First principle thinking: Elon Musk’s go to innovation hack

And How You Can Apply It
First principle thinking: Elon Musk’s go to innovation hack
Jake McNeill
July 22, 2021
5 min read
Copy link

In 2002, Elon Musk began his quest to get rockets into space. 

Of course, everyone thought he was crazy. And they were right. Initially. 

Musk discovered that each rocket would cost $65 million and he needed two of them. Not to mention the spacecraft along with the cost of everything else.

He was about to quit but realised that his thinking was flawed. 

“So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. 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? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.” — Elon Musk

That is a masterclass in innovation. Get to the root of the problem and redesign it to fit your ambitions.

First principle thinking is one of the most effective strategies to break down complicated problems and generate innovative solutions. 

Originally created by Aristotle and used by Einstein, Elon Musk has been the biggest champion of the concept recently. 

He credits first principle thinking with getting rockets into space and creating electric batteries small and cheap enough to power Teslas. 

As testimonials go they don’t get much bigger than that!

We can’t all put rockets into space but we can use the same mental models to build out our creative projects. 

The question is how can we use this proven thinking concept to improve our creative work or ideas?

First, let’s break down exactly what first principle thinking is with a simple example. 

First principle thinking involves reverse engineering problems or projects into the fundamental components so they can be rebuilt or redesigned.

Musk did this by reverse-engineering the cost of the raw materials needed to build rockets and then built his own. 

By doing this he built rockets at a fraction of the price originally quoted. 

You can do this with any problem or creative project. 

Take this article you’re reading for example: Suppose we break it down into components. 

  • Articles are a just series of paragraphs.
  • Paragraphs are just a series of sentences…
  • Sentences are just a series of words

Therefore words are the first principle. 

First principle thinking to make the project bigger

Now that we know all the components of the article, we can look at rebuilding it using the individual components so it becomes something bigger than it was originally. 

We could do the following:

  • Take the words and write more sentences.
  • Take the sentences to create more paragraphs
  • Write more paragraphs to create more articles.
  • Turn the articles into chapters and create a book. 
  • Take the book and turn it into an online course or a membership community teaching the principles of the book.
  • Take the course and turn it into a keynote speech.


No research is original. Researchers take the work of other published researchers and build on it. 

They then create something new. In time, others will build on their research and create something new.

Rinse and repeat. 

This is how we evolve as a species. 

The first principles of the research remain the same. But the researchers have the option to build upon it. 

Our ability to build on others’ ideas and push technologies further to be bigger and better is what separates us from any other species.

Humans are the only species that have benefitted from a growth in the standard of living because of population growth as opposed to in spite of it. 

We do this by collaboration.

Ideas and creativity are infinite. Our only limitations are self imposed in the parameters of our minds.


Walt Disney created a term called plussing. It was a principle to make ideas better. To build on the work of others. 

Plussing in only critiquing if you have something to add and never detract from the project. 

Plussing is responding to someone else’s idea with “yes and…” and never “yes but…”

Telling his employees to plus their ideas even when they thought they had nailed it gave Disney a creative edge.

It’s recognising that ideas can always be better with collaboration. Those ideas can be better when others build on others’ ideas. 

Walt Disney created Disneyland with plussing. 

"I wanted something live, something that could grow, something I could keep plussing with ideas, you see? The park is that. Not only can I add things but even the trees will keep growing; the thing will get more beautiful every year. And as I find what the public likes—and when a picture's finished and I put it out—I find out what they like, or they don't like, and I have to apply that to some other thing; I can't change that picture, so that's why I wanted that park."
— Walt Disney


  • Reverse engineer the problem or the project to its core fundamentals.
  • How can you rebuild it to be bigger, better, and stronger?
  • What ideas can you build on?
  • Who can you collaborate with and experiment with plussing? 
  • Always respond to an idea with ‘yes and…’

A bit about me

I’m an ex- multi-platinum artist manager. I created strategies and built audiences for artists who sold millions.

You can read more in the archives here. Find out more information on my website or connect on my LinkedIn

Too Much to do? Don’t know where to start?

I help creators and indie founders build simple step by step creative business strategies to remove overwhelm, uncertainty and achieve their long term goals

I do discovery calls to see if we’re a good fit.

Cost? $0.00 Commitment? Zero. Time? 30 minutes

More info? Go here

Share this post
Copy link
Subscribe to the newsletter
Mental Models For Multipotentialites To Maximise Their Potential. Cost? $0. Unsubscribe anytime✌️
Read about our privacy policy.
✅ Great stuff. You're now subscribed to my newsletter!
Hmm, something went wrong with the subscriber form. Please send me a quick email to let me know.

Related posts

Read more of my posts about related topics.
🤫 The Hidden Truth Behind Niching Down 🤯
May 3, 2023

🤫 The Hidden Truth Behind Niching Down 🤯

✅ Why Everything We Believe About Niching Down Is Wrong
Read post
⏳ May The Flow Be With You 🤩
April 1, 2022

⏳ May The Flow Be With You 🤩

The Art Of Being Yourself
Read post
Harvard Professors, The Fucked Up Club, And Asymmetrical Opportunities
March 12, 2022

Harvard Professors, The Fucked Up Club, And Asymmetrical Opportunities

How To Increase The Surface Area Of Your Luck
Read post
Jake McNeill

Ready to unfuck potential?

Let me help you get shit done!🤘