What is First Principles Thinking?
I first heard about first principles thinking about the same time you did. (if not, you’ll read about it now)
Elon Musk gave a whole new life to the term fundamental principles.
And if I could thank him for sharing it with us, I would. At first, I had no idea what first principles were, what they do and why would someone like Musk use them. I got even more confused when it came to my attention that they derive from physics.
Ugh, it sounded so complex.
It wasn’t until months later when I read an article by James Clear on First Principles Thinking.
That’s when I learned how to use and apply them.
Ever since I started using this thinking model I found myself:
- learning more,
- improving faster,
- taking a more realistic approach to problem-solving.
In the past when I faced a problem I would get frustrated, due to not understanding the basics.
Most of the time I’d rather quit the project than to try and think about the problem in a different way.
First Principles Thinking is a skill that should be taught in school.
It should be taught year after year so that no one ever forgets about it.
Yes, that’s how powerful it is.
Table of Contents
Defining First Principles Thinking
A first principle is a basic assumption that cannot be deduced any further. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle defined
To explain it in more simple words…
First Principles Thinking is a process that starts at the top, with a problem and/or a goal in mind.
At that point, it all comes down to questioning the problem. By questioning it you’ll be breaking it down into smaller elements of the problem.
Chances are you’ll soon find an element that you don’t completely understand. Your best bet is to study it.
The more you question the problem, the more elements you learn about, the higher the chances of solving a problem.
On the questions, in my experience it’s best to ask questions like:
- What caused this problem?
- What was my desired outcome?
- What prevented me from getting to the desired outcome?
This is just a small overview of the questions I use.
For a more detailed description of the process, stick around and keep reading.
Comparing Thinking Models (Analogy vs. First Principles Thinking)
In his blog post, Tim Urban gives an excellent example to point out the differences between analogy and first
A good way to compare the two is by using the chef and cook example.
These two terms are often used in the same way, but in fact, there’s a difference between the two.
A chef is someone that invents his own recipes. He knows each one of the used ingredients. He knows the ingredients so well that he can combine them to reach the desired taste.
On the other side, we have a cook. A cook is someone who follows the chef’s recipes. Everything has already been prepared for him.
As harsh as it sounds, in theory, we could say that a good cook is a person who does a good job following instructions.
Everything has already been laid out in the recipe created by the chef. The cook only follows it.
The point of this story is a comparison between thinking models. First principles thinking and analogy.
Like you figured out from the story above. The chef is a first principles thinker while the cook uses
A first-principles thinker is someone who has excellent knowledge of the core elements.
In more scientific terms (
First principles thinking is the practice of questioning every assumption.
You question every assumption til you get to the core elements. And then you create solutions using those core elements. The ones with no assumptions.
On the other side.
Reasoning from analogy is solving problems on the assumptions of someone else. Reasoning from analogy may be the fastest way to solve problems. But definitely not the most certain.
Benefits of First Principles Thinking for Problem Solving
In the past few months that I’ve been using first principles to solve complex problems. I have noted down some of the benefits. Benefits that made me excited about the upcoming problems.
Some of these benefits include:
- the problem-solving process becomes fun,
- you improve your knowledge with every problem you solve,
- you learn what is important and what’s not,
- you experience immense joy while looking for a solution.
The last point I made is my favorite one.
I used to have an assumption that solving problems is difficult. That you need an IQ of Einstein to be able to do it.
All that is far from true, with a little persistence anyone can solve BIG problems.
Even better, everyone can HAVE FUN solving them.
A good post I read by Albert van der Meer, explains exactly why we enjoy using first principles thinking so much. I quote.
”You are stripping away each layer to get to the core of your problem. This is your call to adventure, figure what your fundamental problem is. From there plot your journey, select your quests, overcome your challenges, and make sure they lead to an end goal that you truly want to reach.”
How Successful People Use First Principles Thinking to Solve BIG Problems
As I mentioned in the 1st paragraph, it was Elon Musk who inspired me to take a closer look into first principles.
