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🤔 What is First-Principles Thinking and how do I use it?

Published 22 days ago • 3 min read

Hey Reader,

Sometimes, you might come across people saying 'first-principles thinking'. But what does first-principles thinking really mean, and how can I use it? Let's dive into it!

What's First Principles Thinking?

Thinking from first principles might seem hard, but it's quite straightforward. It's a method where you approach problems with a fresh perspective, like a novice. Instead of relying on assumptions or accepted truths from others, you rigorously discover what is actually true and, eventually, what can be done about it.

There are many ways to apply this technique, but essentially, you do this by asking questions, challenging people's assumptions, digging further than others, and going directly to the source to find out for yourself.

Originating in physics and also known as "ab initio," thinking from first principles encourages starting from fundamental scientific truths without relying on existing frameworks. Aristotle described it as starting from "the first basis from which a thing is known."

In any discussion about first principles, mentioning Elon Musk is almost mandatory:

“We get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that. Otherwise, mentally, you wouldn’t be able to get through the day. But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the first-principles approach.” — Elon Musk

Applying first principles thinking can lead to more tailored solutions, greater creativity, and breakthroughs in areas where you felt stuck. However, it’s not always easy. This approach requires time, questioning, and the willingness to challenge conventional wisdom.

Here's what a former rocket scientist and best-selling author Ozan Varol thinks of it:

Reasoning by analogy, or copying what others are doing, is sort of like being a cover band where you’re playing somebody else’s music. Whereas with first-principles thinking, you go back to the fundamental raw materials of music, which are the notes, and then you build an original song from scratch. That is first-principles thinking. It’s really difficult to do because a lot of what we do in life is informed by what we’ve done before, and also by what others are doing around us. - Ozan Varol

What are the use cases?

As you can see the concept is far from being new and there are plenty of examples where the first-principles thinking helped to make the breakthrough. Essentially, all these people figured out what problem they wanted to solve, identified the levers that kept them from getting there, questioned every assumption about what’s possible, found out facts on the ground, and then acted.

  • 📚 Johannes Gutenberg looked at how books were made, found it slow and costly, and thought, "There must be a better way." He invented the printing press with movable type, making books quicker and cheaper to produce, which helped more people learn to read.
  • 🍎 Isaac Newton wondered why things fall and how they move. By asking simple questions, he came up with laws that explain motion everywhere, from apples falling from trees to planets orbiting the sun.
  • 🚀 Elon Musk asked why rockets were so expensive and found out they were thrown away after one use. So, he decided to make rockets that could come back and be used again, making space travel much cheaper.

How can I apply it?

  • ❓ Question Assumptions: Start by identifying the common beliefs or “usual ways” of doing things in your situation. These are often assumptions we take for granted. Ask yourself, “Why do I think this is true?” and “What if this weren’t the case?”
  • 🧩 Break It Down: Once you've pinpointed these assumptions, deconstruct the problem or situation into its most basic elements. This means looking for the fundamental truths or facts that aren’t dependent on anything else – much like the bricks of a LEGO set before it becomes a house or car.
  • 🏗️ Rebuild from the Ground Up: With these basics in hand, start thinking about how they can be reassembled into a solution or approach that doesn’t just copy what’s been done before. Imagine you’re building something brand new from scratch with just the essential pieces.

Where do I start?

Remember, the journey is as rewarding as the outcome. By adopting a curious mindset and breaking down complex situations into manageable parts, you can uncover innovative solutions and approaches tailored specifically to your needs and circumstances.

Begin with small challenges or decisions to practice first principles thinking. As you become more comfortable with this approach, apply it to bigger problems or projects in your life. Remember, every big change starts with a simple question: "Why?"

Can you think of an example when you used the first-principles thinking in your professional or personal life? What was hard or easy about using that technique?

💡 Curious Bites

Quote of the week

“Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.” —Marie Curie 👩‍🔬

Stay curious and have a great week! 💙

Artem from Curious Muse

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