How SpaceX Used Reasoning From First Principles

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Think Like a Rocket Scientist" by Ozan Varol. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is reasoning from first principles? How can you use this kind of thinking to achieve the impossible?

Elon Musk used reasoning from first principles to find a new way to get to space. First-principles thinking is a way to abandon the status quo and question everything until you get to the core of the matter. You, too, can use this type of thinking to reach huge goals.

Continue reading to learn how to use reasoning from first principles.

Reasoning From First Principles

To achieve the impossible, we often have to abandon the status quo and find a brand new way of approaching a problem. However, according to Varol, doing this doesn’t come naturally—when we have knowledge of how things are done, we inevitably begin to assume that’s how things should be done. Our knowledge of the status quo dims our creativity and makes us less likely to question the norm. (Shortform note: This is a form of the anchoring bias, in which we unconsciously get stuck on whatever information is first presented to us. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes anchoring in detail in Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Varol argues that the antidote to this tendency is reasoning from first principles. In reasoning from first principles, you throw out the status quo and question everything until you’re left with only the most fundamental components. For example, if we think about education, status quo thinking would keep us focused on schools, teachers, and grades. But if we abandon the status quo and use principles-first thinking, we’re left with the core of education: information to learn and a student to learn it. This opens the door for all sorts of innovative delivery methods, like online learning and self-directed learning. 

To Maximize Reasoning From First Principles, Combine It With Marginal Gains

Reasoning from first principles is related to the idea of marginal gains, which involves making tiny improvements to multiple components of something that, when combined, improve overall performance. Combining reasoning from first principles with marginal gains can produce powerful results (for example, the British cycling team completely overhauled their performance in just five years by following this approach). Here’s how to combine these techniques:

First, break the problem down into its component parts (or first principles). For example, the British cycling team broke down their bicycles (into seats, wheels, and so on) as well as their training schedules (into sleep, avoiding illness, muscle performance, and so on).

Then, brainstorm ways to improve each component by even 1%. For example, the coach of the cycling team researched mattresses and pillows that would improve the athletes’ sleep.

Finally, implement the changes. Individually, they may not make a big difference, but when combined, the overall change can be powerful. 

How Rocket Scientists Use Reasoning From First Principles

Varol cites SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space exploration company, as an example of reasoning from first principles. Before founding SpaceX, Musk wanted to get into the space industry, but he couldn’t afford a pre-built rocket. Musk employed reasoning from first principles by questioning his goal and realizing that what he really needed wasn’t a rocket: It was a way to get to space. Instead of giving up, he figured out the cost of the raw materials needed to build a rocket and decided to build one from scratch. 

(Shortform note: Musk is the most commonly cited example of reasoning from first principles in the modern era (a quick Google search for “first principles” brings up multiple interviews with the billionaire CEO as top hits). Varol attributes Musk’s success almost exclusively to this tactic. However, Varol doesn’t mention another important factor that undoubtedly contributed to Musk’s success: Until recently, he reportedly worked up to 100 hours a week. In other words, reasoning from first principles can help you succeed, but to become one of the richest people on the planet, you must also put in the hard work.)

How You Can Use Reasoning From First Principles

Varol offers three tips to get started with reasoning from first principles:

1) Focus on subtraction (getting rid of everything that isn’t truly necessary), not addition. This will help you boil down to first principles. What can you take away to increase your efficiency? What are you doing right now that you could stop doing to free up resources? (Shortform note: Minimalism authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus argue that the subtraction approach doesn’t just improve your thinking: It can also help you reduce stress, discover meaning and happiness, and pursue your passions.)

2) Try “kill the company” exercises in which you imagine yourself as your own competitor and try to spot fatal flaws in your plan, company, or product. This forces you to analyze your own strengths and weaknesses more objectively and question your status quo by taking on a competitor’s perspective. (Shortform note: This is a valuable exercise for any group, not just companies. For example, a city council in Texas uses a “Kill the Community” exercise to discover problems threatening the wellbeing of people in their city.)

3) Remember Occam’s razor: The simplest explanation—the one you might find by boiling things down to first principles—is usually the right one. According to Varol, that’s partly because simpler systems have fewer parts that could break and cause issues. But be warned—simple explanations can’t always address the full complexity of an issue. (Shortform note: This is how conspiracy theories arise. People tend to ignore the full complexity of a situation, which leads them to see oversimplified patterns that don’t exist.)

How SpaceX Used Reasoning From First Principles

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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