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“Elon Musk used first principles thinking to design a cheap rocket from scratch, re-use it by landing it back on Earth, and on the side — also revolutionised the electric car industry.”
That was the first time I read about First Principles and it made me cry: cry at my incompetence. But it wasn’t all sad. After all, I’d found another missing piece of the puzzle.
That was over a year ago. I was a kid with a messed up thinking process — I hadn’t thought about thinking. It just happened. Most of the time, it still just happens. I don’t think about how I’m thinking. It’s hard.
However, things had moved from the unknown unknown to the known unknown. I had a name for the process — reasoning by analogy versus reasoning by first principles.
Thus began my journey to put this missing piece back in the puzzle.
What puzzle though? The puzzle to becoming great. The puzzle to thinking well. Not to launch my own rockets, or to make my own lemonade when life gives me lemons, but to figure out how to make electricity with the same lemons.
Talking about rockets and Musk is amazing. It elicits this amazing emotional response, that power, on being able to see what Elon does. A human did all this. ( Big fan, by the way, Elon ).
That’s not how Elon began though. Thus that is not how we shall begin.
Let’s start small. Figure out those lemons, before getting to the rockets. I think this is something every post ever about first principles missed.
Practicing with a chess grandmaster when you don’t even know the rules of chess can be expensive for you — and irritating for the grandmaster.
What do you know to be the truth?
Why is it the truth?
How does something become true?
What separates opinion from truth?
These are questions we will be tackling.
A first principle is a basic, foundational, self-evident proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption.
In mathematics and logic, a first principle is an axiom that cannot be deduced from any other within that system. An axiom is a statement that is taken to be true.
Combining the two, I get this definition I like.
A first principle is a foundational statement assumed to be true, that can’t be deduced from any other within that system.
First Principles thinking has been around for centuries. In the 1600s, we had René Descartes. He would “systematically doubt everything he could possibly doubt, until he was left with what he saw as purely indubitable truths.”
Let’s make things a bit clearer with an example. Consider the three statements below.
“All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; Socrates is mortal”. The last claim can be deduced from the first two.
Then, in this system, first principles are the first two statements*.
“All men are mortal”. This is assumed to be true. We can’t prove it, no matter how many mortal men we meet.
“Socrates is a man”. This is assumed to be true. We can’t or don’t want to prove it.
“Socrates is mortal”. This is implied by the above two statements. Hence, not a first principle.
Why does this distinction help? Why does keeping the roots of a deduction in mind help?
This is a question worth answering.
* The reality is a bit more subtle — which we will explore below. Stick with me.
The framework for First Principles Thinking depends on systems and the first principles for a system.
A system can be any space in which you want to stay while thinking about a problem. It’s the boundary. The boundaries aren’t sharp, which can make it difficult to choose a system.
Systems are stacked on top of other systems. Some systems live in other systems. This way, you can control exactly how deep you want to get into a problem. For example, there’s the Newtonian physics system — on top of which we have our daily life system — and below which is the quantum physics system.
One heuristic I use to define systems is — resolution or the scope of the problem. How deep do you want to look, what all components does the question you’re trying to answer need.
The First Principles
As we saw already, these are absolute truths for a system — principles that can’t be derived from any other principle within the system.
The “within the system” is key.
How does this work? Consider the system with the base as the flat earth theory — this is the first principle.
Let’s do a fun thought experiment. Let’s say we are living in this system. The system that believes the Earth is flat.
Now, we go about deducing things using this first principle. The earth around us is flat? Good, that’s confirmation.
Somewhere down the line though, our observations won’t match our principle — Why is it day for one person and night for another? Shouldn’t light be falling equally on the flat earth?
We have two options here.
First, to introduce a new assumption, a new first principle to our system that helps explain the discrepancy. Let’s say, there’s an object between the sun and the earth, like the moon, which casts a shadow on half the Earth, making it night time for some of the people.
This is akin to building a house of cards. If one crucial card at the bottom is burnt, everything else on top would come crashing down.
Second, to question our first principle. Occam would be proud of this approach.
With the flat earth, how is it possible that two people on the same surface of the flat earth experience day and night at the same time? If the earth really is flat, where is the edge? How does the water stay in place on the flat earth? What governs day and night?
We realise, that the assumption we began with — the flat earth might be wrong.
This leads to — How do I know the earth is flat?
A direct challenge to our first principle. With this question, we are entering the system below our default system. One system level below, the first principles from physics come to explain that the earth isn’t flat.
This is akin to removing your base card from the house of cards — things do come crashing down — but then you replace your card with a steel bar.
This takes tremendous mental effort. It might seem trivial regarding the flat earth theory, but think of this happening to your most dearly held beliefs. Like, How do I know God exists? How do I know the GOP is doing anything for the people? How do I know I’m doing the right thing? How do I know nobody cares? How do I know I’m lucky? How do I know I’m unlucky?
To disintegrate something you’ve believed to be true takes courage.
Now comes the difficult part —
Identifying all your conclusions that were based on the assumption that the earth is flat.
