7 Saturdays

Hacking an Open Source Cognitive Model for Goal Prioritization and Attainment


Introduction and Preface

On the heels of my previous entry my father emailed me a link to a piece from Wait But Why, titled, The Cook and The Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce. Today I  am writing this in order to understand, interpret, and apply the ideas presented there to my own life and desires. The source material is a long form piece, containing over 21,000 words, easily a three hour read for some. That said, for anyone looking to truly understand it – read the original source. The key word here for me is interpret – I am interpreting something in a manner I feel will best allow me to apply the ideas the author presents to my own life.

Also, this is essentially just for me, but given that I am trying to look ahead 1 through 10 years into the future, coupled with the idea that this blog will likely eventually experience significant readership, I want to be as transparent as possible; after all, everything I write here, beyond being fitted for my own benefit and purpose, is also for the potential benefit of posterity and progeny [1].

Again, please keep in mind, I decided to publish this publicly in the hopes it might benefit others, particularly those who end up here on their own search for answers. That said, I am not editing this or even revising it. So please do not judge my writing on something I started at 4am, for me personally. I wrote this to interpret and understand something I knew would be an asset to me, and I hope it is to you as well.  

Prefaces aside, I want to dive into this model, which the author refers to as Elon’s Software [2].

The Want Box

Elon’s Software begins with what the author calls the Want box, which is just what it sounds like: a box list of things we want but do not currently posses.

Image from Wait But Why, The Cook and The Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce

As a fairly arbitrary yet logical example of things that might go in a person’s want box, the author provides the following graphic:

Image from Wait But Why, The Cook and The Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce

This is, of course, a clear example – but these wants must also respect things such as the laws of physics and other constraints, which fit into the next box: the Reality box.

The Reality Box

Image from Wait But Why, The Cook and The Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce

The Reality box contains, as the image says, Things That Are Possible.

To quote the source, “pretty straightforward” – only, there is one caveat that may not be obvious to some, and it’s the idea that, while we all live in the same underlying reality (If you remove perception from the equation [3]), no two Reality boxes will be the same; for what is possible for me, is different from what is possible for you, and while the author expounds on this later on, I think this is an important concept to digest at this point – at least in my own putting this into practice.

The author then posits that between our Elon’s Want box and Reality box, exists a Goal Pool.

The Goal Pool

“The overlap of the Want and Reality boxes is the Goal Pool, where your goal options live.”

Image from Wait But Why, The Cook and The Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce

Looking at the Goal Pool image above, we see these symbols, which if we view the source document at this point, we’ll see a small annotation in which the author explains as follows:

Those goals ended up looking a whole lot like the male symbol, which is annoying of them. The goals are circles and I put the arrow on each of them because each goal points your powers in a certain direction—i.e. choosing a goal is choosing which direction to point your powers.

This is a key concept because, as the author explains at Wait But Why, ‘we change something by directing our power towards it‘, and power, as he writes:

“…can come in various forms: your time, your energy (mental and physical), your resources, your persuasive ability, your connection to others, etc.

The concept of employment is just Person A using their resources power (a paycheck) to direct Person B’s time and/or energy power toward Person A’s goal. When Oprah publicly recommends a book, that’s combining her abundant power of connection (she has a huge reach) and her abundant power of persuasion (people trust her) and directing them towards the goal of getting the book into the hands of thousands of people who would have otherwise never known about it.”

As the aforementioned annotation explains, “…choosing a goal is choosing which direction to point your powers.” 

Powers Our Potential

I want to make a distinction here, and – for myself – an alteration; instead of simply calling these ambiguous things powers, I think it is prudent to view and understand them as things that lie within our potential; for we must understand our fully in order to have a clear understanding of our Reality box, i.e., ‘the things that are possible’ [3, 3.1].

