First Principles Thinking is quite possibly the one approach that has lead to more breakthrough ideas than any other thinking tool. It is also one of the best strategies you can employ for clarifying complex issues and focusing on what really matters.
First Principles Thinking, which is sometimes called reasoning from first principles, is focused on breaking a situation down into its fundamental pieces and then putting them back together in a more effective way that serves your purposes. If you want to learn how to think for yourself, reasoning from first principles is one of the best ways to do it.
This approach has been used by many great thinkers including inventor Johannes Gutenberg, military strategist John Boyd, and the great philosopher Aristotle, but perhaps no one embodies the approach of reasoning from first principles better than Elon Musk.
How Elon Musk Uses First Principles Thinking
In 2002, with over $100 million in the bank after selling his previous company, Elon Musk had dreams of sending a rocket to Mars and creating a colony there. When he looked into purchasing a rocket, however, Musk found that his options were limited and the prices were incredibly expensive—up to $65 million for a single trip. 1
Given the astronomical prices, Musk began to rethink the problem.
“I tend to approach things from a physics framework,” he said. “And physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.” 2
After learning he could get the raw materials for cheap, Musk decided to create his own company—SpaceX—and build the rockets himself. He boiled things down to the fundamentals, bypassed the high prices of the aerospace industry, and designed a much more effective solution.
By reasoning from first principles, SpaceX eventually cut the price of launching a rocket into space by nearly 10x and still made a profit. 3
The Power of Thinking for Yourself
This is the same approach Musk took to building Tesla, his groundbreaking electric car company. At the time he founded Tesla, the primary challenge in the industry was creating affordable batteries. Everyone was convinced it couldn't be done and as a result electric cars weren't considered a viable option.
When interviewed about his approach to Tesla, Musk repeated his first principles approach, “First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, ‘What are we sure is true?' … and then reason up from there. Somebody could say, battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”
“With first principles, you say, what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents? It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, if we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost? It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.” 4
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Imitation
One the key functions of the human brain is to imitate and replicate the effective actions of those around us. We copy what others do with slight variations on a theme. For example, fairly early in life you learn to ring the doorbell before entering someone's home. If a doorbell isn't there, then you knock on the door. If the door is cracked open, then maybe you will peek inside and call out to see if anyone is around. There are slight adjustments based on the situation, but most of our answers are iterations on the same theme. We replicate the strategies that seem to have worked well in the past.
Our ability to learn through imitation is so good that we rely on it heavily throughout each day. You assume the body posture of the person you are talking to in a conversation. Hell, when I travel internationally, I often find myself mimicking the accent of the country I’m in without even wanting do it.
Imitation is useful because it is fast. When we face problems, we just replicate the approaches we have seen others using successfully. Making educated guesses and using simple “rules of thumb” makes it easier for us to solve the problems we face in life. Imitation makes it easier for us to pass down lessons from one generation to the next. The ability of humankind to imitate and build upon what others have learned is perhaps what separates us most from other animals. The tendency to mimic and imitate those around us is a highly effective way to learn.
Despite its speed, imitation has plenty of drawbacks. One of the biggest is that we are so busy imitating the status quo that we rarely ask if we should following it. We are so busy replicating that we don’t think about innovating. We end up repeating out-dated or ineffective strategies because “that's how it's always been done.” What starts as a shortcut can become a handicap.
In any industry, any mode of repeated thought, any area that has been around for awhile, a form of inertia begins to develop around old ideas. They are comfortable and proven and reliable. The status quo becomes accepted and hard to break from. We get sucked into the gravity of the status quo. First Principles Thinking helps break that mold.
Most of the time it makes more sense to follow what has worked in the past or reason by analogy. It takes far more effort to reason from first principles, which means you should only do it when you're wrestling with an important problem. But the upside of reasoning from first principles is that it can provide powerful and unique insights. First Principles Thinking isn't the fastest solution most of the time, but it can reveal the best solution occasionally.
How You Can Use First Principles
The philosophy of first principles has been around for thousands of years. Aristotle defined first principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.” 5
The idea behind first principles thinking is
Each of those parts is a “first principle.”
Reasoning by first principles is one of the best ways to develop mental models that are rare and useful. It can help you develop your own perspective on how to solve problems.
