The Cook and the Chef: Musk's Secret Sauce by Tim Urban

This is just one part of WBW's amazing series on Elon Musk. Skip the biography and read this first (though I heard the bio is great as well). In this part, Tim breaks down why Musk is so damn successful and how we can reason by first principles to achieve our own goals. It's a must-read.

My Notes

"After emerging from the 1990s dotcom party with $180 million, instead of sitting back in his investor chair listening to pitches from groveling young entrepreneurs, he decided to start a brawl with a group of 900-pound sumo wrestlers—the auto industry, the oil industry, the aerospace industry, the military-industrial complex, the energy utilities—and he might actually be winning. And all of this, it really seems, for the purpose of giving our species a better future."

  • data and logic are far more effective tools than faith and scripture.

  • When it comes to most of the way we think, the way we make decisions, and the way we live our lives, we’re much more like the flood geologists than the science geologists.

  • It’s not that Musk suggests that people are just computers—it’s that he sees people as computers on top of whatever else they are.

  • The hardware is a ball of clay that’s handed to us when we’re born. And of course, not all clay is equal—each brain begins as a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses across a wide range of processes and capabilities. But it’s the software that determines what kind of tool the clay gets shaped into.

  • Once a goal has been selected, you know the direction in which to point your power. Now it’s time to figure out the most effective way to use that power to generate the outcome you want—that’s your strategy

On First Principles

  • It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good.” But that’s just a ridiculous way to think.

  • You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.

  • There are no axioms or proofs in science because nothing is for sure and everything we feel sure about might be disproven. Richard Feynman has said, “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty—some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”

On the 4 Major Decision-Making Centers

  • Brain software has four major decision-making centers: 1) Filling in the Want box 2) Filling in the Reality box 3) Goal selection from the Goal Pool 4) Strategy formation Musk works through each of these boxes by reasoning from first principles.

  • So after Musk builds his conclusions from first principles, what does he do? He tests the shit out of them, continually, and adjusts them regularly based on what he learns

  • You begin by reasoning from first principles to A) fill in the Want box, B) fill in the Reality box, C) select a goal from the pool, and D) build a strategy—and then you get to work. You’ve used first principles thinking to decide where to point your power and the most effective way to use it.

  • Musk sees people as computers, and he sees his brain software as the most important product he owns—and since there aren’t companies out there designing brain software, he designed his own, beta tests it every day, and makes constant updates. That’s why he’s so outrageously effective, why he can disrupt multiple huge industries at once, why he can learn so quickly, strategize so cleverly, and visualize the future so clearly.

On Dogma

  • “We process you for a whole year. If you are defective, we hold you back and process you again. We sit you in straight rows, just like they organize things in the factory. We build a system all about interchangeable people because factories are based on interchangeable parts.”

  • Dogma is everywhere and comes in a thousand different varieties—but the format is generally the same: X is true because [authority] says so. The authority can be many things.

  • When you don’t know how to reason, you don’t know how to evolve or adapt. If the dogma you grew up with isn’t working for you, you can reject it, but as a reasoning amateur, going it alone usually ends with you finding another dogma lifeboat to jump onto.

On Tribalism

  • Tribalism is good when the tribe and the tribe member both have an independent identity and they happen to be the same. Tribalism is bad when the tribe and tribe member’s identity are one and the same

  • “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.”

  • Humans also long for the comfort and safety of certainty, and nowhere is conviction more present than in the groupthink of blind tribalism. While a scientist’s data-based opinions are only as strong as the evidence she has and inherently subject to change, tribal dogmatism is an exercise in faith, and with no data to be beholden to, blind tribe members believe what they believe with certainty.

The Cook and the Chef Explained

  • The trailblazing chef—the kind of chef who invents recipes. And for our purposes, everyone else who enters a kitchen—all those who follow recipes—is a cook.

  • Everything you eat—every part of every cuisine we know so well—was at some point in the past created for the first time. Wheat, tomatoes, salt, and milk go back a long time, but at some point, someone said, “What if I take those ingredients and do this…and this…..and this……” and ended up with the world’s first pizza. That’s the work of a chef. Since then, god knows how many people have made a pizza. That’s the work of a cook.

