The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce – Notes and Summary

the cook and the chef - you're playing Grand Theft Life

One-sentence summary: The Cook and the Chef teaches us how to reason like a scientist – or Elon Musk – and smash fear to live an authentic life.

Rating: 10/10

Author: Tim Urban

Date Completed: 2015

Tags: First Principles, Writing, Life, Life Strategy, Philosophy, Mental Models, Gratitude, Happiness, Optionality, Experimentation, Bias, Risk, Uncertainty, Fear

Hot take: The Cook and the Chef is the most impactful blog post I’ve ever read. If you could read only one article about how to think, this should be it.

Big Ideas

Flood geology vs. Science geology

  • For a long time, people believed that the world began 6,000 years ago. They believed this because it’s what the Bible said – “the Earth was formed as a perfect sphere with a surface of idyllic land and a watery interior. But then, when the surface dried up a little later, cracks formed…releasing much of the water from within. The result was the Biblical Deluge and Noah having to deal with a ton of shit all week.”
  • Flood geology (originated in the 1600s) reconciled the Biblical teachings of the beginning of earth and the findings of fossils and animal skeletons that suggested the world was much older.
  • Scientists also started working on this whole geology thing around the same time. They eventually found new ways to measure how old stuff was, like radiometric dating, with which we determined the world was billions of years old.
  • The flood geologists started to look a little silly at that point, notably because they refused to admit their obvious wrongness. They eventually retreated to the vaunted “it’s right because I said so” theory to justify their flood geology rhetoric.
  • The problem is that flood geologists are everywhere. We’re all on the side of the scientists when it comes to the creation of the earth, but “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.”

Our brains are a mixture of hardware (innate ability) and software (how we use it)

  • Our brains aren’t just soupy grey stuff that mostly sits there – they’re constantly changing (and changeable) objects, which Musk breaks down into two categories:
    • Hardware is the machines, wiring, and other physical components of the computer. For us, that means the brain we were born with and all its capabilities – raw intelligence, innate talents, and other natural strengths/shortcomings.
    • Software is the programs you run on a computer. For us, that’s “what [we] know and how we think – [our] belief systems, thought patterns, and reasoning methods.”
  • It’s the software component that makes the greatest thinkers most effective. We live in a society that gives a lot of credit to hardware – and yes, there are people with more impressive hardware than us, of which Musk is one – but if we thought more like them, we could capture a lot of the upside of these genuinely original thinkers.

The reasoning process from first principles

  • The Want Box is the start of the reasoning process. We want to turn something from its current state into a better future state. Examples:
    • I have a small amount of money –> I have a large amount of money
    • I don’t have a cookie –> I have a cookie
    • There’s a lot of poverty in Chad –> There’s a little less poverty in Chad.
  • Then there’s a separate Reality Box, which contains all the things that are possible for you. In the middle is the Goal Pool – the combination of things you Want that are also possible.
  • To change something from the current, less-desirable situation to the desired future state, you’d direct your resources toward it. Some kinds of power include:
    • Connections (who you know)
    • Knowledge (what you know)
    • Money (what you have)
  • To formulate a strategy, you’ll think about the best way to use your various powers to generate the outcome you want.
  • Where this approach starts to differ from the way we mortals do things is that Musk reasons from First Principles to get there:

“I think generally people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. 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.”

Elon Musk
  • This means we have to start from what evidence shows to be the case, building our want and reality boxes, the goal pool, and the strategy – from scratch.
  • Then you have to take a Bayesian approach, adjusting each component’s conclusions based on new information as it comes in. Reasoning becomes less like math (which has proofs and theorems and all kinds of other airtight things) and more like science, which has hypotheses and theories, but no ironclad rules.
  • Once you have a hypothesis (a strategy) and the desired direction, you test them regularly and rigorously. The Experiment might fail to disprove your idea – you can never fully confirm a hypothesis, remember – or disprove it.
  • You take the information learned from that experiment, incorporate the feedback into the system, update your strategy accordingly, and try again.
  • By iterating on this system, again and again, you’ll get more effective at accomplishing your goals.
  • The Want Box, Reality Box, and Goal Pool constantly change as you grow and experience more things as a human. There’s a macrocycle of introspection and the shifting sands of reality that underlie all of this. There’s a lot of shit going on here, so it’s worth looking at the complete picture:
the cook and the chef - full software
  • “The software I’ve described is a living, breathing system, constructed on a rock-solid foundation of first principles, and built to be nimble, to keep itself honest, and to change shape as needed to best serve its owner.”