Not because of his fame, financial situation or status, but because of the way he did it.
The way he explained how he solved the problem of expensive battery packs made me speechless. The video is below.
If you don’t want to watch the video, here’s how explained it.
“Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”
With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”
It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”
It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.
Neil Kakkar, a successful blogger, solved the problem of the modern grading system in schools. To solve it he used the first principles thinking model.
I come from a society where everyone is still expected to go to school, get good grades, find a great job and live okay ever after. Your “success” was proportional to your grades. Somewhere down the line, thanks to a semester abroad, I started questioning everything about this system. The rules of the game changed.
We weren’t in the industrial era anymore. Everyone doesn’t have to be average — to work as a robot in a factory. We have actual robots for that now; while the school system still glorifies obedience and doing what you’re told.
Once I’d determined this — I understood where our current processes came from and what the first principles guiding these were.
Another excellent example of successfully applying first principles is Alexander Verkerk.
Throughout my studies, I’ve been wanting to innovate public policy and help tackle societal challenges, but was restricted by the belief that I would need more credentials. Adopting First Principles Thinking encouraged me to boil down this aspiration to manageable action steps that would result in www.innovativepolicysolutions.
org, a place where anyone can submit solutions to societal problems that they care about. With a can-do mentality, perseverance and an awesome team, we compile, harmonise and deliver promising ideas to changemakers in the form of an invitation to be sure that they end up at the desk of the right persons.
Step by Step Guide to First Principles Thinking
I was researching how I could profit from this problem-solving technique. That’s when I ran into some trouble…
There was so much info on what the technique is, who came up with it and how Musk uses it.
Yet there were no practical steps, there was no step by step guide that I could benefit from.
Which is why I’m going to include it in this post, so you can profit from it the way I did.
Step 1 – Identify your goal
Instead of starting with a problem in mind start with your end goal.
It’s simple. Turn the problem into a goal/question.
Problem – I’m not getting enough website traffic.
Goal – How can I get more website traffic?
Step 2 – List the obstacles
Think about the potential obstacles, what is standing in the way of you and your goal?
To continue with the same example:
I’m not posting enough content.
I’m not using share buttons on my website.
I’m not ranking high enough on Google.
Step 3 – Question these obstacles
Break each assumption down by questioning it.
Questions like (Why, what, how) can help.
Why am I not posting enough content?
What should I post about?
What do others like reading?
How can I post more about that topic?
Step 4 – Find your first principles by answering the questions
I’m not posting enough content. > Why am I not posting enough content?
I don’t know what to post about. > What should I post about?
I should post about what I enjoy and what others like reading. > What do others like reading?
I can use Google Analytics to find my most popular content. > How can I post more about that topic?
By improving my knowledge about it. > By reading more books.
First Principle: To post more content I need ideas, to get them I need knowledge and experience.
Step 5 – Rinse and repeat
If the solution you came up with is not yet perfect, there’s more questioning to do.
Repeat the above steps until you get to the core elements, that create your goal/question.
A simplified technique of First Principles Thinking
The above step by step process is excellent for solving complex problems. But there’s quite a bit of thinking that goes into it. Is there a way to simplify the technique?
Is there a problem-solving technique for more simple problems?
Yes, yes there is.
This is my go-to problem-solving method.
In fact, I use this method all the time, because of how fun it is.
You can solve problems right in your Notes app on your phone, no matter where you are.
It’s the 5 Whys technique, developed by Sakichi Toyoda.
Here’s the technique.
Start with your problem. (The vehicle will not start.)
- Why? – The battery is dead.
- Why? – The alternator is not functioning.
- Why? – The alternator belt has broken.
- Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced.
- Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule.
You can take the questioning even further and use more why questions, but in most cases, the problem will be solved by the 5th Why.
Instead of me summarizing this incredible thinking model called First Principles Thinking.
I’ll quote the master of it. Elon Musk.
In his Reddit AMA he said:
”It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.”