We often hear about ‘building on the work of others’ or ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ when discussing breakthroughs. It’s true, collaboration, evolution and improvement of ideas have been vital to many a technological innovation, corporate redesign and even social revolution. However, famed entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk finds that sometimes starting from much further back—back to the first principles of physics—allows you to ignore contemporarily held beliefs and find new paths to innovation. In an interview by Kevin Rose on his podcast “Foundation,” Musk explains why going back to the basics matters:
I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is [that] we reason by analogy...We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing…slight iterations on a theme. ‘First principles’ is a physics way of looking at the world, what that really means is that you boil things down to the most fundamental truths and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy… Someone could—and people do—say [car] 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… historically it would cost $600 KW/hour (USD). It’s not going to be much better than that in the future. So in first principles we say 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 material basis, if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost. Oh geez…It’s $80 KW/hour (USD). So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much cheaper than anyone realizes.
Of course, physics is not at the base of every problem we have to face. However, the notion of going back to the most basic components, reflecting on why each is used, how they come together and seeing if there is another way, perhaps a better way—that is a valuable framework indeed for getting unstuck no matter where you are.