source: Farnam Street
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.
This approach was used by the philosopher Aristotle and is used now by Elon Musk and Charlie Munger. It allows them to cut through the fog of shoddy reasoning and inadequate analogies to see opportunities that others miss.
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.
So much of what we believe is based on some authority figure telling us that something is true. As children, we learn to stop questioning when we’re told “Because I said so.” (More on this later.) As adults, we learn to stop questioning when people say “Because that’s how it works.” The implicit message is “understanding be damned — shut up and stop bothering me.” It’s not intentional or personal. OK, sometimes it’s personal, but most of the time, it’s not.
If you outright reject dogma, you often become a problem: a student who is always pestering the teacher. A kid who is always asking questions and never allowing you to cook dinner in peace. An employee who is always slowing things down by asking why.
When you can’t change your mind, though, you die. Sears was once thought indestructible before Wal-Mart took over. Sears failed to see the world change. Adapting to change is an incredibly hard thing to do when it comes into conflict with the very thing that caused so much success. As Upton Sinclair aptly pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Wal-Mart failed to see the world change and is now under assault from Amazon.
If we never learn to take something apart, test the assumptions, and reconstruct it, we end up trapped in what other people tell us — trapped in the way things have always been done. When the environment changes, we just continue as if things were the same.
First-principles reasoning cuts through dogma and removes the blinders. We can see the world as it is and see what is possible.
When it comes down to it, everything that is not a law of nature is just a shared belief. Money is a shared belief. So is a border. So are bitcoins. The list goes on.
Some of us are naturally skeptical of what we’re told. Maybe it doesn’t match up to our experiences. Maybe it’s something that used to be true but isn’t true anymore. And maybe we just think very differently about something.
Techniques for Establishing First Principles
There are many ways to establish first principles. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Socratic questioning can be used to establish first principles through stringent analysis. This a disciplined questioning process, used to establish truths, reveal underlying assumptions, and separate knowledge from ignorance. The key distinction between Socratic questioning and normal discussions is that the former seeks to draw out first principles in a systematic manner. Socratic questioning generally follows this process:
- Clarifying your thinking and explaining the origins of your ideas (Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?)
- Challenging assumptions (How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?)
- Looking for evidence (How can I back this up? What are the sources?)
- Considering alternative perspectives (What might others think? How do I know I am correct?)
- Examining consequences and implications (What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?)
- Questioning the original questions (Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?)
This process stops you from relying on your gut and limits strong emotional responses. This process helps you build something that lasts.
Examples of First Principles in Action
So we can better understand how first-principles reasoning works, let’s look at four examples.
Elon Musk and SpaceX
Perhaps no one embodies first-principles thinking more than Elon Musk. He is one of the most audacious entrepreneurs the world has ever seen. My kids (grades 3 and 2) refer to him as a real-life Tony Stark, thereby conveniently providing a good time for me to remind them that by fourth grade, Musk was reading the Encyclopedia Britannica and not Pokemon.
What’s most interesting about Musk is not what he thinks but how he thinks:
I think 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.
His approach to understanding reality is to start with what is true — not with his intuition. The problem is that we don’t know as much as we think we do, so our intuition isn’t very good. We trick ourselves into thinking we know what’s possible and what’s not. The way Musk thinks is much different.
Musk starts out with something he wants to achieve, like building a rocket. Then he starts with the first principles of the problem. Running through how Musk would think, Larry Page said in an
interview, “What are the physics of it? How much time will it take? How much will it cost? How much cheaper can I make it? There’s this level of engineering and physics that you need to make judgments about what’s possible and interesting. Elon is unusual in that he knows that, and he also knows business and organization and leadership and governmental issues.”
Rockets are absurdly expensive, which is a problem because Musk wants to send people to Mars. And to send people to Mars, you need cheaper rockets. So he asked himself, “What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And … what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.”
Why, then, is it so expensive to get a rocket into space? Musk, a notorious self-learner with degrees in both economics and physics, literally taught himself rocket science. He figured that the only reason getting a rocket into space is so expensive is that people are stuck in a mindset that doesn’t hold up to first principles. With that, Musk decided to create SpaceX and see if he could build rockets himself from the ground up.
In an interview with Kevin Rose, Musk summarized his approach:
I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So the normal way we conduct our lives is, we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing… with slight iterations on a theme. And it’s … mentally easier to reason by analogy rather than from first principles. First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, and what that really means is, you … boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “okay, what are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.
Musk then gave an example of how Space X uses first principles to innovate at low prices:
Somebody could say — and in fact people do — that battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be because that’s the way they have been in the past. … Well, no, that’s pretty dumb… Because if you applied that reasoning to anything new, then you wouldn’t be able to ever get to that new thing…. you can’t say, … “oh, nobody wants a car because horses are great, and we’re used to them and they can eat grass and there’s lots of grass all over the place and … there’s no gasoline that people can buy….”
He then gives a fascinating example about battery packs:
… they would say, “historically, it costs $600 per kilowatt-hour. And so it’s not going to be much better than that in the future. … So the first principles would be, … what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? … It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. So break that down on a material basis; if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost? Oh, jeez, it’s … $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.
Employing First Principles in Your Daily Life
Most of us have no problem thinking about what we want to achieve in life, at least when we’re young. We’re full of big dreams, big ideas, and boundless energy. The problem is that we let others tell us what’s possible, not only when it comes to our dreams but also when it comes to how we go after them. 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 possibilities. 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. Analogies are beneficial; they make complex problems easier 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.
The gulf between what people currently see because their thinking is framed by someone else and what is physically possible is filled by the people who use first principles to think through problems.
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.
Reasoning from first principles allows us to step outside of history and conventional wisdom and see what is possible. When you really understand the principles at work, you can decide if the existing methods make sense. Often they don’t.
Reasoning by first principles is useful when you are (1) doing something for the first time, (2) dealing with complexity, and (3) 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. Thinking through first principles is a way of taking off the blinders. Most things suddenly seem more possible.
“I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can,” says Musk. “They sell themselves short without trying. One bit of advice: 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 on to.”