“This part of what Musk does isn’t rocket science – it’s common sense. Your entire life runs on the software in your head – why wouldn’t you obsess over optimizing it? And yet, not only do most of us not obsess over our own software – most of us don’t even understand our own software, how it works, or why it works that way.”

How our normal reasoning process differs

  • We ask a lot of questions as kids. The number one question both in volume and level of annoyance to adults is “why?”
  • Most of us ask this question enough – Musk calls it the “chained why” that we eventually hit the bottom of our parents’ patience with us and get a “because I said so!” which is the end of the “why” game for almost all kids.
  • The game is annoying to adults, of course, but Urban suggests we should stick it out for the sake of our children – because we’re creating poor, short-circuited reasoning processes in them by not entertaining the why game.
  • “A command or a lesson or a word of wisdom that comes without any insight into the steps of logic it was built upon is feeding a kid a fish instead of teaching them to reason. And when that’s the way we’re brought up, we end up with a bucket of fish and no rod—a piece of installed software that we’ve learned how to use, but no ability to code anything ourselves.”
  • So our school system, parents, and other adult role models end up, despite their best efforts, shaping childrens’ software clay into the same few shapes, over and over again. This forms the 800-lb gorilla in the room of any creative, first principles, or entrepreneurial thinker – conventional wisdom, which we could charitably think of as being 30 years behind.
  • But sometimes conventional wisdom goes back even further and is more out of date. If you, like me, were raised by people who were raised by people who went through the great depression, you might have a career plan that looks something like this:

“The person has lived a long life and has made it all the way to 2015, but their software was coded during the Great Depression, and if they’re not the type to regularly self-reflect and evolve, they still do their thinking with software from 1930. And if they installed that same software in their children’s heads and their children then passed it on to their own children, a member of Generation Y today might feel too scared to pursue an entrepreneurial or artistic endeavor and be totally unaware that they’re actually being haunted by the ghost of the Great Depression. When old software is installed on new computers, people end up with a set of values not necessarily based on their own deep thinking, a set of beliefs about the world not necessarily based on the reality of the world they live in, and a bunch of opinions they might have a hard time defending with an honest heart.”

On dogma

  • Any desire or belief that isn’t based on reasoning qualifies as dogma. And it’s way more pervasive than you’d think.
  • The basic format of dogma is that “X is true because [authority] says so.” It could be:
    • Parents
    • Friends
    • Religion
    • Media
    • Political party
    • Etc. etc.
  • Dogma isn’t as flexible as first principles thinking – it’s not meant to be questioned or customized. Instead of a software program to update, it’s a rulebook that you carry with you.
  • At one point, dogma might have been current or served people well, but because it never gets updated and your job isn’t to think creatively with it but rather to follow it to the letter, it becomes increasingly out of touch with reality as you go along.
  • Dogma survives because the “because X said so” undermines our confidence in our reasoning ability and never really tests it out – instead, we follow the set of rules we’ve been given, even though they’re unlikely to yield anything unique.
  • So we should all reject dogma in our lives when we see it, right? It ends up not being that simple: “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.”

Tribes as dogma spreaders

“People like us do stuff like this.”

Seth Godin
  • Being a part of a tribe isn’t a bad thing, so long as you and everyone in the tribe is there of their own free will. In other words, “What makes tribalism a good or a bad thing depends on the tribe member and their relationship with the tribe.”
  • Types of tribalism:
    • Conscious tribalism – when the tribe and the tribe member both have independent identities, and they happen to overlap. Here, the tribe member is in charge, and the tribe comes second.
    • Blind tribalism – when the tribe and the member’s identity are the same things. Here, the tribe comes first, and the member’s identity and thinking come second.
  • Not every member of the tribe has the same relationship with it. “A large tribe like a religion or nation or political party will contain members who fall across the whole range of the blind-to-conscious spectrum. But some tribes will be the type to attract a certain type of follower. It makes logical sense that the more rigid and certain and dogmatic the tribe, the more likely it’ll be to attract blind tribe members. ISIS is going to have a far higher percentage of blind tribe members than the London Philosophy Club.”
  • Tribal dogma makes a lot of sense in the way it handles our core human needs. We want comfort, safety, and security in who we are – tribalism offers that. We want to feel conviction in our beliefs – and nowhere will we find a better group of people to reassure us that we’re thinking about the right things in precisely the right way than in the tribe.
  • Unfortunately, these things come at a cost. Tribes end up supplying the missing identity pieces and making it much harder to get out on your own to do some independent thinking. Think about how hard it would be to switch political affiliations, for example.

