First principle thinking has been around for thousands of years.
It was used by many great figures from the past. Ancient philosopher Aristotle, inventor Johannes Gutenberg, and military strategist John Boyd are some of the recognized figures who used first principle thinking. However, entrepreneur Elon Musk embodies and follows the philosophy of first principles more effectively than anyone else.
Entrepreneurs are always challenged with problems in their businesses, first principles thinking is one of the most effective strategies for solving a problem. It is also the single best approach to learn how to think for yourself. You can employ first principles while breaking down your problems and generating original solutions.
Defining First Principles
First-principles thinking is defined as a thought process or a method of reasoning in which you try to get to the core of the problem by breaking it down into the smallest portions and building up your argument from there. The smallest portions of your problems are the basic elements and it represents the most important truths. These truths are referred to as the first principles.
Many people learned about first principles thinking from Elon Musk’s 2012 interview which was hosted by Kevin Rose. He explains the idea of first principles thinking and how it created an impact. He uses this approach to come up with innovative designs/technologies and business ideas. Tesla, SpaceX, PayPal are the innovative companies he was able to build through reasoning from first principles. In an interview with Chris Anderson, Musk talks about reasoning, also known as first principles.
Using First Principle Approach
First-principles thinking can be implemented to fix complicated science, business, products, or engineering-associated problems further to the issues we are facing in our ordinary life. It helps us to understand the fundamental reasons for a problem and why it exists. Here’s how you can imitate what Elon Musk does. These are the methods recommended but Musk himself.
1. Identifying Your Current Assumptions
When you’re faced with a problem, take a paper and write your current assumptions about them. Don’t try to look for solutions until you have achieved a complete understanding of your problems. Most of the problems faced in business are time-related or cost management issues.
Suppose you’re a designer who makes wedding gowns, you have 4 brides asking you to craft a beautifully designed dress for their wedding but you only have time to make 2 dresses. It is common to turn down the other 2 offers. However, when you implement first principles thinking, it allows you to make all 4 dresses. Breaking your problem down into simpler forms will make cost, time, distribution as your basic elements. Even when you do not have the time, you can still ask anyone of your friends to help you with the designs and crafting. Well, if you do not have a professional designer as a friend, you can always outsource your work to another designer.
Finishing your work and then delivering the gowns on time will transform your way of thinking. You aren’t restricted to linear work and time anymore. Outsourcing permits you to manage multiple works at the same time.
2. Breaking Down The Problem
“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths… and then reason up from there” — Elon Musk
The most important step of first principles thinking is going narrow meaning getting to the fundamental principle of your problem and these principles are the basic truths of your obstacle. The basic truth is layered by many other things that shouldn’t be your priority. Uncovering this truth can be done by asking powerful questions. Common sense does not matter while you break things right down to their middle structure. Sacrifice what is understood to give you an unknown solution. Musks strain the significance of truths and commitment.
3. Building New Solutions From Scratch
Unlike old concepts and habits, first principles thinking allows you to address a problem in a novel way. You are no longer bound by your past mistakes or achievements. You may get rid of all the worthless behaviors that are holding you back by using first-principles thinking. For building new solutions to your problem, examine the details, ask questions, and become familiar with the difficulties that each component presents.
Musk describes. If you take anything away, try the crazy idea next time. There may not be a quick payoff, but it has the potential to grow into something bigger. Three or five years from now, you might smile as you reflect on how the idea was born and the doors of opportunities it opened. Here’s an example that showcases the difference between assumption and first principles thinking
Assumption: “I want to lose a few pounds and meet my weight-loss goals, but I cannot find enough time to exercise”
First principle thinking: What exactly do you need to accomplish your weight-loss goals? I need to exercise more frequently, ideally 5 times a week for an hour each time. Is it possible to lose weight while exercising less frequently, and if so, how? I might try 15-minute workouts three times a week. These could be quick and short, high-intensity full-body workouts that help me lose weight faster.
Every innovation, even the most revolutionary, requires a long period of development. Before finding out how to create an economical and reusable rocket, the company SpaceX did thousands of simulations, made thousands of tweaks, and went through several trials.
Usually, when we face problems, we start thinking like everyone else. First-principles thinking will change your viewpoint and transform your way of thinking. It is a strong strategy that will help you get out of the herd mentality and make you think outside the box. You can uncover these clever solutions to complex problems and make a significant contribution in any field by analyzing your present assumptions, breaking them down into their basic realities, and constructing solutions from scratch.