When Elon Musk was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, he pursued a dual degree in business and physics.
“It was an unusual combination,” he told Physics World in 2007, “and I enjoyed the physics more. I’m not sure I would study business again if I could replay things.”
The interest in physics was long in the making for Musk. He’s said that he grew up in a “technical” household in South Africa, thanks to his father being an engineer. He was inspired by Richard Feynman, the American physicist who pioneered quantum mechanics and made physics accessible to laypeople in books like “Six Easy Pieces.”
Musk went as far as being accepted to a physics Ph.D. program at Stanford University, but dropped out to get in on the internet boom.
“It’s a common story,” Musk said. “Google, Yahoo, and several other firms were started by people who dropped out of their graduate programs at Stanford.”
And while physics and business made for an odd undergraduate pairing, Musk has said that his pursuit of the former has shaped his success in the latter.
“Of necessity, physics had to develop a framework of thinking that would allow understanding counterintuitive elements of reality,” he said. “Something like quantum physics is not very intuitive, and in order to make progress, physics essentially evolved a framework of thinking that was very effective for coming to correct answers that are not obvious. And in order to do this, it requires quite a lot of mental exertion.”
That framework is called “first principles reasoning,” Musk said, wherein you “try to identify the most fundamental truths in any particular arena and you reason up from there.”
It’s been crucial to the success of Musk’s big-name ventures — namely SpaceX, the company whose aim is to make humanity an interplanetary species.
With a framework for thinking taken from physics, SpaceX was able to create a major victory in its supply chain.
“Historically, [if you look at] how much rockets cost, you’d see that the trend line has been pretty flat and in the United States, it’s actually gotten worse over time,” Musk explained, saying that if you were reasoning by analogy, you’d assume that that’s just the way things are.
“But it’s not,” he said. “The first-principle approach would be to ask what materials is a rocket made of and how much do those materials cost. When we look at that we say, ‘Wow — in terms of raw materials cost, it’s a few per cent of what the price of a rocket is. So there must be something wrong here, and people are being pretty silly. If we can be clever, we can make a much lower-cost rocket.'”
That’s exactly what Musk did. By finding out how much rockets really cost, SpaceX built one for about 2% of the typical price.
The takeaway? Like its sibling field of study, engineering, physics trains leaders to understand problems in their most essential parts, and then deduce from there — often with staggering amounts of innovation to follow. Just ask Jeff Bezos, the one-time engineer.
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