The cook and the chef

  • Urban likens the difference between Musk’s thinking and how most of us think as the difference between a cook and a chef. Though we use them interchangeably, they’re not the same things.
    • A cook works from existing recipes. They can make spins on existing stuff, but they rarely make something entirely new.
    • A chef works entirely from scratch, which means they fuck up a lot and occasionally make something genuinely new.
  • Chefs reason from first principles. Those first principles are the ingredients – the puzzle pieces to put together to create a Thing.
  • Cooks span from where I am in the actual kitchen, a deliberate and careful recipe follower, to people who take an existing recipe and make it their own, swapping out ingredients or playing with the ideas behind it to create a better version.
  • In other words: the cook’s starting point is always something that already exists. The chef starts from scratch.
  • In our lives, we may want to think about where we fall out on the cook-chef spectrum. Because it’s in the moments that we have something new, the two reasoning processes arrive at wildly different outcomes.
  • “Both types of people spend an average day with their brain software running on auto-pilot and their conscious decision-making centers dormant. But then comes a day when something new needs to be figured out. Maybe the cook and the chef are each given a new task at work to create a better marketing strategy. Or maybe they’re unhappy with that job and want to think of what business to start. Maybe they have a crush on someone they never expected to have feelings for and they need to figure out what to do about it. 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.”
  • The chef’s reasoning process:
    • Identifies existing data and what other data they might need to create a good strategy or make a good decision
    • Figures out what’s in the want box and the reality box – desirable things and those that are possible
    • Combines these ingredients in a reasoning pathway that generates a hypothesis
    • Continually iterates on the hypothesis, figuring out what to keep and what to toss from the existing idea.
    • Eventually, the tweaks become smaller. The chef has settled on a workable strategy – albeit one they’ll need to revisit in the future.
  • The cook’s reasoning process:
    • Looks up this situation in a recipe book
    • If you can find an entry for this situation, the cook follows it
    • If not, the cook asks some friends what they think – not to factor it into their reasoning, but to replace the cook’s own reasoning with it
    • If nothing else crops up, it’s Conventional Wisdom time – the “guiding dogma cookbook” of the general public.
  • Cooks reason by analogy. Chefs reason by first principles. Mostly their lives look the same, but the moment of creating a new thing, striking out on a new path, etc. that they differ. These moments can have a life-changing impact:
    • “The difference in outcome is enormous. For cooks, even the more innovative kind, there’s almost always a ceiling on the size of the splash they can make in the world, unless there’s some serious luck involved. Chefs aren’t guaranteed to do anything good, but when there’s a little talent and a lot of persistence, they’re almost certain to make a splash. Sometimes the chef is the one brave enough to go for something big—but other times, someone doesn’t feel the desire to make a splash and the chef is the one with the strength of character to step out of the game and in favor of keeping it small. Being a chef isn’t being like Elon Musk—it’s being yourself.”

We are all cooks who believe we’re chefs.

