Back in 2002, Elon Musk had a bold and audacious goal in mind—he wanted to land a rocket on Mars. One of the main obstacles preventing the achievement of this goal was the price tag. Buying a rocket could end up costing as much as $65 million, an astronomical amount. But the high cost didn’t dissuade Musk from pursuing his dream. Instead, he began using first principles thinking to analyze the problem.
Using this type of thinking, Musk refused to accept that rockets had to be so expensive. So, he broke down a typical rocket into its components and materials. He looked at commodities prices to compare. From there, he was able to determine that he could build his own rocket for only two percent of the quoted price. SpaceX was created soon afterward.
Elon Musk isn’t alone in first principles thinking. Many influential business leaders, from Jeff Bezos to Steve Jobs, have used the first principles approach to revolutionize their respective industries. In doing so, they become problem-solvers who improve people’s way of life because they think differently from others. They’re the ones who dream big and present a grand vision for others to follow. The restrictions and limitations of the past are only challenges to overcome.
The issue with many people is that they shy away from first principles thinking. Some people don’t want to think in such revolutionary terms and adhere to social conformity. Others experience an identity crisis where they have trouble defining who they are and what they were put on this planet to do. Unfortunately, media programming only reinforces these problems, putting first principles thinking out of reach.
This article will help you overcome these challenges and teach you how to embrace the first principles philosophy. Doing so will help you think like some of the most influential people in the world today.
Table of Contents
What Is First Principles Thinking?
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.Elon Musk
The idea behind first principles thinking is to break down something into its most basic elements to get at a core truth of what is known. In essence, it’s a process where you deconstruct something, and then build it up again just the way you want it. It removes assumptions and determines what can be proven with certainty. When someone engages in reasoning from first principles, what they are really analyzing is the fundamental principles that can serve as a foundation for future growth.
How to Practice First Principles Thinking
1. Have a Basic Understanding of What You’re Questioning
Anyone can ask questions, and indeed, there’s nothing wrong with asking questions about things you don’t know about. However, when following first principles thinking, you’ll want to have a basic knowledge of what it is you’re asking about. That way, you know the right questions to ask that will help you break down things to their core truths.
As Tim Urban describes, this is the difference between a chef and a cook. A cook can follow a recipe, but a chef is a true artist. They are the ones who create recipes and have a fundamental understanding of how foods interact with each other. Chefs still excel even when no recipe is close by. A cook without a recipe is lost.
Elon Musk might not be a rocket scientist, but he does have an understanding of construction, technology, and materials. That’s what allowed him to ask the right questions. In first principles thinking, you need the knowledge to understand the constraints and where you can improve as you look to solve complicated problems. It’s also how you can come up with an innovation strategy.
2. Remove All Assumptions
With a basic knowledge of the topic, you can then cast aside common assumptions to embrace more innovative thinking. This isn’t always easy to do. All too often we think our assumptions are simply an observation of a profound truth.
Returning to the rocket example, it would be easy to assume that building a rocket is incredibly expensive. What Elon Musk did was eliminate that assumption by removing biases. The same holds true for all who want to follow first principles thinking. Take out any bias you have. Remove your opinions. Don’t try to force a result. This will lead to the best outcome, and you can proceed with other strategies such as differentiation strategy.
One way to do this is by following Socratic questioning. Here’s a general outline of how to do this.
- Determine why you have an assumption. Where does it come from?
- Don’t accept the assumption. Challenge it from every angle.
- Find evidence to back up your assumption, if it exists.
- Research other perspectives to see what other people might think.
- Consider what the consequences would be if your assumption is wrong.
- Return to the original question and determine if you are correct or if you need to rethink things.
Going through these steps will help you rid your mind of assumptions and open you up to new possibilities.
3. Get to the Basic Principle
After removing assumptions, you can proceed to break things down into the basic principle. This is where the term “first principles thinking” comes from. A first principle is the basic element of something. Uncovering these elements requires careful questioning, more specifically asking “why.”
