The profound usage of the human mind is, as you know, overwhelmingly immense and vast. With that much potential of thought, the possibilities of creations are endless. But, have you ever wondered how influential people got to the point where they are right now? Ever introspected what process of thoughts made them wiser than how they are born with? Everyone has their way of viewing things. There is a unique thing common between the great minds of the world. They take much time to think about how to think. This thinking is the core of a principle called the first principles.
What is ‘First Principle’ thinking?
First principle thinking is by far one of the most fundamental principles which break down complicated problems to basic entities and provide an original solution. The first principle is an underlying assumption that it cannot be deduced any further stating that its the fundamental understanding of whatever you are analyzing. In short, Its the fancy way of saying “think like a scientist.”
It’s an infamous technique used by people like Aristotle, Elon Musk, Reed Hastings and many other entrepreneurs used this framework to structure their thought process. They don’t assume stuff. Instead, they keep introspecting over and over until they find a dead end after rigorous questioning of why and how it works.
Aristotle’s view on first principles
Aristotle was one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Throughout his life, despite his profound knowledge, he started every thought with the first principle, or what he called the ‘the first basis from which a thing is known’.
In every systematic enquiry 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. It is clear, then, that in the science of nature as elsewhere, we should try first to determine questions about the first principles.
The naturally proper direction of our road is from things better known and clearer to us, to things that are clearer and better known by nature; for the things are known to us are not the same as the things known unconditionally. Hence it is necessary for us to progress, following this procedure, from the things that are less clear by nature, but more apparent to us, towards things that are clearer and better known by nature.
What he conveys is that we make an assumption, work backwards to find the underlying fact on which the belief is built upon. This process of reverse engineering knowledge led to the birth of what we now call the first principles.
Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and scientist, embraced this approach quoting.
In theory, What this principle says is that every problem should be broken down to the atomic level. But the practicality of this theory is based on how further you can go beyond most of the usual thinkers.
Metaphysics is just another branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space. If you look very deeply, you can observe that religions are built upon the first principles of an individual. It asks questions like:
“What is the nature of reality?”
“Is there a God (or many gods, or no god at all)?”
“How does the world exist, and what is its origin or source of creation?”
“Does the world exist outside the mind?”
“How can the incorporeal mind affect the physical body?”
“If things exist, what is their objective nature?”
If you have been to a Hindu wedding, you will know how long it takes for the procedure to finish. Some rituals take hours long. All these customs and rituals are focused on just a few principles. But every common man can’t understand the basic principles and make use of in their daily life. That’s the reason why religions are made. And people are made to believe the customs on the name of god and reflects their goodwill.
First principle-driven innovation
Let’s take the case of the modern age first principle follower and a successful entrepreneur Elon Musk. In the past couple of years, he has changed the way people use online mode of payment, the most efficient electric car company, a revolutionized space technology and even a fabulous, boring tunnel.
He’s not successful because of the money he has. He has the money because of how successful he is. Also, this doesn’t just come from a great mind but also the way he approaches problems, using the first principles.
Similar to the works of Elon Musk, a lot of groundbreaking ideas which made the world a better place by making more effective solutions for most fundamental problems in the world.
If you follow first principles, your vision towards the goal won’t be narrow as you think it will be. Usually, a first principle thinker will cobble together information from totally different disciplines to boil down to a very innovative solution.
By this way, you start by collecting the facts. Once you get the foundation of points strong enough, you use them to build a solution. These facts help you improve each factor by a little bit more from the base. This process automatically leads you to a way better substitute than an analogy driven solution.
Challenges in the first principle thinking
The reason why you don’t see a lot of entrepreneurs turn out to be the wolf of wall street or why not every common man becoming a scientist or philosopher is because of the challenges you face while getting started with the first principles.
The first principles might be easy to describe and explain, maybe the most trivial principles you would have ever read. But putting it into practice is not as easy as you think it would be. The primary obstacle you face during first principle thinking is your tendency to change the form rather than the function.
