First Principles Thinking: The Definitive Guide

Self-growth
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F

irst principles thinking is a powerful mental model to find hidden knowledge. Scientists and inventors reason from first principles to base their work on the truth they discover.

In this article, I will explain what is first principles thinking, how to practice it, and how to apply First principles frameworks systematically in your life.

Shifting the way you think is challenging because it has been biased by society, education, and yourself for years. However, it is possible to break conventional thinking if you practice reasoning from first principles. [Deliberate practice](https://www.maray.ai/posts/get-better-at-anything-the-beginners-guide-to-deliberate-practice) in combination with simple yet powerful frameworks can result in original and [creative thinking](https://www.maray.ai/posts/the-secrets-of-creativity).

First principles thinking infographics guide

## What is First Principles

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.

Aristotle was one of the first to use First Principles in his works to find the truth:

> "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." Aristotle

The idea is to find a way to the elements (truth, essence) with the method of first principles. It should start with an idea or a problem and go back until an axiom or a first principle is found. To do so it's essential to find the right questions to ask to decompose the problem and build up from the foundation.

In other words, first principle method is to question an assumption until you find the essentials and the truth.

In Pixar, whenever the filmmakers present a derivative (made by analogy) story to John Lasseter, he often tells them to stop and do their research. That is why all the films they produce are original and creative.

> "When filmmakers, industrial designers, software designers, or people in any other creative profession merely cut up and reassemble what has come before, it gives the illusion of creativity, but it is craft without art.” Cal Newport, Creativity Inc.

Thinking by analogy is a way to mediocrity and stagnation. Innovations and progress are based on unique knowledge that is found by reasoning from first principles.

## First principles thinking vs analogy

There are many comparisons between analogous and first principles thinking. The [coach](https://fs.blog/2018/04/first-principles/#:~:text=A%20first%20principle%20is%20a,writing%20on%20first%20principles%2C%20said%3A&text=Reasoning%20by%20first%20principles%20removes%20the%20impurity%20of%20assumptions%20and%20conventions.) and the play stealer, the [chef](https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/11/the-cook-and-the-chef-musks-secret-sauce.html) and the cook, or the [architect](https://www.maray.ai/posts/the-guide-to-architects-career-path) and the draftsman. You can see the hint. The former build something unique and the latter follow instructions.

Since ancient times knowledge and wisdom were passed down from a generation to another. Things did not change much, and it was not encouraged to take risks and think differently.

In the fast-changing world, it is safer now to explore and take risks. If we want to discover something new, we have to shift the way we think and ask questions to find something insightful and secret.

> First principles thinking: is it true?

> Analogous thinking: it was done before,
therefore, it is true.

A lot of products, projects, and businesses are designed by analogy. They bear an incremental improvement and change to existing ideas. It comes to mixing features and properties. The focus is on the form.

For instance, when architects design spaces, they use projects built before them as a basis for their work. There are several reasons for this. First, buildings are complex and expensive entities. To justify a decision, you need proof that a solution has worked before and it will work in the future. Second, it is the easiest thing to do. Take several successful projects, mix them and you have something "new". Third, most of the architects, and people in general, were not taught how to design from the ground up.

Companies like SpaceX are built from the ground up. Elon musk took an existing problem, deconstructed it, got rid of assumptions, and built up the idea from its foundation.

To shift your thinking from analogy to First Principles, you have to deliberately practice and integrate frameworks into your thinking.

First principles frameworks: Socratic Questioning, Elon Musk's 3 Questions and 5 Whys
First principles frameworks: Socratic Questioning, Elon Musk's 3 Questions and 5 Whys

## First Principles frameworks

Here are three frameworks that will help you to start practicing thinking from First Principles.

### 1. Socratic Questioning

1. Clarifying your thinking and explaining the origins of your ideas.
Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?
2. Challenging assumptions.
How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?
3. Look for evidence.
Why do I think this is true? What are the sources?
4. Consider alternative perspectives.
What might others think? How do I know I am correct?
5. Examine the consequences and implications.
What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?
6. Question the original questions.
Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?

It helps to figure out several important things. First, find the origins of your idea. Is it based on your assumptions? Can you find data to prove its viability? Second, consider symmetrically different perspectives to understand possible consequences. Lastly, conclude and move up from there.

