Sunday, October 9, 2016

Want To Tackle Problems At Work Like A Boss? Learn This Thinking Approach From Elon Musk


If you’re eager to improve your work performance, you probably consider yourself an ambitious and forward-thinking contributor to the world of business. But let’s face the fact: ambition and hard work alone are not enough to help us overcome numerous hurdles on our career paths. What sends some people to the pinnacle of success is their strong problem-solving ability.

Totally clueless about how to improve your problem-solving skills at work? Maybe you learn and practice the thinking approach adopted by many successful entrepreneurs including Elon Musk, founder of PayPal and owner of Telsa Motors, SpaceX and Solar City.

What is the thinking approach? It’s called First Principles Thinking.

What Is First Principles Thinking?

There are two types of thinking when it comes to brainstorming and tackling problems; one is comparison thinking and the other is first principles thinking.

Comparison thinking is when you come up with a solution using a mixture of pre-existing ideas. We tend to do this because our minds can become quite limited and often tries to find the easy way out by building on or tweaking an idea that is already out there. The problem with this is we begin the brainstorming or problem-solving from a space of assumption rather than questioning – we build on what has already been established rather than finding and questioning from a new basic level.

First principles thinking is about starting from a clean slate and free from any pre-existing ideas making it a much better approach to problem-solving and creating innovative ideas. It’s about starting with the core fundamental basics and working your way up from there.

What Are The Benefits Of First Principles Thinking?

By following first principles thinking, it helps you gather a better understanding of complex problems and better knowledge of the unknown leading to unique innovative thinking. Comparison thinking leads us to think in terms of analogy whereas first principles thinking allows us to potentially see something in much finer detail.

How Can I Apply First Principles Thinking?

The best way to use this way of brainstorming is for improving performance at work. Whatever career path you’re on – coming up with new ideas, ways to improve your business or presenting a potential new business strategy to your boss – using first principles thinking will allow you to fully research and understand what will be successful and what won’t be.

The three questions you should use to focus your mind and break free of limited assumptions are:

  • What am I trying to accomplish?
  • What is the fundamental problem?
  • What really matters to the people I’m reaching with this?

This allows you to get to your core motivation and understanding rather than using an existing idea and trying to see how to make it better.

For example, Musk talked about his thinking behind Telsa, his electric car company. An example of comparison thinking would lead someone to say “electric cars will never take off because batteries are too expensive.” This thought process holds limitations and could well lead to the company not going down a profitable route.

Instead, Musk would ask: What are the materials used to make these batteries? What is the market value of these individual materials? Could we, therefore, produce the batteries much cheaper?” He found it was much cheaper through using the strategy of first principles thinking. By taking this route we are able to break down the components and rebuild them in an affordable way showing the original assumption that batteries are not economical enough is, in fact, wrong.

First principles thinking is about breaking out of limited thinking and the assumptions that we tend to conclude from previous evidence. It’s about looking at something from a new angle. It’s about questioning until you reach the core answer. Try applying this to your work life and see how the possibilities can multiply.

Featured photo credit: Nicolas Bariteau via

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