Our Potential and Goal Selection

And here too, on the topic of our Goal box and making the alteration from “powers” to our potential, I want to note that I found myself wanting for more clarification on goal selection. Later in the document, the author writes about how Elon uses “first principles thinking” and a feedback loop, which I will get to, to alter the things in the Goal Pool, but where we are presented with the goal pool, we are merely instructed to “pick a goal from the pool—the thing you’re going to try to move from Point A to Point B”; however, I think that by defining our potential within the Reality box, we can use this as a tool for goal selection; for if we have an understanding of our potential, we can direct our most potent potential towards the things from our Want box, which are in our current Goal Pool.

As the author says of Elon, he focused his early goals not around achieving his Wants, but expanding the Reality box and its list of “things that are possible.”

For Elon (Although he had birthed the desire to effect change in aerospace and transport as early as college) this meant dropping out and founding online advertising and publishing startup Zip2 in 1995 (During the dotcom boom), which would net him $22M when it sold in 1999. From there he founded X.com in 1999, which would go onto become paypal, and when Paypal sold to Ebay in 2002, Musk owned $165M in stock – the rest as they say, is history. Of course, for Elon, given that he had used his software to expand his reality box and had selected goals intended to do so, this meant that he had the capacity to found SpaceX, directly following Ebay’s acquisition of Paypal.

I think we are looking at a man who connected the dots looking forward via some very strong hypothesis, which we begin to formulate in the next section, Strategy; however before I get there, I want to return to the concept of goal selection and our potential.

As the author transitions from Goal Pool to Strategy, he says:

Once a goal has been selected, you know the direction in which to point your power. Now it’s time to figure out the most effective way to use that power to generate the outcome you want—that’s your strategy.

The key thing here is, “Once a goal has been selected, you know the direction in which to point your power.” Worded as I have interpreted and revised this open source cognitive model for goal attainment, we get: “Once a goal has been selected, you know the direction in which to point your potential.” And returning to the above anecdote on Elon ‘focusing his early goals not around achieving his Wants, but expanding his Reality box and its list of “things that are possible”‘, we might be smart to select goals that leverage our own potential so that we expand our reality box, rather than select our early goals around our biggest wants. Seen in this way, we might find it prudent to create a hierarchy of wants in our Want box, along with a matrix of potentials in our Reality box, so that we can meet the two in the middle in our Goal Pool.

Of course we should note that when Elon choose to ‘focus his early goals not around achieving his Wants, but expanding his Reality box and its list of things that are possible’, he was not ignoring things in his goal pool, but merely focusing his early goals around the things in his goal pool; for the larger wants (SpaceX and Tesla) did not exist within his early Reality box, and thus did not make it into his goal pool [4].

Returning to the idea of matching our powers current potential with our Want box as a tool for goal selection, the diagram becomes – actually, scratch that, a diagram will no longer do. We need a spreadsheet.

After about 15 minutes, I came up with the following:

Example Elon’s Software Matrix from 1995

If you look at the sheet I created, it’s pretty straightforward; however, you will see I made a few changes, which I will address.

In the Want box, I added Tesla and Space X. Then, in the Reality box, I addressed the fact that Elon lacked the capital, so I cycled that want into the want box, which became Zip2 and then Paypal…

Again, this is just my interpretation of Elon’s Software as I might apply it to my own goals. Keep in mind, the source document said nothing about a spreadsheet, so this is just pure conjecture, which I am adding into this section as a means of interpreting this model, with a focus on goal selection and prioritization.

After the Goal Pool, the author goes on to address strategy.


From here on through the rest of the source material, I find it pretty straightforward. As far as strategy, there is not a lot but what is there is substantial. Basically it’s the idea that strategy should be founded on first principles rather than analogies, which the article expounds upon using Elon’s on words, also providing a wonderful (cook vs. chef) analogy for it [first principles] as well.

First principles in Elon’s words:

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.

The diagrams that follow the strategy section go into detail on a pretty iterative model, which I find to be intuitive given my business experience / knowledge / understanding.

As my preface said, this is primarily for my benefit, so I’m not going to include all of that content here, but it is available on WBW.