  • We tend to believe we’re more chef-like than we are. It turns out we’re usually just standout cooks:
    • “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.
  • Unfortunately, most of us are zoomed in on our little corners of the world. What feels like us being daring, free-thinking people is usually just a well-executed strategy from the cookbook.
  • Because of this, we don’t see how our thinking is flawed. If we think we’re chefs, when we encounter a real chef, we won’t know what to do with that. Instead of recognizing that the difference is in how people reason, we suggest that the difference between the insane Musk-level chefs and us must be intelligence.
  • We chalk it up to hardware, not software, which means that chefs are born that way, and there’s nothing we can do to make ourselves like them. Either you’re an average person or a brilliant chef, and nothing outside the genetic lottery can change that.
  • Fortunately and unfortunately for us, it’s not that Musk and other chefs are so ungodly talented that they’re totally beyond us (although that helps). It’s that we’re not chefs at all. What we think is chefdom is cookdom, full stop.
  • There are three things this makes us do, each of which creates a barrier between chefs and us:
    • 1) We mistake the chef’s clear view of the present for vision into the future
      • We believe we have a clear view of the present, but that chefs can see the future. Instead, chefs can see today’s reality; we’re running Windows ’95 to their ChromeOS.
      • Conventional wisdom takes time to catch up to real life, so we’re always going to be lagging by at least a decade from what’s possible today.
      • “By ignoring conventional wisdom in favor of simply looking at the present for what it really is and staying up-to-date with the facts of the world as they change in real-time – in spite of what conventional wisdom has to say – the chef can act on information the rest of us haven’t been given permission to act on yet.”
    • 2) We mistake the chef’s accurate understanding of risk for courage
      • A quote that stuck with me from Musk on starting a company: “Sometimes people fear starting a company too much. Really, what’s the worst that could go wrong? You’re not gonna starve to death, you’re not gonna die of exposure – what’s the worst that could go wrong?”
      • Musk is excellent at identifying real risk vs. fake risk based on faulty societal beliefs. Chefs do this all the time.
      • “Being scared to start a company is the adult version of being scared of the dark. It’s not actually dangerous.”
      • This accurate understanding of risk means that a chef is often bold but seldom doing something super risky.
    • 3) We mistake the chef’s originality for brilliant ingenuity
      • Instead of thinking outside the box, what if we ignored the box and built something new from scratch? You’d come up with a unique conclusion. It might be in the box, but it might not.
      • Think of the traveler to a foreign country ditching the guidebook and wandering around unguided. They’re not brilliant – they just got rid of the guidebook.

How to become a chef

  • Biologically, we’re all wired for cookdom. In a tribal environment, we needed a handful of leaders and a bunch of willing followers. Self-preservation has historically been more about fitting in than being a brilliantly original thinker.
  • But right now, we’re in this weird evolutionary bubble where your success mostly isn’t on the line day-to-day. If you’re reading these notes, you’re very unlikely to die of starvation or exposure.
  • In this world, winning becomes about living a life true to yourself rather than fitting in, being a great follower, etc.
  • “It’s an unfortunate catch-22 – we continue to think like cooks because we can’t absorb the epiphany that we live in an anomaly world where there’s no need to be cooks, and we can’t absorb that epiphany because we think like cooks and cooks don’t know how to challenge and update their own software.”
  • Still, the chef is someone who’s bucked all of this. How do they do it? It’s by recognizing three key things:
    • 1: You don’t know shit.
      • We’re all victims of pwn dogma, certainty, and ignorance. If we start from the notion that we don’t know shit, we can begin to test and adjust our assumptions to get to a place where we do know shit.
      • This is hard to do because we don’t have a strong relationship with our software – instead, we just hope it works and try not to mess with it too much.
      • To lean into the “you don’t know shit” phenomenon, we need to take apart our reasoning and think about the assumptions underpinning a lot of what we believe. It’s time to play the why game.
      • Like a team, reasoning is only as strong as its weakest link, so you need to root out unjustified certainty – a math proof rather than a scientific theory.
        • “Maybe you feel certain that quitting your job would be a disaster or certain that there’s no god or certain that it’s important to go to college…but 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.”
      • “If thinking about all of that ends with you drowning in some combination of self-doubt, self-loathing, and identity crisis, that’s perfect. This first epiphany is about humility. Humility is by definition a starting point – and it sends you off on a journey from there. The arrogance of certainty is both a starting point and an ending point – no journeys needed.”
    • 2: Nobody else knows shit, either.
      • We’re all constantly doing things that don’t seem right to us but are cosigned by some authority figure. The second epiphany is that while we may not know shit, nobody does.
      • “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…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 combat this, we need to lose respect for lots of institutions, including conventional wisdom. To do this, you’ll need to have at least one realization that “experts” don’t know any more than you do.
      • Once you’ve had one of those, you can try to apply it to other areas of your life.
      • “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.’”
    • 3. You’re playing Grand Theft Life.
      • In the story The Emperor’s New Clothes, the emperor walks into court naked but believing he’s wearing special clothes only visible to awesome people. At that moment, there are four kinds of characters:
        • Proud Cook – a person who’s entirely drinking the Kool-Aid and whose consciousness isn’t even turned on. This person sees whatever they’re told to see (in this case, the clothes).
        • Insecure Cook – Proud Cook after epiphany 1 – realizing they don’t see the clothes and hoping nobody else notices that they don’t know shit.
        • Self-Loathing Cook – Insecure Cook after epiphany 2. “He sees the tenets of conventional wisdom for what they really are – faith-based dogma. He knows that neither he nor anyone else knows shit and that he’ll get much farther riding his own reasoning than jumping on the bandwagon with the masses.” But instead of calling out what he knows (that guy’s naked!), the Self-Loathing Cook can’t quite say the words. He mostly stays quiet and nods along with the other people, even though he knows everything the Chef knows.
        • The Chef – Self-Loathing Cook without the irrational fear. The Chef goes through the same process as the Self-Loathing Cook but loudly shares the truth.
      • In various parts of our lives, we’re different characters. The Self-Loathing Cook is the most interesting spot on this hierarchy. They know everything the Chef knows, but they can’t quite act on it. Why is that?
        • To the chef, life is a series of experiments. Experiments to a chef are a way to learn new information – not necessarily always to get a specific outcome. Even if you fail or get negative feedback, a chef is winning. They’re the scientist, not the experiment.