This can take years to work through, depending on the subtlety of the principle. Depending on how conscious you were of the first principle when reaching a conclusion.
Think for yourself to decide 1) what you want, 2) what is true, and 3) what you should do to achieve #1 in light of #2, and do that with humility and open-mindedness so that you consider the best thinking available to you. — Ray Dalio, Principles
Coming back to the question of why do we want to think about the first principles in a system?
You don’t know when the first principles, or the rules of the game may change.
The brain wants to minimise its energy expenditure. After all, it already takes up 15% of the energy used by the entire body. This means, it doesn’t want to think through everything over and over again.
So, the brain creates shortcuts. The first time you have a question, you turn to culture or you use first principles to reach a conclusion. Either way, the brain remembers the conclusion so you don’t have to think through it again. The next time, you begin at the conclusion.
Once you’ve thought through a problem, you begin thinking from the conclusion every time afterwards
Over time you’ll think less and less about the rules and more about the conclusions. You’re more interested in the processes to follow derived from the conclusions, than to derive them every time.
Evolution demanded this. Humans wouldn’t have survived, if every time they saw a tiger, they stopped to examine its teeth and muscles, determine that it is capable of harm, and conclude that the best course of action is to run away or hide. Humans would just run away or hide. That’s culture.
In this system, where you have your processes derived from the conclusions, not the principles, changing principles is like sweeping the rug from under your feet.
You’re left with your conclusions and processes — but the entire world has changed. Your system has become obsolete.
Here are two examples.
The first one, where using first principles instead of the culture lead to great gains — followed by the culture adopting the new conclusion.
Consider boxing. That’s your system. What are the first principles? The rules of the game. That is different from culture — or what everyone thinks the rules to be.
Someone used the principles and went against the culture to their advantage. Tim Ferriss on Chinese Kickboxing:
In 1999, I was a gold medalist at the Sanshou (Chinese kickboxing) national championships in the 165-lb. weight class . This is perhaps the most controversial accomplishment in the 4HWW, as I make it clear:
I arrived the on-site at 187 lbs., weighed in at 165 lbs., and stepped on the platform to compete the next morning weighing 193 lbs.
It’s the de-facto culture now. Dehydrating your body to reduce your weight before weighing, and rehydrating before the bout.
The second example, where the first principles of the system changed.
Consider printing in the 15th century. Before Johaness Gutenberg invented the printing press, copying books was an expensive, time consuming process. The special monks in the church, called scribes, would copy each and every page by hand — complete with illustrations.
Hence, the books were limited. Only the richest lords and kings could read one. This was the culture — the reading is for the rich, with time on their hands. The working is for the common folk. All because books were expensive. Just 2 factions — you were either a lord or a peasant.
This changed with the printing press. Books could be mass produced now. Information could flow much more freely, at a cheaper price. The peasants who understood the rules had changed and embraced books — gave birth to the middle class. Those who didn’t, stayed in the lower class.
That’s how powerful first principles can be. That’s how powerful someone who understands first principles can be.
Where did the rules of the game change for me? It’s not as revolutionary as sending rockets to space — but here’s my bit:
I come from a society where everyone is still expected to go to school, get good grades, find a great job and live okay ever after. Your “success” was proportional to your grades.
Somewhere down the line, thanks to a semester abroad, I started questioning everything about this system. The rules of the game changed.
We weren’t in the industrial era anymore. Everyone doesn’t have to be average — to work as a robot in a factory. We have actual robots for that now; while the school system still glorifies obedience and doing what you’re told.
Once I’d determined this — I understood where our current processes came from and what the first principles guiding these were.
Good grades meant efficiency in remembering and carrying out a specific set of tasks again and again, on each exam. I’m not discounting the learning though — just its method of instruction.
The next step, was to figure out what the new principles were.
For my system — the tech ecosystem — they were:
- Expertise pays
- Creativity pays
- Obedience doesn’t pay
Armed with this knowledge, I could say “f*** off” to anything and anyone that would tell me to do something that wasn’t inline with either of the above. Good grades didn’t represent any of the above.
“Get good grades, that will secure your future.” → F*** off.
That’s what I did, and I’m a 100x better off because of it.
Now, I’m aware of the principles in this system — and the conclusions that followed. When I get feedback that things aren’t working, I’ll know where to go back and analyse — what rules of the game changed?
Austen Allred is doing something like this at scale: I figured it out for myself, but he figured it out for the world and is creating a system where schooling focuses on expertise. Complemented with radical incentives that make such a system work. It’s beautiful. It’s called lambda school.
Now, it’s on you. You have the framework. Would have been much easier if we were starting from scratch, but we ain’t. So, it’s time to examine your beliefs — do they stem from the culture or the rules of the game?
Are you aware of the principles from which your beliefs arise?
Are you on the lookout for changing rules?
Are you prepared to be open — open to your beliefs becoming wrong?
Every month I choose a new mental model to explore. Every month, I create a new article encompassing all I learnt and the resources I used. I use this as my ultimate guide to mastering mental models. You can too. Here’s the rest: