Given all the recent negative press about Elon Musk, I went to look at some notes I wrote down after reading Ashley Vance’s excellent biography of Elon Musk back in 2015 in an effort to get back to first principles about his mission and why he might sometimes treat people less than stellarly.

Vance’s portrait of Elon Musk has forced me to dramatically consider the lens through which I view new opportunities and has really challenged me to think bigger, with the caveat of course that few people have the resources to think at the interplanetary level like Musk does. Of course, I question whether you can judge a priori that something will be big or “life-changing”. As Steve Jobs once said, you can really only connect the dots looking backwards. For the rest of us mere mortals, I think we can’t undervalue what may seem like serendipitous opportunities. While we can have Musk’s level of laser focus and conviction on a few problems, thinking bigger shouldn’t necessarily preclude being open to opportunities. Nevertheless, it has forced me to question values that I strongly believe in, such as the balance between treating people well and doing whatever is necessary for the cause. Maybe I haven’t found a cause that I believe in as much as Elon Musk believes in making the human species interplanetary. Or maybe I just never want to compromise on treating people well regardless of the ends, although perhaps that makes me unsuited to spearhead a goal that’ll piss more than a few people off.

The second thing that stuck with me is this idea of intuition when doing new things. As humans, we generally, and rightly so most of the time, tend to trust our intuition or gut. However, when we throw ourselves in completely alien situations that we have no experience with, that over-reliance on intuition starts to hurt us. This is where Musk’s “first principles” thinking and scientist/engineer training really shine. I especially love this quote from Larry Page, CEO of Google and a good friend of Elon’s, that Vance brings up in the last chapter:

I’ve learned that your intuition about things you don’t know that much about isn’t very good… The way Elon talks about this is that you always need to start with the first principles of a problem. What are the physics of it? How much time will it take? How much will it cost? How much cheaper can I make it? There’s this level of engineering and physics that you need to make judgements about what’s possible and interesting. Elon is unusual in that he knows that, and he also knows business and organization and leadership and government issues.”

As Musk once said, it’s not about optimism or pessimism– it’s about getting things done, and to do that, you want to really break things down to the “first principles.” Evaluate what’s possible and what’s not without any heed to dogma or how incumbents are tackling the problems and use that to build up your own set of invariants rather than just accepting others’, then rapidly question even those assumptions as you test and learn.

Here’s that quote from his 2008 interview with Wired Magazine’s Carl Hoffman after the third failed SpaceX rocket launch: At the end of the day you’re still zero for three; you have so far failed to put a rocket into orbit.

Musk: We haven’t gotten into orbit, true, but we’ve made considerable progress. If it’s an all-or-nothing proposition then we’ve failed. But it’s not all or nothing. We must get to orbit eventually, and we will. It might take us one, two or three more tries, but we will. We will make it work. How do you maintain your optimism?

Musk: Do I sound optimistic? Yeah, you always do.

Musk: Optimism, pessimism, fuck that; we’re going to make it happen. As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.

The above Wired quote was originally seen on Dustin Curtis’ blog

I’ll let you get down to first principles, which in this case would probably be to interview Elon Musk himself, but reading Vance’s book is at least much closer to that than reading my thoughts about the book about Elon. Get Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future on Amazon. I also recommend reading WaitButWhy’s excellent 4-post series about Elon Musk.