  • The chef reasons from first principles, and for the chef, the first principles are raw edible ingredients. The cook works off of some version of what’s already out there—a recipe of some kind, a meal she tried and liked, a dish she watched someone else make.

  • What all of these cooks have in common is their starting point is something that already exists. Even the innovative cook is still making an iteration of a burger, a pizza, and a cake.

  • Whatever this new situation is, auto-pilot won’t suffice—this is something new and neither the chef’s nor the cook’s software has done this before. Which leaves only two options: Create. Or copy.

  • Society as a whole is its own loose tribe, often spanning your whole nation or even your whole part of the world, and what we call “conventional wisdom” is its guiding dogma cookbook—online and available to the public. Typically, the larger the tribe, the more general and more outdated the dogma—and the conventional wisdom database runs like a DMV website last updated in 1992. But when the cook has nowhere else to turn, it’s like a trusty old friend.

  • Musk calls the cook’s way of thinking “reasoning by analogy” (as opposed to reasoning by first principles), which is a nice euphemism. The next time a kid gets caught copying answers from another student’s exam during the test, he should just explain that he was reasoning by analogy.

  • it’s in those key moments when it’s time to write a new album—those moments of truth in front of a clean canvas, a blank Word doc, an empty playbook, a new sheet of blueprint paper, a fresh whiteboard—that the chef and the cook reveal their true colors. The chef creates while the cook, in some form or another, copies.

  • In other words, you might be a star and a leader in your world or in the eyes of your part of society, but if the core reason you picked that goal in the first place was because your tribe’s cookbook says that it’s an impressive thing and it makes the other tribe members gawk, you’re not being a leader—you’re being a super-successful follower

  • Musk is an impressive chef for sure, but what makes him such an extreme standout isn’t that he’s impressive—it’s that most of us aren’t chefs at all. It’s like a bunch of typewriters looking at a computer and saying, “Man, that is one talented typewriter.”

  • By not seeing our thinking software for what it is—a critical life skill, something that can be learned, practiced, and improved, and the major factor that separates the people who do great things from those who don’t—we fail to realize where the game of life is really being played. We don’t recognize reasoning as a thing that can be created or copied—and in the same way that causes us to mistake our own cook-like behavior for independent reasoning, we then mistake the actual independent reasoning of the chef for exceptional and magical abilities.

  • Conventional wisdom is slow to move, and there’s significant lag time between when something becomes reality and when conventional wisdom is revised to reflect that reality. And by the time it does, reality has moved on to something else.

  • In both cases, Musk is essentially saying, “People consider X to be scary, but their fear is not based on logic, so I’m not scared of X.” That’s not courage—that’s logic.

  • All Elon’s saying in the second quote is that being scared to start a company is the adult version of being scared of the dark. It’s not actually dangerous.

  • People believe thinking outside the box takes intelligence and creativity, but it’s mostly about independence.

  • When you’re in a foreign country and you decide to ditch the guidebook and start wandering aimlessly and talking to people, unique things always end up happening. When people hear about those things, they think of you as a pro traveler and a bold adventurer—when all you really did is ditch the guidebook.

  • Likewise, when an artist or scientist or businessperson chef reasons independently instead of by analogy, and their puzzling happens to both A) turn out well and B) end up outside the box, people call it innovation and marvel at the chef’s ingenuity. When it turns out really well, all the cooks do what they do best—copy—and now it’s called a revolution.

  • Whatever the time, place, or industry, anytime something really big happens, there’s almost always an experimenting chef at the center of it—not being anything magical, just trusting their brain and working from scratch. Our world, like our cuisines, was created by these people—the rest of us are just along for the ride.

  • It’s not in our DNA to be chefs because human self-preservation never depended upon independent thinking—it rode on fitting in with the tribe, on staying in favor with the chief, on following in the footsteps of the elders who knew more about staying alive than we did, and on teaching our children to do the same.

  • That’s what Stephen Hawking meant when he said, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

  • If you want to see the lab mentality at work, just search for famous quotes of any prominent scientist and you’ll see each one of them expressing the fact that they don’t know shit.

  • People’s lives are no different, which is why it’s so important to find the toxic lumps of false dogma tucked inside the layers of your reasoning software. Identifying one and adjusting it can strengthen the whole chain above and create a breakthrough in your life.