I’m fairly excited to have discovered this (Thanks Dad), and I have already begun using this as a decisioning matrix for prioritizing my own wants.

Originally, I was going to title this entry Hacking an Open Source Cognitive Model for Goal Attainment; although, I have opted instead to change it so that it reflects the value of this model as a tool for prioritization as will, given the path Elon has taken, as well as my own intended path, as it is very logical that some goals necessitate the attainment of others prior.

For some this may all seem moot, but for me I needed this to direct my energy into a laser-like focus – also the Reality box has already allowed me not only to see what is possible but what is lacking, which I then cycle into my want box.

Of course, in the end, it all comes down to strategy, which through using first principles I hope to formulate strong hypothesis via, and – as I always say: time will tell.

For anyone reading this, I hope that in your own path this model serves to better help you define, prioritize, and attain your goals.


P.S. The source material contains SO MUCH MORE. Do give it a read – the PDF is available for $3.00 from Wait But Why as well.


1. I originally intended to privately publish this; however, as someone who grew up reading and has grown as much through the intellectual gifts of others as I have through experience, I feel it is my duty (And privilege) to carry the lessons I have learned forward, interpreting them and translating them as I see fit, just as my deceased benefactors have. In short: a lot of formerly living people dedicated their time, and even their life’s work to creating information, which has greatly benefited me – a stranger – and I, as a future dead person, feel compelled and inspired to do the same – small as my gifts may be [1.1].

1.1 The true impact of my work remains to be seen, and it is for this reason I am up at 4:14 am on a Saturday morning writing this: so that I may move toward a future in which my life has been one of greater creation than consumption [1.2].

1.2 I do not pretend to be inherently selfless and most certainly posses desires aimed at serving my own ego, but I do have what may be seen as altruistic aims; although, many of my role models exist simply insofar in that they serve to remind me that fulfilling one’s goals is possible – no matter what the goals may be. In a word: leading by example does not necessarily mean setting one for others.

2. Elon’s Software is a hypothesized model for thinking based on the mind of Elon Musk, and I find this model very intriguing, given that it is a hypothesis derived from someone (Tim at Wait But Why) who has researched, spent time with, and written extensively on Musk – a man whom I have little in common with other than the fact that his cognitive philosophies agree with my own, namely in that humans are akin to computers and that we may upgrade our software by downloading information, chiefly in the form of reading books (One of my great passions). Also, keep in mind that in 1995 Musk was sleeping on a couch in his office and showering at the Y [2.1], which demonstrates another thing I admire, and like to think I share in common: an indomitable will. In short, Elon is a man who I feel has connected his dots looking forward – something I am attempting to do in my own life – and I believe this model can help me. It simply follows logic.

2.1 Also, keep in mind that Elon has accomplished things that, when compared to my own desires, seem gargantuan; hence, why he is one of my most prominent current role models – of course, also consider that his Reality box is defined by both his perception and the sum of his ever expanding actions, which, it may be said, leads me to the conclusion that one’s reality box and perception are essentially the same – provided that one has a realistic perception [3].

3. A realistic perception, as I see it, is simply no more than a grounded understanding of what we can realistically expect from ourselves, given a true understanding of our potential, which ought be ever expanding, in a kind of chicken and the egg scenario where one facilitates the rise of the other, providing a symbiosis of causality wherein as our understanding of our potential expands, so too does our reality, provided we have a realistic perception of both [3.1].

3.1 Potential is our reality = our reality is our potential.  The concepts are founded upon one another, but for most people their reality defines their potential, whereas for the more objective, more scientifically minded party, their potential defines their reality; however, if you have a limited understanding of reality, whether by dogma, bias, ignorance, or personal insecurity, you will never be able to maximize your understanding of your potential, and consequently your potential, and reality, will never reach their upper limits, which, really, physics and morals should be the only limiting factors of.

4. It is important to note that both SpaceX and Tesla had to be personally funded by Elon in the beginning, and at one point he was all in.