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I have an obsession with Elon Musk and how he thinks

Updated: 3 days ago




Elon Musk at SpaceX in Boca Chica, Tx

Source: Everyday Astronaut interview @ https://youtu.be/t705r8ICkRw



Come on, admit it, if you are an engineer, you want to be Tony Stark in real life - Elon Musk.

It's enthralling to watch Elon walk around SpaceX's Starbase factory easily talking about the most complex feats of engineering while teams are constructing monolithic rockets and launch sites around him. It's a giant playground and he is just having fun at a scale that would overwhelm most mortals.


If you take the time to listen to how Elon approaches problems, it is a master's class in problem definition and resolution. He has several structured approaches that he takes to solve tough problems.


Elon thinks using "First Principles" - breaking a problem down to its most basic components. This is just how he is and is seen when watching him in interviews, at Tesla events and anytime he is processes a question or problem.


Most people think in terms of analogy. That is, referencing something that is already known. "You open it like a pop can." is an analogy. However, this doesn't work when you have to solve a problem them is not obvious or the situation is unique, because there is no analogy.


For an example of First Principles thinking, when Elon was scaling up Tesla, one of his major constraints was the cost of the lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries. They were so expensive that they could make or break the business case for the vehicle.


Elon broke the battery down to its constituent parts: Cobalt, Nickel, Li, steel, Al and Cu to name a few. The common hypothesis is that the costs of raw materials is the reason for the high costs of Li-ion cells. However, pricing the raw materials on the open market didn't account for the costs of purchasing Li-ion cells from a supplier.


So, what else is there? Chemistry, engineering, manufacturing, and sales and administration.

Battery chemistry and engineering is well known. Sales and Admin are time based. So, this leaves the manufacturing - making batteries at scale. By breaking the problem down to its components, he was able to logically identify the constraint, the cost driver.


"A problem well stated is a problem half solved" (Charles Kettering).

Elon has another critical problem solving skill. Problem definition. To get a team to focus on a problem, you define simply what the problem is and how big a problem it is. You have to know the driving measure of the problem that, when solved, will show your success.


Elon has incredible insight on the critical measure of the problem. On the Li-ion battery cells, it was $ cost per kWh. When Elon was interviewed, by the Everyday Astronaut, he said that humans will become a multiplanetary, spacefaring race when we can get the "Cost per ton to get to orbit to a point where we can afford to become a multi-planetary species".


Identifying the key problem and it's measure, you know when you have solved it.

The important thing here is that he has turned them into cost metrics. A business problem that engineers, scientists and the rest of his talented team will toil over to solve. But, they will know when they are successful, because the measure of success has already been defined.


Speaking of Elon's talented team, what is the culture of problem solving and collaboration that he fosters in his companies? I believe his approach can be found in a school.


Astra Nova, the school Elon founded to teach his children and, initially, a select few others uses situational problem solving exercises called "Synthesis". Here, the children collaborate online to solve challenging problems without adults getting in the way.


From the Synthesis.is website:

"The skills to invent the future aren't taught in school"


The method described is:

  • "Collaborate with New Friends

  • Embrace the Chaos

  • Test Your Assumptions

  • Expect Course Corrections

  • Reflect to Grow

  • No Speed Limit"

This is loosely the Scientific Method and it is set up to reward innovative thinking and collaboration. No Speed Limits takes away the grade structure, labels we assign and boxes we put children in and are ingrained in our heads as adults.


There is so much more to discuss. But, let me bring up this last topic.

Failure

I hold three degrees and going through university I learned how to learn. It is a game. Get in the head of the professor. Know the answers they want you to give. Understand the rules of the game and you will succeed.


However, getting everything right on a test isn't what prepares you for life. Life is messy and failure happens. In fact, if you are not failing, you are not learning and growing. You are playing it too safe.


Elon has said several times that he wants failure to be expected and acceptable. In fact, he sets up his companies to reward risk takers who learn and grow. He purposely has minor consequences for failure and major consequences for employees who don't push the envelope. This is what he has said publicly. If you are a SpaceX or Tesla employee, feel free to comment.


In the Everyday Astronaut interview, he mentions that he wants to push so hard on his launches (without people in the ships) that some rockets will fail. If they aren't, then they won't be learning enough.


Failure is okay. I know with my team, I look for ways to support this. I want my team to push themselves beyond their comfort zone and do something they are uncomfortable with. Something where they may fail and learn.


This obsession I have with Elon is a vicarious experience. To see him do so much and succeed in such heart wrenching circumstances is like reading a great book or watching "Rocky" for the first time. It takes you on a journey. For me, it is about breaking down his approach, understanding how he makes each individual decision so that I can emulate what he does. The logic, the approach, the win.


I hope to inspire you to use First Principles, the Scientific Method and to give yourself room to fail and learn.




Sources:

  • Image of Elon Musk, from Everyday Astronaut, used with permission.

  • Great blog and Podcast on Learning: Farnam Street - First Principles

  • Astra Nova - Synthesis.is

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