First principles are the fundamental building blocks of an idea, it is the most basic and indivisible component which we all believe to be true and from which we give rise to more complex thoughts. I might sound a bit abstract when I talk about it, but let me give you it’s history, analogy, and benefits of using it. I will also talk about how to apply the same in your daily lives.
A first principle is a proposition or an assumption on which true knowledge is based. In science, theories, methods, and laws are derived from first principles. Axioms and postulates are the first principles in mathematics.
Thinking from first principles isn’t a new or a groundbreaking idea. In reality, it has always been a dominant mode of thinking among all great scientists and philosophers. For a while now, it’s probably the most consistent factor among great thinkers. One in particular who has practiced it in early times is Aristotle.
He was a prolific organizer who believed that everything could be divided further into several categories and subcategories. This smallest subcategory which cannot be divided further would be known as first principle. He was also one of the first empiricists, an empiricist is someone who believes in the fact that all the knowledge one absorbs is through personal experience.
As one of the major contributors to the field of biology, it makes sense that Aristotle was indeed a first principle thinker. He would dissect animals to gather real world knowledge and then would organize and categorize this information. This overall cycle of seeking knowledge through experience and using reason to give it a structure is what first principle is all about.
Aristotle thus believed that we couldn’t understand true knowledge unless we understood these principles.
“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”
Now that you have a slight understanding of its history, let me give you an analogy about thinking from first principles.
One profession which I admire in general are the chefs. Apart from scientists and philosophers, great chefs can be considered as first principle thinkers. When they taste a food item, they apply the first principle thinking to identify the ingredients and the process of cooking the food item. Here the categories and subcategories are the food items and condiments used while using reason to give it a structure is the overall cooking process. Once they get an understanding of the first principle, they innovate the same food items by introducing new ideas across different causes. For coming up with altogether a new dish, they apply the first principles thinking to decide on the overall nature or form of the dish, ingredients, and the process.
Another example of the first principles would be writing an essay, a well written essay derived from the same would be enjoyable to read and difficult to imitate without understanding its fundamentals. We can understand its fundamentals by breaking down the essays into categories. An essay is a collection of paragraphs, a paragraph is a collection of sentences, a sentence is a collection of words, and finally, a word is a collection of letters. Once we understand the fundamentals, we can then look into improving the same from simplest to the complex level, when we perfect all the levels in such fashion, in totality, we are perfecting the overall task. This is the art of first principle thinking.
There are several benefits which come from understanding the ideas down to its fundamental level. Let’s look at some remarkable benefits.
Once you understand the fundamentals of an idea, you can rearrange, change, or put them differently to create a new idea or product. Let’s understand with an help of an example;
In 2002, when Elon Musk started pursuing the idea of sending a rocket to Mars, he ran into a hurdle, to purchase a rocket from a manufacturer, it would cost him 65 million USD which could not have been sustainable at all. To counter this hurdle, he started thinking from first principle, he asked himself what are the building components of a rocket, answer is Aerospace grade aluminum alloys, titanium, copper and carbon fiber, then he asked, what is the value of such items in commodity market, turns out it is 2% of typical rocket price, this made him build the company and start SpaceX which was building the same rocket in less than 10% of typical price from a manufacturer, this is how Musk broke down the problem using first principles and come up with a better alternative.
The next benefit which we will look into is optimisation, a fundamental unit can be changed in order to improve an idea or a product. In our previous example of essay, once we knew the fundamental component of an essay, we could analyze which component needed improvement, but without knowing these components, it would be difficult to have such improvement made, this when done for all the levels resulted in a more optimized process, in this case, an essay.
Once you understand the foundational components of an idea, it becomes a lot easier to integrate new knowledge to your understanding. A classic example of the same is when Die Mannschaft (German Football Team) used Big Data to enhance their game from 2 years before coming for the World cup in 2014. They gained the data from 8 cameras around the pitch and tracked each player’s movement, their attack, defense, and passing style and type, everything was quantified and analysis was done. These insights were used to rectify the weakness and attack on their competitors’ lagging area. It was found that the german players were keeping the ball for long and therefore one of the main approach was to reduce the ball keeping time by 1 second, ultimately this made Germany going on to win the Fifa World Cup in the year 2014.
Understanding the foundational component of an idea makes it easier to transfer that complex idea to another person. This is exactly what is done in schools. Teachers teach how to write the alphabet, then words, sentences, and so on. First principle thinkers are thus better teachers since they can determine the exact level where a student’s understanding might fall apart.
How to become a First Principle Thinker:
Thinking from first principles is simple but not easy, one of the starting points to practise first principle thinking is to create hierarchies, most ideas are nested inside and outside of one another and it’s crucial to understand and map out how these are linked. As pointed out earlier, being an empiricist can make ones life easier to practice first principle, but it is always crucial to understand the overall process to its basic fundamentals and be able to reason out the working and how everything is connected, only when you master these two approach you can start to think from first principles.
However there are frameworks devised too which can help you to have a structure and think on the basis of such frameworks, some of the most widely followed frameworks are the “Socratic Questioning”, “Elon Musk’s First Principle Reasoning Framework”, and “Five Whys Frameworks”.
In a nutshell:
The world presents an amazing and complex act of creation. Discovering the roots of these creations starts with questioning such as why and how. However one must not be satisfied because the search for such causes are never ending. Once you’ve reduced the idea down to its smallest fundamentals, you have arrived at first principles. These fundamentals can be used to innovate, optimize, disseminate and integrate already existing workings or processes. One of the best ways to discover these fundamentals is by writing down and organizing the blocks in a hierarchy or mind maps and understanding the process and integration, doing and practicing this will make you a first principle thinker.
I’m sure all of you have heard about Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, that evolution had three main components: that variation occurred randomly among species; that an individual’s trait could be inherited by its progeny; and that the struggle for existence would allow only those with favorable traits to survive. This seems fitting here since the world as we know is ever changing, back in the 40s no one would have thought that most jobs today will be replaced by computer and artificial intelligence, and again, no one knows what the human population beholds 20 years after. Survival thus becomes crucial in a fast paced environment, new skills are generated every day which we are not taught in schools or colleges for that matter.
But if one knows the concept of first principle thinking, these can again be broken down into basic fundamentals to understand what the skill is all about and how one can learn the same, thus keeping up with the society.
This is what inspires us and keeps us striving for more at LearnQ. We believe that first principles is one of the most critical and basic factors which an individual should have, and have embarked on a journey to make it accessible and affordable to everyone thus making the next generation of human capital analytical, data-driven, critical thinker, innovative and risk taking. At LearnQ, we have vetted, interviewed and trained our educators to impart first-principles thinking and question-led teaching methodology to all our students.
Head on to our page to learn more on how we are making a difference and creating a positive impact in society.