Physicist Richard Feynman returned over and over to an idea that drove his groundbreaking discoveries. His approach was documented by his Caltech colleague David Goodstein in the book Feynman’s Lost Lectureabout physics classes Feynman taught in the 1960s:
Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”
Elon Musk’s companies approach problems in a similar way. Whether it’s reaching Mars or boring tunnels through the earth, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX loves to talk about basic math. On investor calls and press conferences, Musk often muses on the addition, subtraction, and multiplication of what he’s trying to do.