The zipper, invented during 1851 revolutionized the clothing world. The original form of the zipper never changed until now, just a few tweaks in the design. Same with the invention of the bag. During the 18th and 19th century, leather bags were specific for particular uses, backpacks for school, rucksacks for hiking, suitcases for travel. By 1928, Zippers were added to bags.
What looks like innovation is often an iteration of previous forms rather than an improvement of the core function. While everyone else focused on how to build a better bag (form), Sadow considered how to store and move things more efficiently (function).
How is it useful for you?
Most of us have no problem with their goals to be achieved in their life. Especially kids, who got big dreams, doesn’t matter how improbable it seems, they get great ideas. The problem comes when you start allowing people to narrow down what they call ‘possibilities’ to a set of ideas and are not allowed to think beyond that. And when we let other people tell us what’s possible or what the best way to do something is, we outsource our thinking to someone else.
The real power of first-principles thinking is moving away from incremental improvement and into possibility. Letting others think for us means that we’re using their analogies, their conventions, and their options. It means we’ve inherited a world that conforms to what they think. This is incremental thinking.
When we take what already exists and improve on it, we are in the shadow of others. It’s only when we step back, ask ourselves what’s possible, and cut through the flawed analogies that we see what is possible.
This, what is it in itself, and by itself, according to its proper constitution? What is the substance of it? What is the matter, or proper use? What is the form, or efficient cause? What is it for in this world, and how long will it abide? Thus must thou examine all things that present themselves unto thee.– Marcus Aurelius
Similarities are beneficial; they make complex problems more comfortable to communicate and increase understanding. Using them, however, is not without a cost. They limit our beliefs about what’s possible and allow people to argue without ever exposing our (faulty) thinking. Analogies move us to see the problem in the same way that someone else sees the problem.
First-principles thinking clears the clutter of what we’ve told ourselves and allows us to rebuild from the ground up. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but that’s why so few people are willing to do it. It’s also why the rewards for filling the chasm between possible and incremental improvement tend to be non-linear.
Think for yourself
The human tendency is to imitate a lot, maybe intentionally or maybe not. We tend to take other’s ideas bluntly without questioning. Let’s take an example.
“Where are the flying cars?” I am pretty sure you would have come across this question a lot of times before. Maybe through textbooks, perhaps through memes.
“Good ideas are always crazy until they’re not.”
The answer to this question is “Yes”. We have flying cars called aeroplanes. We are so stuck in the want of form that we tend to forget the core functionality of the entity. This is what Elon Musk is referring to when he says that people often “live life by analogy.”
Be wary of the ideas you inherit. Old conventions and previous forms are often accepted without question and, once approved, they set a boundary around creativity.
This difference is one of the critical distinctions between continuous improvement and first principles of thinking. Continuous improvement tends to occur within the boundary set by the original vision. By comparison, first principles thinking requires you to abandon your allegiance to previous forms and put the function front and centre. What are you trying to accomplish? What is the functional outcome you are looking to achieve?
Reasoning by first principles is useful when you are doing something for the first time, dealing with complexity, and trying to understand a situation that you’re having problems with. In all of these areas, your thinking gets better when you stop making assumptions, and you stop letting others frame the problem for you.
Analogies can’t replace understanding. While it’s easier on your brain to reason by analogy, you’re more likely to come up with better answers when you reason by first principles. This is what makes it one of the best sources of creative thinking. Thinking in first principles allows you to adapt to a changing environment, deal with reality, and seize opportunities that others can’t see.
Many people mistakenly believe that creativity is something that only some of us are born with, and either we have it or we don’t. Fortunately, there seems to be ample evidence that this isn’t true. We’re all born rather creative, but during our formative years, it can be beaten out of us by busy parents and teachers. As adults, we rely on convention and what we’re told because that’s easier than breaking things down into first principles and thinking for ourselves.
Do This Right Now
Take a moment to think of a problem you’ve been struggling with lately. Write down all the reasons you think the problem is difficult, and then—for each one of those reasons you identified—ask yourself how you know that it’s true.
And keep asking that question until you get to a base of knowledge that is indisputable a fundamental truth.
You probably won’t solve the problem on your first try, but if you keep doing this as you test different solutions, you’ll find much better answers. And you’ll find them faster.