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A methodology for pursuing a distant dream

“If you’re just trying to make one of something, it can all basically just be made by the engineering team. But if you want to actually make something at reasonable volume, you have to build the machine that makes the machine, which mathematically is going to be vastly more complicated than the machine itself. The thing that makes the machine is not going to be simpler than the machine. It’s going to be much more complicated by a lot. Things need to be translated into instructions that the average person can understand.”

“A high production rate solves many ills. If you have a high production rate, you have a high iteration rate. For pretty much any technology whatsoever, the progress is a function of how many iterations do you have, and how much progress do you make between each iteration. If you have a high production rate then you have many iterations. You can make progress from one to the next.”

— Elon Musk

Therefore we have identified a general methodology for making a distant dream come true:

  1. Given a hard problem X, map out the entire scope of the problem using first principle thinking (breaking problem X into Xi, i=1..n, of reasonable resolution)
  2. Identify the hardest problem Xc (c stands for critical). It could be (a) the first step that’s blocking everything else, or (b) the critical path that’s slowing down everything else.
  3. Focus relentlessly on solving the hardest problem first. Focus comes naturally because the whole point is to make a dream come true (as opposed to meeting investor expectation or grant requirement), so drive is always there. How to actually solve it? by going back to step 1 and substituting problem X with problem Xc.

For example:

  • Sending a million tons of supply and people to Mars is the first step that’s blocking everything else towards a self sustained civilization there — step 2(a)
  • A powerful engine is the first step that’s blocking everything else towards transporting huge tonnage away from Earth’s gravity — step 2(a)
  • The lack of a production line for the Raptor engine, whose complexity is at least 10x of that of the Raptor engine, to enable faster iteration of trial and error is the critical path towards building and perfecting the Raptor engine — step 2(b)

I think a key element here is: the whole endeavor has to be about making a dream come true, otherwise it’s very easy for people to divert themselves to solving less-critical problems with good and practical reasons.