  • The thing you really want to look closely for is unjustified certainty. Where in life do you feel so right about something that it doesn’t qualify as a hypothesis or even a theory, but it feels like a proof?

  • if it’s not well backed-up by data from what you’ve learned and experienced, it’s at best a hypothesis and at worst a completely false piece of dogma.

  • When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

  • This is Jobs’ way of saying, “You might not know shit. But no one knows shit. If the emperor looks naked to you and everyone else is saying he has clothes, trust your eyes since other people don’t know anything you don’t.”

  • But this epiphany—that the collective “other people” and their conventional wisdom don’t know shit—is a much larger challenge. Our delusion about the wisdom of those around us, our tribe, and society as a whole is much thicker and runs much deeper than the delusion about ourselves. So deep that we’ll see a naked emperor and ignore our own eyes if everyone else says he has clothes on.

  • The first epiphany was about shattering a protective shell of arrogance to lay bare a starting point of humility. This second epiphany is about confidence—the confidence to emerge from that humility through a pathway built on first principles instead of by analogy. It’s a confidence that says, “I may not know much, but no one else does either, so I might as well be the most knowledgeable person on Earth.”

  • Free of Self-Loathing Cook’s trepidation, the world’s chefs are liberated to put on their lab coats and start sciencing. To a chef, the world is one giant laboratory, and their life is one long lab session full of a million experiments.

  • To a chef in the lab, negative feedback is a free boost forward in progress, courtesy of someone else. Pure upside.

  • There’s no more reliable corollary than super-successful people thinking failure is fucking awesome.

  • It’s not surprising that so many of the most wildly impactful people seem to treat the world like a lab and their life like an experiment session—that’s the best way to succeed at something.

  • The purpose of all of that fear is to make us protect ourselves from danger. The problem for us is that as far as evolution is concerned, danger = something that hurts the chance that your genes will move on—i.e., danger = not mating or dying or your kids dying, and that’s about it.

  • We’re more afraid of public speaking than texting on the highway, more afraid of approaching an attractive stranger in a bar than marrying the wrong person, more afraid of not being able to afford the same lifestyle as our friends than spending 50 years in a meaningless career—all because embarrassment, rejection, and not fitting in really sucked for hunters and gatherers.

  • When you have a hard time changing, you become attached to who you currently are and what you’re currently doing—so attached that it blurs the distinction between the scientist and the experiment and you forget that they’re two different things.

  • Being trapped in your history means you don’t know how to change, you’ve forgotten how to innovate, and you’re stuck in the identity box the world has put you in. And you end up being the cancer researcher we mentioned who only tries likely-to-succeed experimentation within the comfort zone he knows best.

  • “Getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” Being fired “freed” Jobs from the shackles of his own history.

  • The epiphany that neither failing nor changing is actually a big deal can only be observed by experiencing it for yourself. Which you can only do after you overcome those fears…which only happens if you experience changing and failing and realize that nothing bad happens. Another catch-22.

  • The challenge with this last epiphany is to somehow figure out a way to lose respect for your own fear. That respect is in our wiring, and the only way to weaken it is by defying it and seeing, when nothing bad ends up happening, that most of the fear you’ve been feeling has just been a smoke and mirrors act. Doing something out of your comfort zone and having it turn out okay is an incredibly powerful experience, one that changes you—and each time you have that kind of experience, it chips away at your respect for your brain’s ingrained, irrational fears.

  • My guess is that most people would do all kinds of things they’d love to do in their real life but wouldn’t dare to try, and that by behaving that way, they’d end up quickly getting a life going in the simulation that’s both far more successful and much truer to themselves than the real life they’re currently living.

  • So if we want to think like a scientist more often in life, those are the three key objectives—to be humbler about what we know, more confident about what’s possible, and less afraid of things that don’t matter.

  • If we want to improve ourselves and move our way closer to the chef side of the spectrum, we have to remember to remember. We have to remember that we have software, not just hardware. We have to remember that reasoning is a skill and like any skill, you get better at it if you work on it.

  • When I started learning about Musk in preparation to write these posts, it hit me that he wasn’t just doing awesome things in the world—he was a master at looking at the world, asking “What’s really going on here?” and seeing the real answer.