THE INC. LIFE

The Genius Problem-Solving Method Elon Musk Learned From Aristotle

How do some entrepreneurs manage to come up with solutions for the toughest problems? They borrow this method from an ancient philosopher.

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BY David Straus - 13 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

"All great Acts of Genius began with the same consideration: Do not be constrained by your present reality."

Leonardo Da Vinci

Obviously, I have never met Aristotle or Da Vinci; for that matter, I have not yet had the pleasure of speaking with Elon Musk. Still, let's imagine that I can understand how they think, and that you can as well - and by embracing First Principle thinking, you can empower yourself to become a true visionary in life, at work, and for your community.

A First Principle is a basic, essential, foundational truth that is "known by nature." It is not an assumption or deduction based on another theory or supposition. A key element of First Principle thinking is that just because something is "known by nature" or true in the Universe does not mean it has ever been articulated and described by humans. E=MC has always existed as a possibility, but it was not known or proven until Einstein's feat of mathematical observation and first principle science. E=MC now becomes a foundational assumption in our known world. However, a future physicist solving for a different problem may choose to ignore this principle and discover something that is true to the universe that once "discovered" and articulated by the physicist could render E=MC as obsolete. Einstein himself understood this better than anyone because in order for him to have ideated E=MC, he too would have needed to overlook basic principles considered as Truth (with a capital T) in his time.

First articulated and named by Aristotle, the First Principle has endured all these millennia as the basis for (Western) philosophical contemplation. Physicists, scientists, and artists also engage the First Principle in order to dive into the unknown and surface with ideas totally new. A number of years ago, Elon Musk cited the ancient concept in an interview with Kevin Rose, thereby adding the term to our shared entrepreneurial vocabulary, but most visionaries--whether in business, science, arts, or philosophy--would in fact tell you that First Principle thinking is essential to their process and work, even if the phrase itself is unfamiliar.

So what precisely does First Principle thinking mean for invention and innovation? Elon Musk uses the battery pack as a perfect example: "Someone could--and people do--say battery packs are really expensive and that's just the way they will always be because that's the way they have been in the past. They would say, 'It's going to cost $600 per kilowatt-hour. It's not going to be much better than that in the future," Musk said in his interview with Rose. But in First Principle thinking, you forget what has been, you erase what is assumed, and ask questions based on your desire for what is possible. In Musk's words: "What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? It has carbon, nickel, aluminum, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. Break that down on a materials basis, if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost?" Musk's findings were that he could get those materials for $80 per kilowatt-hour, combine them into a battery cell shape of his choosing, and model modern innovation within the energy industry.

When my partners and I began our first technology company, we continually needed to lean into First Principle perspectives or we would never have succeeded. We ended up selling that company to Amazon in 2008. Today, in my work as a CEO, executive coach and business consultant, I help leaders embrace First Principle thinking for corporate innovation, interpersonal problem-solving, and senior-level negotiations. It may seem that practicing First Principle thinking requires more mental energy and intellectual rigor, when in fact, it simply requires a different type of thinking and intellectual rigor. By definition, true innovation can only occur if we start with the First Principle. When we want to make the leap from what is to what is possible, we can't get to what doesn't exist by creating an iteration of what already exists.

Here is my four-part process for First Principle Thinking:

1. Identify the problem you want to solve

It might be "My product is too expensive" or "Our CEO and CFO have different visions for the future of the company."

2. Make a list of all of the reasons you think you can't solve this problem

Your reasons might include "My parts cost is too high" or "The CFO doesn't want to spend more money on innovation."

3. Make a list of any and all obvious solutions that you think would solve the problem, but that don't solve the problem adequately.

Hint: Here's where "Compromise" often rears its head.

A solution for an over-expensive product might typically be moving manufacturing overseas--but then quality control and shipping costs can increase. A CEO and CFO might agree to cut one department to give more resources to a high-performing team, but layoffs might decrease office morale and severance packages reduce the financial benefit in the short-term.

4. Ask yourself: "If the problem didn't exist and I could create a solution that was based on a desire, what would that solution be?"

If your core desire is to develop an inexpensive product that is effective, then you might design a new product made with more sustainable and inexpensive materials, or with a completely unique engine or operating system.

The CEO might re-envision the way his company tackles innovation and product development, perhaps by bringing in other departments that don't normally get to participate in this work, and creating incentives for original thinking from anyone in the company. The CEO of Frito-Lay had an open door policy for good ideas from any employee and one of his janitors, Richard Montaez, invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos in his free time after work. It was a game-changing success for the company and Montaez is now an executive vice president at PepsiCo (Frito-Lay's parent company).

What else is possible with First Principle thinking? If you apply this concept to all conversations, then you are more open to other people's perspectives and can bring value to discussions that you may not have previously identified. I believe that flying cars are coming sooner than we think, because who says a car is a vehicle that only drives with wheels rather than hovering or being propelled? I believe time travel will not be something of just science fiction stories (not in my lifetime but in years to come) because we will realize that the linear relationship we put on time is not truly what is known by the universe. Some physicists have already postulated the concept of concurrent dimensions.

First Principle thinking requires you to expand your perspectives beyond your own personal assumptions and beyond your own personal truths. The method requires not only utilizing the data you normally associate with your mind, but tap into the data you may discover through your intuition. How you then choose to marry the two is what differentiates the visionary leader from the average entrepreneur. After all, if my belief of time travel comes to pass, I may ultimately have a chance to discuss these concepts directly with those who first conveyed them, or maybe I already have.