Two misconceptions keep Self-Loathing Cooks from becoming chefs

  • To the Self-Loathing Cook, failure is unacceptable. That’s why they can’t summon the courage to shed their fear and start experimenting. Two misconceptions hold them back:
    • 1: Misplaced fear
      • The chef’s apparent courageousness comes from an accurate view of what’s risky and what isn’t – so the Self-Loathing Cook has the problem of taking fear far too seriously.
      • This obsession with fear might have helped us evolutionarily, but it doesn’t do us any favors now – and actively holds back the Self-Loathing Cook. We see danger in all the wrong places, but real danger is pretty rare for most of us.

“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.”

  • As such, we fear all the wrong things – and these fears keep us from entering the lab and experimenting with the chefs. Here’s the Danger Scale:
  • Chefs don’t seek out real danger – that 7-10 zone – but they absolutely feast in the 4-6 region that the public avoids. Starting companies, placing bold bets, trying new things, abandoning conventional wisdom – none of which rises to the level of real danger. As for the rest of us?

“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 meaningless career—all because embarrassment, rejection, and not fitting in really sucked for hunters and gatherers.”

  • 2: Misplaced identity
    • Self-Loathing Cooks can’t remember that they’re the scientist, not the experiment, whereas Chefs always remember they’re the scientist.
    • “When you are the experiment, negative feedback isn’t a piece of new, helpful information – it’s an insult. And it hurts. And it makes you mad. And because changing feels impossible, there’s not much good that feedback can do anyway – it’s like giving parents negative feedback on the name of their one-month-old child.”
    • “Unlike the ‘other people don’t know shit’ epiphany, which you can observe evidence of all over the place, 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.”
    • At this stage, you need to lose respect for your own fear. We must try things we thought were scary or risky and see that nothing bad happens when we do. Only through that gradual exposure can we make bold moves to overcome our brain’s irrational fears.
    • Real life and Grand Theft Auto aren’t that different. We’re all playing a game with these few rules every day. We could call it Grand Theft Life. So long as you don’t hurt anyone and provide for yourself and your family, you can do whatever you want.
    • If I handed you a video game to play that had all these characteristics, you’d probably live a life that was more true to yourself and more successful than the life you’re leading now. Because in the game, you can overcome your fears to do bold things that aren’t risky or dangerous. That’s our gigantic, under-appreciated opportunity.

Related reading:

The 352,000-Hour Opportunity – a post partially inspired by The Cook and the Chef.

The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce – the original post. You can also buy a PDF copy for offline reading.

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War – a biography of a relatively unknown first-principles thinker on the level of Musk or Curie.

Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions – a great book for beating fear to make difficult decisions under uncertainty.