Learning By First Principles Thinking: Think and Solve Difficult Problems Like a Genius!
First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibility. Sometimes called “reasoning from first principles,” the idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. It’s one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself, unlock your creative potential, and move from linear to non-linear results.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”
— Richard Feynman
Let’s Get Down To The Basics
A first principle is a foundational proposition or assumption that stands alone. We cannot deduce the first principles from any other proposition or assumption.
Aristotle, writing on first principles, said:
In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first principles, all the way to the elements. Later he connected the idea to knowledge, defining first principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”
The search for first principles is not unique to philosophy. All great thinkers do it.
Reasoning by first principles removes the impurity of assumptions and conventions. What remains is the essentials. It’s one of the best mental models you can use to improve your thinking because the essentials allow you to see where reasoning by analogy might lead you astray.
Elon Musk said: “Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. Generally, I think there are — what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy.
Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations.”
Use these 3 simple steps recommended by Elon Musk himself to learn using First Principles:
STEP 1: Identify and define your current assumptions
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
— Albert Einstein
Here are some examples from everyday life in business, health, and craft.
“Growing my business will cost a lot of money.”
“I have to struggle and starve to become a successful artist.”
“I just can’t find enough time to workout and reach my weight loss goals.”
When next you’re faced with a familiar problem or challenge, simply write down your current assumptions about them. (Note: You can stop here and write these down now)
STEP 2: Break down the problem into its fundamental principles.
“It is important to view knowledge as sort of semantic tree. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
– Elon Musk
These fundamental principles are basically the most basic truths or elements of anything.
The best way to uncover these truths is to ask powerful questions that uncover these ingenious gems.
Here’s a quick example from Elon Musk during an interview with Kevin Rose on how this works.
Somebody could say, “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.”
This is classic first principles thinking in action.
Instead of following the socially accepted beliefs that battery packs were expensive, Musk challenges these beliefs by asking powerful questions that uncover the basic truths or elements i.e. carbon, nickel, aluminum. Then, he creates ingenious innovative solutions literally from scratch.
STEP 3: Create new solutions from scratch
“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”
— Mortimer Adler
Once you’ve identified and broken down your problems or assumptions into their most basic truths, you can begin to create new insightful solutions from scratch.
Here a three simple everyday examples of how this works (Step 1 to Step 3).
Assumption: “Growing my business will cost too much money”
What do you need to grow a profitable business? I need to sell products or services to more customers.
Does it have to cost a lot of money to sell to new customers? Not necessarily, but I’ll probably need access to these new customers inexpensively.
Who has this access and how you can create a win-win deal? I guess I could partner with other businesses that serve the same customer and split the profits 50:50. Interesting.
Assumption: “I just can’t find enough time to workout and achieve my weight loss goals.”
What do you really need to reach your weight loss goal? I need to exercise more, preferably 5 days a week for an hour each time. Could you still lose weight exercising less frequently, if so how? Possibly, I could try 15-minute workouts, 3 days a week. These could be quick high-intensity full-body workouts that will speed up my fat loss in less time.
Assumption: “I have to struggle and starve to become a successful artist”
What do you really need to create great work and make a good living as an artist? I would need a reasonably sized audience that will appreciate and buy my artwork.
What do you need to reach a larger audience? I probably need to do some marketing, but I don’t like self-promoting so I’d rather not do this.
Ok, is there any way for you to promote your work without being sleazy? Yes, if the focus of selling my artwork is meaningful with the purpose of serving the audience — then I could make more money to make more art, so I can serve more people. Interesting!
“Good ideas are always crazy until they’re not.”
Usually, when we’re faced with complex problems, we default to thinking like everybody else. First-principles thinking is a powerful way to help you break out of this herd mentality, think outside the box, and innovate completely brand-new solutions to familiar problems. By identifying your current assumptions, breaking these down into their basic truths, and creating solutions from scratch, you can uncover these ingenious solutions to complex problems and make unique contributions in any field.