First Principles Thinking

What is it?

Who uses it?

Why does it matter?

Let’s start with the end and work backwards.

Steve Jobs famously was quoted for his Apple campaign named, “Think Differently” which highlighted those throughout history who changed the world by thinking differently than the “conventional wisdom” or “status quo”.   As a a creative entrepreneur who loves innovation and experimenting without fear of failure this gives me goosebumps every time.   Watch a clip if you haven’t seen it below.   If you have seen it, watch it again and be inspired.

Back to First Principles Thinking.

Elon Musk, one of the greatest innovators and greatest minds of all times has adopted this method referencing Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison as others who have used this.

“At first glance, it’s easy to link his rapid success, ability to solve unsolvable problems, and genius-level creativity to his incredible work ethic.

No doubt work ethic plays an important role in unlocking your inner creative genius and becoming the best at what you do — but there’s more to this — there are extremely hardworking people who still make little progress in life and die before sharing their best work with the world.

What, then, is this missing link for innovative creativity and accelerated success?”

Breaking it down to 3 steps

Step 1: Identify and define your assumptions

Step 2: Break down the problem into its fundamental principles

Step 3: Create solutions from scratch.

Inspired from article below.

Just like Musk, some of the most brilliant minds of all-time — Aristotle, Euclid, Thomas Edison, Feynman, and Nikola Tesla — use this missing link for accelerated learning, solving difficult problems, and creating great work in their lifetime.”

Instead of focusing your mind so heavily in the weeds of a problem, look to pull yourself above the problem.   I use the analogy of being in the brush of a jungle, hacking away with your machete only able to see 2 feet in front of you at a time compared to being in a helicopter looking down.

From one vantage point, you can only see what you see which is short sighted.     From the helicopter you could see everything with clarity.  You can see water, you can see danger, you can see food.

First principles thinking allows you to focus on the meta.  It allows you to focus on universal laws and principles rather than tactics.

From Wikipedia:  A first principle is a basic, foundational, self-evident proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. In philosophy, first principles are taught by Aristotelians, and nuanced versions of first principles are referred to as postulates by Kantians.[1] In mathematics, first principles are referred to as axioms or postulates. In physics and other sciences, theoretical work is said to be from first principles, or ab initio, if it starts directly at the level of established science and does not make assumptions such as empirical model and parameter fitting.

In formal logic

In a formal logical system, that is, a set of propositions that are consistent with one another, it is possible that some of the statements can be deduced from other statements. For example, in the syllogism“All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; Socrates is mortal” the last claim can be deduced from the first two.

A first principle is an axiom that cannot be deduced from any other within that system. The classic example is that of Euclid’s Elements; its hundreds of geometric propositions can be deduced from a set of definitions, postulates, and common notions: all three types constitute first principles.

Philosophy in general

In philosophy “first principles” are also commonly referred to as a priori terms and arguments, which are contrasted to a posteriori terms, reasoning or arguments, in that the former are simply assumed and exist prior to the reasoning process and the latter are deduced or inferred after the initial reasoning process. First principles are generally treated in the realm of philosophy known as epistemology, but are an important factor in any metaphysical speculation.

In philosophy “first principles” are often somewhat synonymous with a priori, datum and axiomatic reasoning.