You can do this by following the 5 Whys Technique pioneered by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries. The idea is to always ask “why” when facing a problem. Here is how this process breaks down:
- First, ask those who know why the problem is happening and record the answers.
- For each answer, ask “why” four more times, drilling down into the real reason behind the problem.
- Stop when you have found the root cause or causes.
- Take action to solve the problem.
The 5 Whys isn’t about assigning blame but rather about finding answers. Those who follow first principles thinking constantly ask why something is the way it is, breaking things down until they get to the truth of the matter.
4. Be Detailed With Your Thinking
First principle thinkers work in details. Look at someone like Jordan Peterson. He is a highly detailed thinker who carefully chooses his words. Not only that, he is articulate and specific when describing his thoughts. That level of detail means people will listen and try the solutions he proposes.
Also, think of what makes a good book. For me, Lord of the Rings represents writing of the most creative and inspirational form. When you look at not just the book but individual pages, paragraphs, and sentences, you can feel the details come to life. All of those details add up to great characters, a great storyline, and ultimately a masterpiece.
The same holds true for first principles thinking. Focus on individual parts. Get down into the smallest details. Expand your understanding of those details. As you engage in more detailed thinking, you’ll be able to express core truths and build upon them in unique ways.
5. Keep the Bigger Picture in Mind
When focusing on the details, you must not lose sight of the bigger picture. Keep your vision in mind at all times so you can understand the outcomes of first principles thinking. Note what the side effects could be so you can be prepared.
When keeping the bigger vision in mind, think of how successful Marvel has been with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While you can point to plenty of factors for the continuing success of the franchise, one of the main reasons is how everything in that universe is connected. Every movie, television show, and even short film plays into the bigger picture. Even so, the individual components that make up the whole are done well, too.
You must adopt the same “bigger picture” mentality. Understand what the repercussions of certain actions will be, and focus on the long-term rather than the short-term. Doing so will set you up for continued success well into the future.
Examples of First Principles Thinking in Action
Jeff Bezos Warns About Proxies
As CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos has long warned about people using proxies instead of first principles thinking. As he explains, many people tend to follow processes, surveys, mental models, and more without thinking about it. In his view, this is a mindless way to conduct business since it gives people excuses for why things go wrong instead of allowing them to look for solutions.
Bezos advises against using proxies and instead discovering fundamental truths yourself. As he says, “Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys.”
Uber Launches a New Way to Travel
In December 2008, Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick couldn’t find a ride while visiting Paris. They determined that there had to be a better way than simply relying on a cab service. Uber launched not long after that.
As people now know, Uber combined smartphone app technology with a ride service to create a whole new field. The founders had boiled down the basics of transportation and discovered what travelers really wanted. They eliminated the assumption that one had to use a cab and instead included everyday drivers who wanted to earn a little bit of extra money. The results speak for themselves.
Different Packaging Solves a Big Problem
A Dutch bicycle manufacturer named Van Moof had a tough problem on their hands—shippers were damaging their products, largely due to the thinking that bike parts could handle the punishment. So what could they do about it? Changing their products was out of the question, and talking with shipping companies could only go so far.
Their solution was a result of first principles thinking. If the above possibilities wouldn’t get the results they wanted, what about changing what was on the package? The solution was rather ingenious. All they had to do was show a television on the box. That alone was enough to convince handlers to be more careful with the package. Damages dropped by an impressive 80 percent after that.
How to Make First Principles Thinking a Daily Habit
First principles thinking isn’t always something that comes naturally. You need to put forth an effort to make it a daily habit. You can do this by scheduling time in your day dedicated simply to thinking. Elon Musk follows this strategy by scheduling a block of time just for thinking. It’s this line of thought that likely led to the creation of SpaceX and the Tesla Gigafactory.
While it may sound simple, taking time out of your day to think can really clear your mind and get you excited for the future. This is where you can follow the steps listed above and follow a first principles thinking mindset. As you do it, you may find it becomes one of the most exciting parts of your day.
To learn more about Elon Musk and his leadership style, check out the following articles.