

Car companies long ago integrated sensors to detect rain when it hits the windshield, which would then switch on the wipers. But Musk became convinced that the camera already behind the front window used for other technologies in the car could serve that purpose, too, effectively saving the company from having to add an extra sensor.

“Elon looked at some of these windshield images and he was like, ‘[Computer] vision can see raindrops, so we can just use that,’ ” then-Tesla executive Andrej Karpathy said at a San Francisco conference in 2018. “Now, it’s my problem…You might think this is pretty straightforward…[but] this completely breaks and it breaks in all of the rare situations.”

In rolling it out, the programmers had to overcome numerous challenges, including some expected ones, such as designing an AI system that could tell the difference between raindrops and dust spots. There also were unexpected ones, such as when bright sunshine played tricks on the camera. “It was extremely excited about tunnels,” he said. “The wipers would just go like mad inside tunnels when sun was in the view.”

Another recent example is how Tesla turned to a giant casting machine to create the front third and rear third of the Model Y sport-utility vehicle as single pieces, which replaced scores of different parts of the SUV’s structure, helping reduce cost and complexity in the company’s manufacturing process.

“I got this idea from toys,” Musk said last year at a conference. “I was like ‘How do they make toys? Those are cheap.’ “

The answer was simple: Diecast toy cars are created through a process that involves pouring molten metal into a mold that forms a desired shape until it solidifies. However, doing it at the size required for a real car wasn’t so simple.

“Can you build a casting machine that big?” Musk recalled asking his team. “They’re like, ‘Well, no one ever has.’ I’m like, ‘Are we breaking physics?’ Like no. ‘Well, let’s just ask them.’ “

According to him, five of six companies said no. “The sixth said maybe,” Musk said. “I’m like, ‘I’ll take that as a yes.’ “

Musk lectured on first principles at his children’s school years ago, diving into his reasoning behind starting SpaceX, including the math behind a rocket and the economics behind its costs.

As he began, Musk asked the kids: “Does anybody have any experience with first principles analysis?”

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