The “cook vs chef” dynamic is one that I’ve been thinking about more and more. I touched on it in You’re Not Stuck That Way, Self Education, Unqualified Experts, and most recently in Huckster, but WBW gives the best start to finish overview of the difference between reasoning from first principles and following the crowd.
Reasoning from first principles isn’t new, Aristotle talked about it extensively in Nichomachean Ethics, and the practice originated with Socrates (though, probably earlier). Socrates’ argumentative style was about drilling someone down to their first principles and in the process showing that they were faulty.
I have the question: “are you being a chef or a cook?” in a sticky note on my desktop now to keep reminding me to think about it. Am I thinking or acting a way because someone else said so, or because I determined that was the best? Any time I’ve done something worthwhile it’s been the latter, so I want to focus on doing exclusively that as much as possible.
Reasoning from First Principles: A scientist gathers together only what he or she knows to be true— the first principles— and uses those as the puzzle pieces with which to construct a conclusion.
Basic system for planning: where your wants and reality overlap is where your goals come from, then you pick a goal and develop a strategy from it.
Musk works through each of these boxes by reasoning from first principles:
As Musk tests and gathers data, he continually refines the strategy like a scientist. As you change, and the world changes, you have to keep updating each side of the cycle, as well as make macro adjustments to the whole thing:
Each piece has to be built on and constantly updated purely by reasoning from first principles.
“Your entire life runs on the software in your head— why wouldn’t you obsess over optimizing it?”
School is built around turning us into factory workers, it kills off creativity and expects you to just color in the lines, following the instruction of teachers and parents. Kids who spend longer in school become less creative.
Many people grow up never developing the ability to question why they think things are “the answer.” Common example is career choices. Why do you think that career choice / that major is a good one? Probably because someone like a parent told you it was, based on their own view of the world.
The antiquated view of career selection:
Dogma from parents, society, media, etc. causes us to make decisions based not on first principles, but because other people said so or because that’s “what’s done.” When you grill someone on why they think certain ways, they frequently end up reverting to a form of “because X said so.”
Some people learn to throw out dogma, but then immediately eat up another form of dogma.
“But 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— another rulebook to follow and another authority to obey. You don’t know how to code your own software, so you install someone else’s.”
Dogma frequently manifests itself into tribes, groups of people with similar dogma. We join them willingly, but as we get deeper into them, we start taking the word of the tribe as law and stop questioning our first principles.
A way to test if you’re in a dogmatic tribe is to propose something strongly contrary to the views of the tribe. Telling your democrat friends that Trump might be a good candidate, for example.
A chef invents recipes, puts new things together, creates new dishes. A cook follows recipes and does things that have been done before.
“The chef reasons from first principles, and for the chef, the first principles are raw edible ingredients. Those are her puzzle pieces, her building blocks, and she works her way upwards from there, using her experience, her instincts, and her taste buds.”
“But 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.”
When thrust into a new situation without knowing what to do, you can either create or copy. A chef creates a solution from first principles, a cook copies someone else’s solution. This is where the differences are most apparent, and help us realize how much we do of each. What do you do when you don’t know what to do?
“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.”
We all think we’re further right than we really are. We want to believe we’re chefs, but most of us are sitting in various degrees of cook-dom.
“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.”
“But we don’t tend to zoom out, and when we look around at our life, zoomed in, what appears to be a highly unique and independent self may be an optical illusion. What often feels like independent reasoning when zoomed out is actually playing connect-the-dots on a pre-printed set of steps laid out by someone else.”
We frequently mistake a chef’s accurate understanding of risk for courage, not realizing that most of us have a woefully exaggerated belief in things being risky.
We also mistake their originality for ingenuity. Simply by ditching the guidebook in a foreign country, interesting things are bound to happen. When a chef refuses to reason by analogy, the chef opens up the possibility to make a huge splash with each project. It didn’t take a genius to come up with the design of an iphone, it’s pretty simple, it just required that they not copy.
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— which is why we now live in a cook society where cook parents raise their kids by telling them to follow the recipe and stop asking questions about it.”
Epiphany 1: You don’t know shit
“We need to revert to our four-year-old selves and start deconstructing our software by resuming the Why game our parents and teachers shut down decades ago.”
“With each of these questions, the challenge is to keep asking why until you hit the floor— and the floor is what will tell you whether you’re in a church or a lab for that particular part of 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?
Epiphany 2: No one else knows shit either
“This doesn’t seem right to me but everyone else says it’s right so it must be right and I’ll just pretend I also think it’s right so no one realizes I’m stupid”
“This is a battle of two kinds of confidence— confidence in others vs. confidence in ourselves. For most cooks, confidence in others usually comes out the winner. To swing the balance, we need to figure out how to lose respect for the general public, your tribe’s dogma, and society’s conventional wisdom.”
It’s hard— you have to take the leap to chefdom separately in each part of your life— but it seems like with each successive cook → chef breakthrough, future breakthroughs become easier to come by. Eventually, you must hit a tipping point and trusting your own software becomes your way of life— and as Jobs says, you’ll never be the same again.
Epiphany 3: You’re playing grand theft life
There are 4 kinds of people in the cook-chef dynamic:
“But to me, Self-Loathing Cook is the most curious one of the four. Self-Loathing Cook gets it. He knows what the chefs know. He’s tantalizingly close to carving out his own chef path in the world, and he knows that if he just goes for it, good things would happen. But he can’t pull the trigger. He built himself a pair of wings he feels confident work just fine, but he can’t bring himself to jump off the cliff.”
There are two misconceptions that prevent the self-loathing cook from breaking into chefdom:
Misconception 1: Misplaced fear
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 we see chefs displaying what looks like incredible courage, they’re usually just in the Chef Lab. The Chef Lab is where all the action is and where the path to many people’s dreams lies— dreams about their career, about love, about adventure. But even though its doors are always open, most people never set foot in it for the same reason so many Americans never visit some of the world’s most interesting countries— because of an incorrect assumption that it’s a dangerous place.
Misconception 2: Misplaced Identity
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.
If someone gave you a perfect simulation of today’s world to play in and told you that it’s all fake with no actual consequences— with the only rules being that you can’t break the law or harm anyone, and you still have to make sure to support your and your family’s basic needs— what would you do? 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.
To be a chef: 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.
Then consider joining the 30,000 other people getting the Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles and book notes.