First Principles: How to Think for Yourself
A way to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibility by understanding the basics of the subject or idea.
First-principles thinking, which is sometimes called reasoning from first principles, is a fundamental building block of an idea; they are the most indivisible parts that we know to be true and that we use to build more complex thoughts.
The idea is to break down complicated problems into their most basic or fundamental form and then reassemble them and develop your thinking from the ground up.
It's one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibility.
The first principles approach has been used by many great thinkers, from the ancient philosopher Aristotle to the modern innovator Elon Musk. It allows them to cut through the fog of useless reasoning and inadequate analogies to see opportunities that others miss.
“…we do not think we know a thing until we are acquainted with its primary conditions or first principles, and have carried our analysis as far as its simplest elements.” — Aristotle
Understanding First Principles Thinking
During an interview with Kevin Rose, Elon explains first principles as
A kind of a physics way of looking at the world and what that means is you kind of boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say okay what do we sure are true or sure as possible is true and then reason up from there, that takes a lot more mental energy
In layman’s terms, first principles thinking is the practice of actively questioning every assumption you think you ‘know’ about a given problem or scenario—and then creating new knowledge and solutions from scratch.
On the other hand, reasoning by analogy is building knowledge and solving problems based on prior assumptions, beliefs and widely-held ‘best practices’ approved by a majority of people.
How to Think for Yourself
Thinking from first principles is simple, but not easy. What stops us from applying first principles is the tendency to imitate others or think through analogies.
You should always reason from first principles instead of by analogy. We reason from analogy because it is easier to expand what we think we know.
First-principles thinking stems from a physics perspective, where you boil things down to fundamental truths and then reason upwards from there.
Looking at the example below, analogous thinking would start at a dot from #8-15. You are immediately constrained with the ideas/solutions that you can discover because you are only seeing a small part of the picture. Conversely, you must navigate back to the first principle at dot #1 to see the whole picture and uncover a series of new ideas/solutions that the average person is blind to.
Essentially, first principles thinking will help you develop a unique worldview to innovate and solve difficult problems in a way that nobody else can even fathom.
The Framework for First Principles Thinking
Here’s how you can quickly use this in 3 simple steps recommended by Elon Musk himself.
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
“Growing my startup will cost a lot of money. ”, “ I have to struggle and starve to raise funding.”, “ 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 a sort of 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 on to.” – Elon Musk
These fundamental principles are 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 the classic first principle of 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.
One of the best ways to discover these fundamentals is by actually writing down and organizing the information in a subject that you’re interested in by using a hierarchy or a mind map.
First-principles do not apply to everything.
If you want to enhance an existing process or belief, continuous improvement is a great option. If you want to learn how to think for yourself, reasoning from first principles is one of the best ways to do it.
You decide what is important to you in certain circumstances.