The core idea behind first principles thinking is to make no assumptions. Boil things down until you are absolutely sure of something. Musk has said, “Physics is true, everything else is debatable. And even physics is questionable.” He is questioning everything. 6
Doubt is a good place to start. Being skeptical of the old story makes it easier to write a new one. Rene Descartes, the famous French philosopher and scientist, developed a method called Cartesian Doubt in which he would “systematically doubt everything he could possibly doubt, until he was left with what he saw as purely indubitable truths.” 7
In short, the first step to reasoning by first principles is to strip things down to the essentials, to the core truths. The goal of First Principles Thinking to question your assumptions, look beyond the status quo, and doubt old stories rather than automatically accepting them as true. Your want to force yourself to look at the fundamental facts of a situation rather than defaulting to way the rest of the world thinks.
You only want to focus on what you know for sure. Once you have reached this level of fundamental understanding, then you can piece together new and interesting solutions. From this foundation of facts, you can rebuild their knowledge.
An Example of First Principles Thinking
What does reasoning from first principles actually look like?
In practice, using first principles doesn't always mean you have to distill every situation down to the atomic level. Rather, you can distill it down to the basic constituent parts of a situation.
Consider the following thought experiment from military strategist, John Boyd. 8
Imagine you have three things:
- A motorboat with a skier behind it
- A military tank
- A bicycle
If you break these items down into their basic parts, you get the following:
- Motorboat: A motor, the hull of a boat, and a pair of skis.
- Tank: Metal treads, steel armor plates, and a gun.
- Bicycle: Handle bars, wheels, gears, and a seat.
Once you’ve distilled the devices down into these components, you can consider how to put them back together in useful and creative ways. Most of the combinations of these aren’t very useful, but occasionally you’ll find a gem. For example, you could create a snowmobile. You take the motor and skis from the boat, the metal treads from the tank, and the handle bars and seat from the bike.
Boyd’s snowmobile example is a great description of how to think from first principles by breaking things down and then build them back up in a creative way. First Principles thinking is basically taking the things you know, breaking them down, and using their parts to build something new. It’s a cycle of breaking things down and then building them back up. You take each machine apart, look at it piece by piece, and then re-combine the parts in a more useful and effective way. Deconstruct and then reconstruct.
If you are particularly skilled, then once you get down to the first principles you can see multiple ways of putting the fundamentals together. Maybe you could use the steel plates from the tank and the handlebars from the bike to create a plow.
Reduce things to their essence. Then create something anew from these core pieces. Deconstruct then reconstruct.
Distill everything down to what you know for sure and then reason up from there. You want to force yourself to look at the fundamental facts of a situation rather than defaulting to way the rest of the world thinks.
First Principles and Innovation
We can also use first principles thinking to cobble together information from different disciplines to create new ideas and innovations.
Many of the most innovative and groundbreaking ideas in history have been the result of first principles thinking. For example, Johannes Gutenberg combined the technology of a screw press—a device used for making wine—with the pre-existing movable type, paper, and ink systems to revolutionize the printing press. Movable type had been used for centuries, but rather than replicate what was already being done, Gutenberg distilled the process down to its essential components and combined that technology with that of an entirely different field—wine-making—made the system much more efficient.
Few inventions have changed the world as much as the printing press. Gutenberg's approach allowed for mass production of texts and the widespread distribution of information for the first time. 9
First principles thinking is a fancy way of saying “think and discover like a scientist.” Scientists don’t assume anything. They start with questions like, What are we absolutely sure is true? What has been proven?
“A calculation is said to be ab initio (or “from first principles”) if it relies on basic and established laws of nature without additional assumptions or special models. For example, an ab initio calculation of the properties of liquid water might start with the properties of the constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms and the laws of electrodynamics. From these basics, the properties of isolated individual water molecules would be derived, followed by computations of the interactions of larger and larger groups of water molecules, until the bulk properties of water had been determined.”
First Principles in Daily Life
This methodology extends beyond problems in science and business. Here are a few example of how we live everyday life by analogy and my attempt to uncover the first principles instead.
Reasoning from first principles can be an antidote to any assumption we make. Consider the common phrase, “I'm not good at remembering people's names.” Is this really true? Let's break it down by first principles. What is required to remember someone's name? You need to have the ability to remember. If you can remember other things, then you can presumably remember someone's name.
“Eating healthy and losing weight is hard work. Plus, I have to give up certain foods.” 10
First principles: What are we sure is true about eating healthy and losing weight? To eat healthy, you need to eat more whole foods to get a good balance of macronutrients and micronutrients. To lose weight, you need fewer overall calories each week. Is it possible to achieve those two things without it being “hard work” or requiring you to “give up certain foods?” Yes, you could hire a meal preparation service to deliver finished meals to you each week. 11
“Writers have poor career prospects and don't make a lot of money.”