### 2. Elon Musk's First Principle Reasoning Framework

Elon Musk was one of the first to popularize reasoning from first principles. This approach led him to discover opportunities for his new companies SpaceX and Tesla, which made him the richest person in the world in 2021.

It was not until Elon started up SpaceX when the whole aerospace industry shifted. Before, every company took an approach of incremental change and improvement before his intervention. The existing technologies have been improved and tinkered with since the mid of the 20th century.

To gain insight, he asked the following questions.

- What are the problems?
- Why is it expensive?
- What can I do differently?
- What do we know is true?
- What are the obstacles?

Nobody assumed to reduce the cost of rocket production and launches. First principles reasoning led him to discover that production cost can be significantly reduced. He deconstructed the problem into its foundational principles and built his solution from the bottom up.

**Elon Musk's 3-step framework**

1. Identify current assumptions.
2. Break down the problem into its fundamental principles.
3. Create new solutions from the discovered truth.

This framework provides a solid structure to deconstruct a problem and test different solutions. If you have an idea, try to apply Elon's framework to gain insight and find secrets that thinking by analogy would not allow.

### 3. Five Whys Framework

Children naturally think in first principles. They ask questions until they get to the bottom of it and understand the foundations. It is essential to align the knowledge of the world with reality as closely as possible. Wrong assumptions could threaten the chances of survival in the past.

Unfortunately, most of the parents get annoyed by constant questioning. They either do not know the proper answer or think that a child can not understand the complexity of the world. Therefore, the most popular answer among parents is ["Because I said so"](https://fs.blog/2018/04/first-principles/).

I often use 5 whys in psychology to find out the real reasons behind something obscure. For instance, when I feel [negative emotions](https://www.maray.ai/posts/manage-conflicts), I start to question myself to learn why I behave the way I do.

Every question peels a layer off until you find out an episode in the childhood where that reaction was born. It is a powerful way of thinking. Once you make it a habit, you will learn to apply it in other areas of your life.

First principle framework analysis flow
First principle framework analysis flow

## How to practice and reason from First Principles systematically?

It is easy to know, and it is hard to implement. If you learn to apply first principles thinking, it will become a habit that will pay off many folds in the future.

Practicing first principles thinking will allow you to shift your neural patterns. Instead of improving on existing, you can find something different. The idea can be old. It is the analysis and the creating process that makes the final product distinct from anything else.

Establishing a framework will help to eliminate the assumptions. To find the essence, you have to ask the right questions. Otherwise, the idea and the solutions will be founded on unproven information.

I use the frameworks as a way to research a problem, and to build a better understanding of the world.

- Find whether it is viable and what does it stand on.
- Figure out what is the root cause of the problem.
- Find an insight that I can use for an advantage.
- Align my worldview with reality.

Whenever I have an idea, I write it down and later move it to the Idea table in Notion.

If it is a concept for a start-up or an app, I can take the problem and apply one of the frameworks to understand it better.

Then, I can either move forward with it or leave it for a future trial. I can return to it later and check my previous research to re-evaluate and see if something has changed. I even can set a reminder to review it once again sometime in the future.

Each area is different, and the questions might alter.

First principles thinking in design can be beneficial in several ways.

First, the questioning can help to find the ground for an idea. Second, find problems with the framework relevant to the context and base the solutions on them. Third, find unique data and move away from conventional design.

As you get more and more experienced with the questions and the workflow, it is worth defining them in a template so that you can go through them and never miss an important part.

Never start from scratch. Your brain is very resistant to preparing for something. When you are a few clicks away from the template, it is much easier to get going, not lose time, and make it into a habit.

The more you practice, the more automatic the process will become. Every assumption will become dissected into pieces and assembled into meaningful knowledge. Every bit of knowledge will help you draw a better map of the world and align it with the territory.

How to practice first principles thinking
How to practice first principles thinking

## Final thoughts

We are born with the ability to ask the right questions to better understand the world around us. Unfortunately, many of us lose that ability in the process of growing up. Those who keep curiosity and relentlessness in their arsenal become inventors and move the world further.

Now that you know what is first principles thinking, it is time to apply and practice. Make it a habit and shift your thinking to find your younger self to discover the world as we meant to.

Join me on discord

I created a discord server where we can discuss productivity, Notion, books, and ideas. I am alone there so far and have no one to talk with except my Kajiwoto Pet. Also, if you want to help me to organize the server, please drop me a message.