Thinking in first principles

Thinking in first principles allows you to analyze current reality, understand its fundamental causes, and create effective methods to shape the future.

Level of Difficulty

moderate

Required Effort

high

Recommended Frequency

occasionally

Introduction

  • Why does an apple fall from the tree?
  • Why does the earth revolve around the sun without falling into it?
  • Why does the atmosphere not dissolve into outer space?
  • Why is it so difficult to build an airplane?

These questions seem to have different answers, but of course, they share the same root cause: gravity.

In this example, gravity is the first principle that, once thoroughly understood, solves all riddles.

First principles thinking is a Magic Move you can make to advance in any area of life, from personal relationships to business decisions.

The things best to know are first principles and causes, but these things are perhaps the most difficult for men to grasp, for they are farthest removed from the senses.
Aristotle

What is first principles thinking?

First principles thinking is a powerful way to simplify complex problems by identifying their root causes. It involves using open-mindedness and analytical skills to break down a challenge into its basic components and then rebuilding reality in a way that addresses the problem at hand.

The benefits of thinking in first principles.

Thinking from first principles is helpful for many reasons:

Famous historical examples of first principles thinking.

Scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, writers, and other creative professionals alike have used first principles thinking to come up with new theories, test hypotheses, and develop innovative solutions:

The list goes on and on. The world would not be where it is today without the power of first principles thinking.

I learned to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.
Albert Einstein
If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration.
Nikola Tesla

How to arrive at first principles?

First principles thinking requires intention, concentration, and perseverance. It involves three phases:

  • 1

    Assess current reality

  • 2

    Identify first principles

  • 3

    Shape future reality

We have further broken down these phases:

First principles thinking visual outline of the process
The different steps of the first principles uncovery process.

The phases and their steps in a nutshell:

  • 1

    Assess current reality

    1. Observe what's happening and collect information.
    2. Group the information to reduce complexity.
    3. Simplify the observations by describing the characteristics of each category in a simple way.

  • 2

    Identify first principles

    1. Recognize the key elements that give rise to the different characteristics.
    2. Understand the interplay between these elements that causes the old reality.
    3. Transcend the old reality by looking at the key factors in a new light.

  • 3

    Shape future reality

    1. Combine these elements differently, change some of their characteristics and test the effects.
    2. Reintegrate your new understanding through practical applications.
    3. Expand to new, broader applications.

Practical examples

What follows are a few practical examples of this process in action.

These illustrations are not meant to analyze the problem and possible solutions completely. They are presented to motivate you to try first principles thinking the next time you have to solve a complex challenge yourself.

Example 1: Building iron ships.

Not long ago, no one thought of building ships of iron because iron does not float naturally. Nowadays, ships are seldom built of anything else, though the characteristics of iron and water have not changed. This new reality was created through first principles thinking:

Principle of floatation Process
First principles thinking applied to the challenge of making something heavy float.
  • 1

    Assess current reality

    1. Observe: Wood floats while iron sinks.
    2. Group: Wooden items categorized by weight, size.
    3. Describe: Same substance at different scale stays afloat.

  • 2

    Identify first principles

    1. Recognize: Weight and density matter.
    2. Understand: Buoyancy depends on volume of water displaced by the object.
    3. Transcend: The same principle applied to different substances would cause them to float.

  • 3

    Shape future reality

    1. Combine: Test hypotheses on new substances and learn from failures.
    2. Reintegrate: Build iron ships.
    3. Expand: Create new applications that transcend the initial question, but rely on same principle remaining true.

From this example, it is clear that:

  • What has changed is not nature but the depth of our insight into the principles of nature. Our understanding has expanded to a more intelligent perception of the law of floatation: we now see that wood floats and iron sinks, as both materials are subject to the same principle working under opposite conditions.
  • The principle we have uncovered is that anything will float, which bulk for bulk is lighter than the volume of water displaced by it.
  • By including in our calculations the displacement of the vessel and the specific gravity of the material, we now make iron float by the very same law by which it sinks.

Archimedes famously shouted, “Eureka!” (“I’ve found it!”) when he grasped some of the first principles governing floatation. The principle of floatation is also called the Archimedes principle.

This illustrates the power of first principles thinking: Done well, you feel thrilled to have arrived at the root cause of a problem or complex question.

Example 2: Resolving workplace conflicts.

First principles thinking can be applied to resolving disputes in the workplace:

First principles thinking applied to solving workplace conflicts
First principles thinking applied to the challenge of resolving recurring workplace conflicts.
  • 1

    ASSESS CURRENT REALITY

    1. Observe: There are a lot of conflicts in our workplace.
    2. Categorize: Visible aggression, status competition, humiliation of subordinates, blame game between departments, office gossip between employees.
    3. Simplify: Interpersonal conflicts, inter-role conflicts, inter-team conflicts.

  • 2

    Identify first principles

    1. Recognize: We have no core values, a lousy vision, mission, and the wrong incentive structure.
    2. Understand: Conflict is the outcome of this much more fundamental cause.
    3. Transcend: How do the same elements produce different outcomes in other organizations?

  • 3

    Shape future reality

    1. Combine: Recombine these elements to get a different outcome. Test and adjust.
    2. Reintegrate: Implement and keep measuring impact in real life.
    3. Scale up: Apply to more teams, to customer support, product creation, etc.

Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.
Isaac Newton

Example 3: Improving people’s nutritional behavior.

In this example, we applied first principles thinking to assess why people struggle with their nutrition despite knowing which choices are good for them and which ones are not:

First principles thinking applied to improving nutritional behavior
First principles thinking applied to the challenge of changing nutritional behavior long-term.
  • 1

    ASSESS CURRENT REALITY

    1. Observe: People consume all kinds of unhealthy foods and drinks.
    2. Categorize: Salty foods, refined foods, high-sugar food, alcohol.
    3. Simplify: When, where, with whom, and how much.

  • 2

    Identify first principles

    1. Recognize: Physical hunger, emotional distress, social pressure and other environmental triggers play a role.
    2. Understand: These triggers are processed and create a craving for unhealthy nutrition in a situation where it is easily accessible. Poor eating habits result.
    3. Transcend: We need a holistic approach that addresses both biology + physiology + sociology + environment.

  • 3

    Shape future reality

    1. Combine: Let's test new interventions that raise awareness of what drives nutritional behavior. Measure with metrics and create rules for different scenario's.
    2. Reintegrate: Apply this new approach into people's personal reality.
    3. Scale up: Scale to a larger population and create new applications that honor the same fundamental behavioral principles.

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
Albert Einstein

Conclusion

First principles thinking is a high-impact Magic Move. It empowers you to separate causes from effects, recognize points of maximum leverage, and create practical solutions to complex problems. The process and examples we have outlined show that your responsibility is to:

  • 1

    Analyze current reality to uncover the key elements.

  • 2

    Uncover the universal principles that determine how these elements manifest and interact.

  • 3

    Provide the conditions that make the principles work in new ways, transcending anything in your past experience.

This framework outlines how all actual progress has been achieved up to the present. Likewise, it is how all progress must be achieved in the future. And for our personal growth, we can use this Magic Move to deal with our own challenges.

The great work results from seeing the abstract principles from which all else is generated. This same law applies to the universal principles of life itself.
Thomas Troward

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