Elon Musk

Elon Musk on learning and knowledge

Elon Musk is one of the leading technology entrepreneurs of our time. He is also an engineer, inventor, investor and philanthropist. He is the founder of SpaceX, and co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors.

Musk is a proponent of ‘first principles thinking’, a method considered critical for true invention and innovation, and superior to problem solving by analogy.

Earlier this year, Musk participated in a reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ session. In the course of that exchange, which covered a wide range of topics, he gave an interesting answer to a question about learning and knowledge.

Question:

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.

It seems you have an extremely proficient understanding of aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering, all various subdisciplines (avionics, power electronics, structural engineering, propulsion, energy storage, AI) ETC ETC nearly all things technical.

I know you’ve read a lot of books and you hire a lot of smart people and soak up what they know, but you have to acknowledge you seem to have found a way to pack more knowledge into your head than nearly anyone else alive. Do you have any advice on learning? How are you so good at it?

Answer:

I do kinda feel like my head is full! My context switching penalty is high and my process isolation is not what it used to be.

Frankly, though, I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — 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.

Wise words to remind us knowledge has a logical structure, and the importance of a strong foundation in the fundamentals in any field before getting into the details.

In the course of his career Musk mastered a range of fields from online payments to rocket flight, and electric car manufacturing. Consequently, he is a valuable source on learning and knowledge.

As noted above, Musk is an adherent of ‘first principles thinking’, a method of inquiry that pursues the foundations of problems to resolve them. He believes in the importance of reasoning from first principles, rather than by analogy. He considers reasoning by analogy inferior because, while it is quick, when we approach problems by way of analogy ‘we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing’.

On the other hand, with first principles thinking ‘you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.’

Problem solving from first principles ‘takes a lot more mental energy’ than engaging analogy, but your rewards are novel, or even groundbreaking, outcomes.


This is a great Foundation interview with Musk. It’s worth watching from beginning to end but, if you are short on time, he speaks in detail about ‘first principles thinking’ from 22:38.

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