First principles thinking is a highly-effective strategy. It can help someone break down complicated problems and generate original solutions. By extension, this strategy is also the best approach to learning how to think for yourself.
In short, a first principle is the most fundamental assumption about a given subject, that you cannot deduce any further. Or how Aristotle put it more than two millennia ago “the first basis from which a thing is known.”
Rene Descartes, a well-known French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist from the 17th century, also embraced this approach. Known as the Cartesian Doubt, his method was to, doubt everything he could question until he was left with the most basic, indubitable truths.
In other words, the first principles strategy is a way for people to think like a scientist. You drop all preconceived notions. You don’t assume anything. You strip ideas to their most basic elements.
The further down you go, the more accurate your solution will be. Even so, when put in practice on a day-to-day level, you don’t need to strip an idea down to the atomic level. You only need to go a couple of extra levels beyond what other people are doing. The reason for this is that the further down you go, the more different opportunities you have besides those already established.
The First Principles Thinking Strategy and Entrepreneur Elon Musk
To better put things into perspective, let’s take a look at entrepreneur Elon Musk. He began his journey in 2002 to put people on Mars. As with every other such idea of this size, Musk ran into a significant problem almost as soon as he started.
As he was looking around the world for a rocket to buy, he realized that the average price was around $65 million. $65 million is an astronomical cost. So Musk began to apply the first principles of thinking strategy.
“I tend to approach things from a physics framework,” said Musk. “Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of?”
Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fibre. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.”
So, instead of going ahead and buying a $65 million rocket, Musk decided to buy the raw materials. He then built the rocket for himself. It is how SpaceX came into being. After several years of research, SpaceX was able to cut the price of launching a rocket by a factor of 10. Even then, SpaceX still made a profit.
Musk used first principles thinking to bring the entire scenario to its essential elements. Musk avoided the high prices set by the aerospace industry. He came up with a more efficient solution than anything before that existed.
By using this thinking strategy, Elon Musk was not only able to lower the price of a rocket but also revolutionize the entire spacefaring industry. By breaking up the concept into its fundamental parts, he was able to reconstruct the idea in a much more efficient and productive way. This reconstruction made space travel something more achievable than it was before.
Philip Uglow is the President of Renshi Consulting Group. Renshi lowers clients costs by pulling ideas from your people in the moment, when they are most busy with real work. This is when they learn. This is when they change.