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.
First Principles: Not a New Idea
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.
“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
Aristotle believed that you could not possess true knowledge without first understanding the first principles. He thought that everything could be divided into categories and sub-categories (the smallest of them being the equivalent for first principles).
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.
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.
“To understand is to know what to do.” — Wittgenstein
Reason and Experience
An empiricist is a person that believes all true knowledge is based and obtained through experience. The process of seeking knowledge through experience and making use of reason to give it structure it how we can find the first principles of a subject.
Aristotle, writing on first principles, said:
In every systematic inquiry (methods) 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.
Conventional And Unconventional Thinkers
Conventional thinkers: their knowledge consists of proof that is on display.
Unconventional thinkers: use experience and reason to organize their knowledge; they ask questions and make analogies to get to the roots of an idea.
Tim Urban says it’s like the difference between the cook and the chef. While these terms are often used interchangeably, there is an important nuance. The chef is a trailblazer, the person who invents recipes. He knows the raw ingredients and how to combine them. The cook, who reasons by analogy, uses a recipe. He creates something, perhaps with slight variations, that’s already been created.
The difference between reasoning by first principles and reasoning by analogy is like the difference between being a chef and being a cook. If the cook lost the recipe, he’d be screwed. The chef, on the other hand, understands the flavor profiles and combinations at such a fundamental level that he doesn’t even use a recipe. He has real knowledge as opposed to know-how. The Art of First Principles Thinking
Once a first principle is understood, we can look at and improve each component (from the simple to the more complex) of a subject or a product. If every part is remarkable, then the total is remarkable.
Become A First Principles Thinker
Write down and organize information. Create hierarchies and mind maps. Most ideas are nested outside or inside one another. You have to learn to map out how these ideas are linked.
Socratic questioning can be used to establish first principles through stringent analysis. This is 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?)
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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.
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