What is First-principles thinking
First-principles thinking is the way the entire branch of Physics evolved in science.
Thinking with the First principles helps us to reach a better understanding of the world.
Searching for a definition of First principles you will come across a quote by Aristotle. Aristotle defined the First principle as –
“The first basis from which a thing is known.”– Aristotle
Thinking by First-principles has laid the foundation for some of the greatest thinkers in all fields.
Humans have a tendency to organize all knowledge. The broad fields are classified and then sub-classified into various categories.
Aristotle thus said that the smallest possible subclassification in a category can be referred to as a First Principle.
Rationale and Experience
All understanding comes from Rationale and Experience.
By using Experience to gain information and then applying rationale to classify it forms the basis of how we can reach towards the First-principles of any field.
Paraphrasing Elon Musk from his famous interview. He said that most people in their daily life reason by analogy.
It’s like something else that was done. Basically thinking in terms of slight iterations on a theme.
People do this because it is much easier to reason like that. The first principle’s way of thinking is boiling down things to the most fundamental truths of what do we know for sure is true and reason up from there.
The example he gives is of battery packs.
An analogy reasoning person would say -Battery packs are very expensive and that’s just the way they will always be because that’s been that way in the past as well.
First-principles reasoning person would say- It has historically cost 600$ per KWH.
He will look at its constituents in metal exchange and see what it’s made of cobalt, nickel carbon, etc that adds up to 80 $ per kWh in total.
So how can we work on the process of making batteries in a clever way and reduce it’s cost down effectively.
The difference over time in analogy and First-principles thinking
Firstly we gather different parts of information. Then we classify and organize those parts with respect to each other.
Finally, the parts assembled start making sense of the larger picture as if all the dots connecting.
All parts fit inside an organized structure of Knowledge. Almost like a Jigsaw puzzle 😛
Where the conventional thinker will limit himself with his superficial way of thinking and reach dubious conclusions like
–‘The batteries are always gonna stay expensive.‘
On the same topic, a First-principles thinker will see different nuances and relationships between various aspects.
He will reach a much more profound and effective conclusion like
– Figuring out a process to make battery packs much cheaper and cost-effective.
Why does it work
It works because when small entities of a whole are honest and accurate. Then the organized and nuanced structure built with them will be honest and accurate as well.
In layman terms, any complex body of knowledge will be true if all its small integral parts are true individually.
Let’s describe this with an Analogy. (Ahem, Irony Ahem 😛)
We will think about an example of a well-written Story of a novel.
A story is a collective of chapters.
Those chapters are a collective of instances.
We now understand that the instances are the smallest components of a story.
If we scrutinize and make each instance excellent then the totality that is the story becomes excellent.
Four Uses of First Principles thinking
As explained above by working on the smallest components we can improve the totality.
By using the totality and improving or collecting them we can make new and even more complex collectives.
for example- a collection of individual stories can form a novel series.
If we look at the foundational levels learning and integrating knowledge even across different fields becomes easier.
A first-principles thinker will be much more effective in an Interdisciplinary approach.
It’s easy for a First-principles thinker to teach concepts and ideas.
As he explains the things in steps by laying one foundation on top of another he can deduce the exact place where learning or understanding of the student stops.
How can we apply First Principles thinking in our own lives
The first thing we need to do is to stop accepting things as we believe we know them.
Start by examining things we believe to be true and see if they are grounded in facts and knowledge.
By repeated questioning, we will reach a more profound understanding of the issues we face in front of us.
Toyota is famous for this method in what they describe as their 5-why approach. They use this to get to the root problems but that’s a topic for another blog.
The next time you feel yourself in a situation where you can’t seem to come to a decision.
Start by dissecting the challenge and begin working on the smallest constituent parts.
Rather than being stuck worrying, you may be able to create a path that would have never been possible by the standard approach.
If you see a system that needs improvement start by working on the smallest parts and begin optimizing it from its foundational aspects.
Over time you may begin to see it completely evolving in its quality and effectiveness.
We urge you to explore what your callings are. Do you possess the courage to chase them?
We provide a free ebook called The perfect beginning that might help you in finding those callings.
Well, that’s all for this post. Have a good day and a good life.