Think Like You Cook — Think Like Elon Musk

A simpler way to apply First Principles Thinking

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

The first time I heard the word “hyperimpossible,” it was in a sentence about Elon Musk. I was roaming YouTube to decipher Musk’s thought process when a line hit me.

“Doing one impossible thing is impossible. Doing, like, five impossible things is the product of five impossibilities and that just seems hyperimpossible. But he’s managed it.”

That was before Musk smoked weed in front of 40 million people, became the richest man alive, and shook the cryptocurrency world with a couple of tweets. Anyway, I kept digging for answers until I ended up in an echo-chamber built around First Principles Thinking.

Spoiler alert: that’s not precisely how Musk thinks. Instead, he musks.

First Principles Thinking v.s. Musking

Initially, First Principles Thinking means to analyze something down to its fundamentals or “the first basis from which a thing is known.” This is cool when you’re an ancient Greek philosopher who believes everything is literally made of fire, water, wind, and earth. But when you live in 2021, you quickly realize the word “fundamentals” involves subatomic particles, quantum physics, and a stream of hardcore mathematics.

If Musk were a theory nerd, he’d be in a lab solving space-time equations. But instead, he’s building rockets, mass-producing batteries, and digging tunnels — you know, concrete stuff. That’s why I came up with practical terms to define how Elon Musk thinks.

Musk (verb) : to deconstruct a product or a concept into its main concrete components, then reassemble them, usually with tweaks, to produce better-performing and less-costly results.

Example: Elon Musk musked rockets and thus reduced the costs ten fold.

Related :
(noun) — Muskingly (adverb) — Musker (noun)

Now, here’s the coolest part. You already know how to musk — at least to some extent. Musking is a lot like cooking.

First, you look up a recipe to snipe the ingredients. Then, you browse your memory and phone to check prices and grocery store locations. Once you’re done shopping, you return to the recipe, but this time to follow the instructions — and voilà. Bon appétit.

I kid you not, that’s exactly how Elon Musk approached the rocket industry. Here’s how he described his inner dialogue.

“What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market?”

Tell me that doesn’t seem like looking up a recipe and the price of the ingredients. Fair enough, Nabil, but what about the building itself?

“I read books,” Musk answered. Pardon the braggy question here, but what are nonfiction books if not long detailed recipes? Right, so now that we covered the basics, let’s move to the last and not-obvious-at-all part of musking.

The better musker you become, the more you tweak recipes to improve them and create new ones. Just like you’d replace apples with pears to bake a new pie, Musk tweaked rocket recipes to create new space technologies. The result? Reusable rockets called Starships. Picture a space-bus that, instead of taking you to the next town, would take you to Mars and back.

Time out one second here. Even if the whole “Elon Musks thinks like he cooks” is right there’s one crucial question that begs an answer.

Why aren’t we all musking?

There are two reasons.

  1. It’s safer to use popular recipes with guaranteed results.
  2. It’s easier to follow these recipes to the letter instead of messing with them.

Both options refer to what Musk calls reasoning by analogy. According to him, we tend to spend our lives imitating others with minor variations, and often with no variations at all.

Why would we copy each other in the first place? It’s an effective strategy wired into our brains. Growing up, we imitate adults to learn everything from speaking to buttoning clothes. We do the same at school to pick up subjects like grammar and math. Over time, we start to believe that imitation is the only way to learn. So, we stick to the method for the rest of our lives without questioning it, even if it is easy to spot the downside.

When you strictly adhere to standard ideas — popular recipes — you limit your thinking and overlook alternatives. Instead of trying to replace ingredients and change the dosage, you replicate existing meals. Your pie tastes the same and costs the same every time. In contrast, Musk bakes tastier and cheaper ones by tweaking recipes. Obviously, he’d burn a couple and screw up the taste many times along the way, but his final version has high chances of ending up superior.

As you may have guessed, when you musk, you take risks. This complicates the task since we humans tend to be risk-averse. Our psyche clings to the status quo, but then again, old clichés like “the biggest risk is not to take any risks” stuck around for a reason. Progress requires risks. Besides, unlike Musk, you don’t have to gamble with billions of dollars and involve governments to be a musker.

All you need are three simple skills.

How to musk in three steps

As with cuisine, you can musk in extremely different ways, but the blueprint remains the same. Deconstruct, tweak, and reconstruct.

1. Deconstruct — Learn to look up different recipes

When you see a product or a concept, play a deconstruction game in your mind. Okay, what is an apple pie made of? Often, you won’t find all the answers inside your head, that’s when something like the Internet comes in handy.

Practice how to look up information and browse reliable sources. This sounds dull, but we live in a world where information comes to us — not the way around. Did this article appear on your feed or did you search for it? Exactly.

Let’s keep this article as an example. The recipe you’re looking at right now is: “How Elon Musk thinks.” If you want to deconstruct it, your next move should be to check other sources with other points of view.

Perhaps I overlooked an ingredient or misexplained some parts of the concept. The only way to find out is to actively look elsewhere.

2. Tweak — Change the ingredients in your head

Once you have a general understanding of a concept or product, start tweaking it in your mind. How would an apple pie taste if I add cinnamon and almond powder to the mixture?

Thought experiments stimulate innovation even when they don’t make sense because bad ideas can lead to better ones. However, if you lack ideas, this often means that you have to deconstruct the concept further. Return to step one and look for more details. In other words, check the recipe again.

With this article, you might want to compare musking to playing LEGO instead of cooking. If you find it difficult to replace all metaphors at once, examine each paragraph separately, then, tweak them one by one.

3. Reconstruct —Hit the kitchen

When you reconstruct, you take action outside your head to test your ideas. You can discuss, write, or build them into a prototype. Either way, expect to feel intimidated by outside interactions and the fear of failure. But keep in mind that it’s an inevitable part of the process.

I’d argue that no chef perfected a recipe right off the bat and the same goes for you when you musk.

To wrap up the example of “How Elon Musk thinks,” you can experiment with your version of musking at work or home; share with coworkers, or reach out to friends. Every exchange will help develop your concept into a mature product.

Okay, is musking useful?

Yes, thinking like Elon Musk is extremely useful, but you don’t have to do it 24/7. You often cook out of necessity, but if you happen to enjoy cuisine, you can also hit the kitchen for fun.

Either way, keep in mind that it’s a mental framework that allows you to put into perspective popular knowledge and think out of the box.

  1. Learn to look up information from reliable sources.
  2. Tweak ideas and concepts in your mind to make a new one.
  3. Share your innovations with others or build prototypes.

Whether in business or life, musking will help you think clearly and innovate. Besides, doesn’t it sound cool to say: “Let me musk this real quick?”

When I’m not eating, walking, or reading, I’m writing about Business, Tech, and Decision-Making — Come say hi on LinkedIn ➡

Thanks to May Pang, Maria Milojković, MA, George J. Ziogas, Julia Horvath, and Danny Schleien

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When I’m not eating, walking, or reading, I’m writing about Business, Tech, and Decision-Making — Come say hi on LinkedIn ➡

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