First principles: What is the core function of a writer? To create and share information. What is required to have a prosperous and fruitful career? To provide value that a company or a group of customers are willing to pay for. Can writers use their skill of creating and sharing information to provide value? Yes, they can. Are there writers already using this skill to provide value and make a very good living? Yes, there are writers doing that already. In other words, whether an individual writer has a successful career has more to do with how they choose to package their writing skills than whether or not the skill of writing itself is valuable.
“You have to be a risk-taker if you want to be a successful entrepreneur.”
First principles: What do you need to be an entrepreneur? You need something to sell and a way to get paid. Ok, you need something to sell. Does it have to be a risky product or service? Not at all. Many people buy “normal” products and services like bow ties and lawn maintenance and car insurance. But what about leaving it all behind and starting your own venture? Isn't that risky even if you sell something boring? There is no rule that says you have to start as a full-time entrepreneur. In fact, that's one of the great things about entrepreneurship: there are no rules. Keep your day job and work on nights and weekends. Or, save up a big emergency fund before jumping in.
Know Your Principles. Choose Your Methods.
We often live life by analogy and simply assume that what has been true before must be true in the future. Instead, break your problems down to their first principles and you may see very different solutions emerge. 12
Harrington Emerson, an engineer, wrote “As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
Know your principles and you can choose your methods.
There are plenty of innovations that come from iteration and continual improvement. But the thing about continuous improvement is that it tends to occur within the boundary set by the original vision. You can iterate your way from riding a horse to pulling a carriage, but to get to building a car you have to do away with horses entirely. You need to boil it all down to the core purpose of transportation—to get from one place to another—and look at all the methods at your disposal for doing so.
Every innovation, including the most groundbreaking ones, require a long period of iteration and improvement. SpaceX, for example, ran many simulations, made thousands of adjustments, and required multiple trials before they figured out how to build an affordable, reusable rocket. First Principles doesn't remove the need for iteration and continuous improvement, but it does alter the direction of improvement. It gets back to the core function, reassembles the pieces in a new form, and sets you on a different trajectory.
The suitcase provides a perfect example of this predicament. Humans have been using bags to carry their possessions for thousands of years. They’ve also been using the wheel for thousands of years. However, the first suitcase with wheels wasn’t invented until 1970, when Bernard Sadow was hauling his heavy luggage through an airport and saw a worker rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid. He considered the fundamental problem he was facing, broke the situation down into fundamental parts, and saw a way to combine the two ancient technologies to revolutionize travel. 13
For many years, people were focused on iterating and building better bags. They created lighter and stronger materials. They improved the shape and design for certain uses. The same goes for wheels. Stronger materials, better design, more specific uses. Iteration and continuous improvement all around.
But it wasn't until Sadow boiled down the purpose of luggage to its first principles that it because clear that these two ancient technologies could be easily combined. And then, once that trajectory had been set, people again went back to work and iterated and improved the design of rolling luggage. First Principles sets the path. Continuous Improvement refines it.
As Musk explains, “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree—make sure you understand the fundamental principles (i.e. the trunk and big branches) before you get into the leaves and details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” 14
$65 million was the price Musk was quoted for a trip from Earth to Mars. He also traveled to Russia to see if he could buy an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which could then be retro-fitted for space flight. It was cheaper, but still in the $8 million to $20 million range.
SpaceX and Daring to Think Big by Steve Jurvetson. January 28, 2015.
In a fantastic interview with Kevin Rose, Musk not only shares how he reasons from first principles, but also more of his story and business philosophy.
I originally found the snowmobile example in The OODA Loop: How to Turn Uncertainty Into Opportunity by Taylor Pearson.
Story from “Where Good Ideas Come From,” Steven Johnson
Hat tip to Bruce Achterberg. I got this example from his post about first principles on Quora.
Important note: Meal preparation services aren't as expensive as you might imagine. You can often get meals (including shipping) for $8 or less. However, I still realize that this is out of budget for many people, so I don't want you to think that I'm delusional by offering this example. Regardless of how feasible getting a meal service is for you personally, this is a good example of how we often assume one version of a story to be the one-and-only truth while other solutions become obvious if we reason from first principles.
Stereotypes fall into this style of thinking. “Oh, I once knew a poor person who was dumb, so all poor people must be dumb.” And so on. Anytime we judge someone by their group status rather than their individual characteristics we are reasoning about them by analogy.
Story from “Reinventing the Suitcase by Adding the Wheel,” Joe Sharkey, The New York Times