I was listening to a Kevin Rose podcast this week and he was talking to Tim Urban. Tim is a really deep thinker and writes great blog posts about the world of technology under the ‘Wait but why’ name.

Anyway Tim Urban has a close relationship with Elon Musk and he talks about what he has learnt from him and what makes him different.

He says that the biggest thing that sets Elon apart is that he reasons ‘from first principles as opposed to by analogy.’ What he means by this is that Elon is able to start his thinking from scratch as opposed to relating everything to what has come before and established ways of thinking.

Tim believes that we all like to think we can begin with first principles and not be influenced by everything that has happened in the past but very few of us can actually do it. This is what sets the great thinkers and innovators apart - this very rare gift to cast aside the sum total of our knowledge and experience and start with a truly open mind and a blank canvas.

He goes on to to say that connected with this is a willingness to fail. That you’re not going to be able to step into the unknown and disregard all conventional wisdom and advice unless you have a high tolerance for failure. And that failure is the best, and indeed only, way of learning and disproving a hypothesis.

It’s such an interesting subject and I’m convinced that this ability to see the world with a fresh mind and without all the baggage of the past is both extremely rare and lies at the very heart of how truly groundbreaking ideas emerge.

Unfortunately I also think that it’s a very rare gift that you are born with - but maybe that in itself is an example of thinking grounded by what has happened in the past!