Elon Musk describes the scientific method and his search for love

Elon Musk has already had about as eventful a life as a human being could ask for, and now he can check off yet another accomplishment: seeing his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone. In fact, there’s much more here than a cover shot - writer Neil Strauss spent a lot of time with Musk, and the resulting profile includes not only an exclusive look at some of the latest doings at Tesla, but also an intimate glimpse of Musk’s personal life. 


Above: Tesla CEO Elon Musk (Image: Numerama)

Musk takes Strauss to the Tesla Design Studio, a place which few outsiders have seen (the journalist had to surrender his phone and swear a secrecy oath before being allowed to pass the hallowed gates), for a walkthrough of the Tesla Semi.

Jerome Guillen, who is leading the Semi program, explains that, rather than basing the Semi’s design on legacy diesel trucks, “We just thought, ‘What do people want? They want reliability. They want the lowest cost. And they want driver comfort.’ So we reimagined the truck.”

This is a perfect example of Musk’s vaunted first principles thinking. “A truck must be able to reliably move cargo from one location to another, and must follow the laws of physics,” as Mr. Strauss explains the Muskian mindset. “Everything else is negotiable, including government regulations. As long as you remember that the goal isn’t to reinvent the truck, but to create the best one, whether or not it’s similar to past trucks.”

When Musk sets out to solve a problem, he goes all the way back to the beginning. “There’s this thing called physics,” he says, “which is this scientific method that’s really quite effective for figuring out the truth.”


Above: Elon Musk in front of a SpaceX rocket (Image: Branchez-Vous)

Musk has discussed first principles and the scientific method many times, but here’s how he defined the process for Rolling Stone:

  1. Ask a question.
  2. Gather as much evidence as possible about it.

  3. Develop axioms based on the evidence, and try to assign a probability of truth to each one.
  4. Draw a conclusion based on cogency in order to determine: Are these axioms correct, are they relevant, do they necessarily lead to this conclusion, and with what probability?

  5. Attempt to disprove the conclusion. Seek refutation from others to further help break your conclusion.

  6. If nobody can invalidate your conclusion, then you’re probably right, but you’re not certainly right.

The scientific method is “really helpful for figuring out the tricky things,” Musk quips. It’s a pity most people don’t use it. Planners tend to engage in wishful thinking, ignore inconvenient facts, and make decisions based on what others are doing and aren’t doing.

Understanding the first principles approach explains why so many features of Tesla’s vehicles seem so fresh, so elegant, so “why doesn’t everyone do it like that?” while the offerings of legacy automakers so often seem like repackaged versions of the same old things.

Of course, applying the scientific method is only one part of the reason for Elon’s achievements - your mileage may vary. The Prophet of Palo Alto is also possessed of considerable engineering and financial talents, as well as a rare ability to envision the future.


Above: Last year, Elon Musk was voted most admired tech leader, by a wide margin, among startup founders (Source: Statista via First Round Capital)

“He’s able to see things more clearly in a way that no one else I know of can understand,” says Elon’s brother, Kimbal Musk. He tells Rolling Stone how the two of them played chess in their early years. “There’s a thing in chess where you can see 12 moves ahead if you’re a grandmaster. And in any particular situation, Elon can see things 12 moves ahead.”

However, Elon Musk is no emotionless thinking machine - far from it. His mischievous sense of humor is well known, and he has been known to get emotional in interviews, when discussing important subjects. Musk gave Neil Strauss a poignant glimpse of his personal life, revealing that even as he appeared on stage for the historic Model 3 launch event, he was preoccupied by a recent breakup with girlfriend Amber Heard.

“I’ve been in severe emotional pain for the last few weeks,” says Musk. “Severe. It took every ounce of will to be able to do the Model 3 event and not look like the most depressed guy around. For most of that day, I was morbid. And then I had to psych myself up: drink a couple of Red Bulls, hang out with positive people and then, like, tell myself: ‘I have all these people depending on me. All right, do it!’”

It turns out that all humans need love above all, even geniuses. “If I’m not in love, if I’m not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy,” Musk tells Strauss. “Going to sleep alone kills me. When I was a child, there’s one thing I said: ‘I never want to be alone.’”


Above: Elon Musk's comments on his split with actress Amber Heard (Youtube: Wochit Entertainment)

Being one of history’s great movers and shakers is not a likely recipe for personal happiness, as Musk himself has noted in the past. The romantic writers tell us that the kings and queens of old were often forced to abandon their true loves and submit to loveless dynastic marriages for the good of the realm. Today’s heroes of science and industry (there are few in politics) tend to sacrifice their happiness to the demands of 100-hour work weeks and the withering glare of the media spotlight. For them, the admiration of millions may have to fill the space left by the absence of a single beloved companion.

Or not. The scientific method is all very well, but love is also a powerful force in human affairs, and those who give tend to receive. So fear not, Elon - the sea teems with fish, and one may jump in your boat when you least expect it.


Written by: Charles Morris; Source: Rolling Stone