How Elon Musk Solves Problems: 4 Key Frameworks

Whatever you think of him, there’s no denying that Elon Musk is a fascinating person. As of today, he is the richest person in the world, with his net worth estimated at $222 billion, and he co-founded companies such as electric car maker Tesla, rocket producer SpaceX and tunnel startup Boring Company. Its success rate is incredibly high.

Contrasting Musk with Jeff Bezos, the second richest person in the world who won big but notoriously failed in 57 different projects (and happily admits his “cascade of experiments, errors and failures”), the Musk’s approach seems more like a shotgun than a scattergun. Musk and Bezos are the two richest people in the world, so there must be merit in both methods. But how does Musk continue to build companies that never fail in a big way?

While you could attribute those consistent successes to his IQ, which is said to be 155, there are plenty of people with such a high IQ who aren’t billionaires. What makes Musk different is that he thinks differently, being limited only by the laws of physics, after which, he said, “everything else is a recommendation.”

On top of that, Musk uses specific mental models to solve real-world problems. Rather than being an anecdotal business theory, they have proven effective in practice across his various businesses. Four of these models are first principles thinking, imagining things at the limit, the platonic ideal and its optimization framework. Here they are in more detail.

1. Apply first principles thinking

A first principle is a fundamental truth “known by nature”. First principles thinking is about removing subjective assumptions, biases, and guesswork from problems and focusing only on what is true. The goal is therefore to find the simplest truth that exists in the laws of physics, free from your personal limits and beliefs. Once this absolute truth is defined, you reason from there. Cut, strip, then build.

In practice, take whatever answer you have arrived at, then remove any assumptions. Musk thinks you’ll either find a better answer or the same as everyone else. He admits, “I don’t do any market research whatsoever,” because it’s not helpful and everyone is wrong. “No matter who you are, everyone gets it wrong sometimes. All designs are wrong, it’s just a matter of how wrong they are.

Musk applied the first principles of thinking to batteries, for example. You might hear people say, “batteries are expensive and they always will be”. But batteries are made of cobalt, nickel, aluminum and polymers, relatively inexpensive materials. What is expensive is the making of these materials, the way they are combined into a battery. Thinking about first principles leads you to realize that batteries aren’t expensive, they are made, which means the problem to be solved is manufacturing.

2. Think about things in the limit

Thinking about things in the limit is a thought experiment in which any problem is scaled and scaled to assess the changes that occur at both magnitudes. A recent example involved Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, after which he signaled that the 280 character limit would be changed, tweeting that the “ability to make long tweets [is] Coming soon.” Thinking about Twitter’s character allocation in the limit means imagining what the platform would look like with the tweet length reduced to, say, 50 characters, and down to, say, 1000. Both limits would have different implications for the social network.

Whether it’s a problem with your product, service, team, or bottom line, think big and play with the answers. For example, take a price problem where you’re trying to figure out why something is expensive, then imagine your volume was one million units. Would the product still be expensive? If so, there may be an economy of scale problem to be resolved.

Continue with boundaries, both colossal and tiny. If you only managed one person, would you still have your HR problem? What about ten thousand? If you provided your service to five customers against a million, what would change? Incorporate the idea of ​​tiny and huge scale into every problem you have to think about like Musk would. Make decisions without being limited by inheritance, rules, money or resources and see what is possible.

3. Imagine the platonic ideal of the perfect product

Imagining the platonic ideal means visualizing your solution in its most perfect form before trying to create it in reality. This means the focus is on the perfect product rather than the perfect application of what happens to be your existing skills.

When designing a product or starting a business, most people start from the base of their tools, skills, and knowledge and then think about what they can build with it. Musk says, instead, that you should work backwards from the perfect product. Conceptualize it and then research the tools, skills, and knowledge you need to bring that product to life. According to Musk, you should try to think of “the platonic ideal of, say, the perfect rocket or car.” Think about the features it would have, “and then do that. And then I find that if you do that, people will want to buy it,” he said.

Thinking this way means you create what is actually needed rather than just what matches your skill set. This saves you from being limited by your life choices and knowledge. This saves you from being biased or obscured by your experience, which might not be relevant at all. In your career and your business, what is the ideal solution? The perfect office, the perfect service, the perfect product. Visualize that, familiarize yourself with each part, and then work backwards from there. It could lead you to rethink processes, restructure your team, or rework your offering, all based on the platonic ideal.

4. Follow these five steps when optimizing

Musk thinks the biggest mistake smart engineers make is optimizing something that shouldn’t exist at all. Therefore, you must first determine whether an optimization is even necessary. To apply this method, before trying to optimize anything, follow these five steps. The first step is the “question”, or in Musk’s words, “make your demands less stupid”. This is where you wonder if your solution to the problem is the right one or not. Zoom out and look at the problem with perspective. Does it matter?

The second step is “delete”. Musk thinks that when designing a solution, people tend to add things “just in case”. Falling for the addition bias, where our tendency is to add rather than subtract, leads to an inflated result. Musk says you should remove anything unnecessary, even going so far as to say, “If you don’t add back at least 10% of the stuff you remove, you’re not removing enough.” Remove, reduce, remove again.

The third step is simply to “optimize”. Now you have the best attempt to find the right solution, optimize and simplify from there, while still noticing where there might be errors. After that there is the fourth step, speed up the cycle time and the fifth step, automate.

Although Musk and SpaceX have used this method to rethink rocket design (and create a “minimum viable rocket”), it can be applied to business, manufacturing, and all areas of product design. If you simplified your requirements and stripped everything before optimizing, accelerating and automating, how different could your business be?

Give yourself a chance to succeed on an Elon Musk ladder by solving problems the same way. Consider the way Elon thinks, read what Elon reads, and tackle challenges from First Principles, the Concept of Limits, the Platonic Ideal, and his Five-Step Optimization Framework.

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