The First Principle Thinking

MM01 - Start with WHY

Mental models are frameworks for thinking. It provides necessarily natural intelligence that implements tools and process for systematics problem-solving. If you want to acquire these tools and methods to outsmart people who are smarter than you, then persistent learning is more important than the intelligence quotient.

How can we do that?

First, we need a framework to put things on so we can remember, integrate, and make them available for use. But isn't that what we have been learning through our formal education? Our inflexible knowledge and experience provide us with a uni-dimensional view of problem-solving. When a specific technique dominates your thinking, you'll try to explain every challenge you face through that methodology. This pitfall is particularly easy to slip into when you're smart or talented in a given area. The more you master a single mental model, the more likely it becomes that this mental model will be your downfall because you'll start applying it indiscriminately to every problem. What looks like expertise is often a limitation. As the common proverb says, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Recognising that our formal education system fails by creating us a horse with limited vision, Musk built his kids a school from scratch. It's called Ad Astra.

Not everyone has access to Ad Astra, so we will analyse the mental models and build our framework.

What are the functions of the mental models?

Mental models do two jobs: they help you evaluate how systems work, and they help you make reliable decisions. These two concepts hold everything you do.

There is no silver bullet to understand the universe, similarly; no mental model is 100% correct, there will always be an edge case. Taking that into account, we shall assume all perspectives hold some truth, but none of them contains the complete truth. To unleash the full potential, you have to collect a range of mental models. You have to build out your toolbox. Thus, the secret to great thinking is to learn and employ a variety of mental models. Quoting Yuval Noah Harari, "Scientists generally agree that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Thus, the real test of knowledge is not the truth, but utility."

What are a few examples of the mental model?

Supply and demand is a mental model that helps you understand how the economy works. Game theory is a mental model that enables you to understand how relationships and trust work. Entropy is a mental model that allows you to understand how disorder and decay work.

Let's start; there are three ways to reach a decision:

1) Analogy, i.e. comparing it with our recent experience and success.

2) Instincts, i.e. hit and trial.

3) Mental Models, and we will start with the first principle.

The First Principle thinking

A first principle is a foundational proposition or assumption that stands alone. We cannot deduce first principles from any other theorem or assumption.

In mathematics and logic, a first principle is an axiom that cannot be deduced from any other within that system. An axiom is a statement that is taken to be true.

"Elon Musk used first principles thinking to design a cheap rocket from scratch, re-use it by landing it back on Earth, and on the side — also revolutionised the electric car industry."

Here is the first principle explanation by Elon Musk:

Reasoning by first principles removes the impurity of assumptions and conventions. What remains are the essentials. It's one of the best mental models you can use to improve your thinking because the essentials allow you to see where reasoning by analogy might lead you astray.

In theory, first principles thinking requires you to dig deeper and deeper until you are left with only the foundational truths of a situation. Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and scientist, embraced this approach with a method now called Cartesian Doubt in which he would "systematically doubt everything he could doubt until he was left with what he saw as purely indubitable truths."

Inventors around the world use the first principle to invent the most groundbreaking ideas, it has been a result of boiling things down to the first principles and then substituting a more effective solution for one of the critical parts.

Why should I care about The First principle?

The brain wants to minimise its energy expenditure. After all, it already takes up 15% of the energy used by the entire body. This means it doesn't want to think through everything over and over again. So, the brain creates shortcuts. The first time you have a question, you use first principles to conclude. Either way, the brain remembers the conclusion, so you don't have to think through it again. The next time, you begin at the end for improvement.

This looks efficient at first but would become an impediment to innovations. Some of the groundbreaking discoveries such as DNA, internet, antibiotics, medical imaging are all deviation from conventional improvement.

Clayton M. Christensen talks about disruptive innovation and blue ocean strategy in his book The Innovator's Dilemma. He quoted various examples of groundbreaking innovation by innovators who challenged the current status quo e.g. Transistors were disruptive technologies relative to vacuum tubes.

How can I start practising First Principle Thinking?

"The five why" approach is a practical example of the first step towards the first principle thinking process.

The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question "Why?". Each answer forms the basis of the next issue.

An example of a problem is: The vehicle will not start.

  1. Why? – The battery is dead. (First why)

  2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (Second why)

  3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (Third why)

  4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (Fourth why)

  5. Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (Fifth why, a root cause)

First-principles thinking does not remove the need for continuous improvement, but it does alter the direction of development. Without reasoning by first principles, you spend your time making small improvements. First-principles thinking sets you on a different trajectory; you do not fix the symptom to remove the problem.

Examples of First Principles in Action

1) Elon Musk and SpaceX - By using the first principle thinking, he was able to launch his rockets in space. Now does that sounds like rocket science?

2) BuzzFeed - Jonah Peretti recognised the first principles of online popularity and used them to take a new approach to journalism. Rather than publishing articles, people should read, BuzzFeed focuses on publishing those that people want to read.

3) Hey.com - Jason Fried identified 25 fundamental issues with email and launched hey.com in the era where Gmail & Outlook are dominating leaders.

The real power of first-principles thinking is moving away from incremental improvement and into a possibility by breaking a limiting belief.

Let's break a limiting belief - "All the good ideas are taken."

Are you sure? 

  • The iPhone wasn't the first.

  • Microsoft wasn't the first to sell operating systems.

  • Facebook was not the first social media.

All those success examples are the result of going back to fundamentals, to innovate truly.

When to use The First Principle?

1) When doing something for the first time, e.g. first time understanding a domain such as money; how is money created?

2) Dealing with complexity, e.g. Try to answer quantum mechanics using the first principle.

3) Trying to understand a situation that you're having problems with, e.g. try to solve the complexity of a business or personal relationship using the first principle.

Food for thought

If you have to recreate mathematics from scratch. Where will you start?

Recommended book

Physics by Aristotle