Have you heard of first-principles thinking? It's reverse-engineering problems down to their most basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. People say it’s the single-best way to innovate original solutions and ideas to learn how to think completely for yourself. Some of the most famous users of this method include inventor Johannes Gutenberg, military strategist John Boyd, investor Charlie Munger, physicist Richard Feynman, and most notably, Elon Musk, who has even asked his employees to adopt this method of thinking.
This approach was created 2,000 years ago by Aristotle: he poses that “in every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first principles, all the way to the elements.”
Okay so what does that actually mean? Basically, the first principle is a foundational statement assumed to be true that can’t be deduced from any other statement. We remove any biases and presumptions so that we are left with the essentials. Once we have the essentials, we ask a series of “why” questions, and then get to a new level or deeper understanding.
For example, Elon Musk and the SpaceX program: he had this to say.
“Musk starts out with something he wants to achieve, like building a rocket. Then he starts with the first principles of the problem. Running through how Musk would think, “What are the physics of it? How much time will it take? How much will it cost? How much cheaper can I make it? There’s this level of engineering and physics that you need to make judgments about what’s possible and interesting.
Rockets are absurdly expensive, which is a problem because Musk wants to send people to Mars. And to send people to Mars, you need cheaper rockets. So he asked himself, “What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And 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.
Why, then, is it so expensive to get a rocket into space? Musk, a notorious self-learner with degrees in both economics and physics, literally taught himself rocket science. He figured that the only reason getting a rocket into space is so expensive is that people are stuck in a mindset that doesn’t hold up to first principles. With that, Musk decided to create SpaceX and see if he could build rockets himself from the ground up.”
Obviously, we now know how that panned out for Musk.
To use the first-principles method yourself, here’s a list of questions to start with. Make sure you always have your most basic end goal in mind.
Clarifying your thinking and explaining the origins of your ideas (Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?)
Challenging assumptions (How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?)
Looking for evidence (How can I back this up? What are the sources?)
Considering alternative perspectives (What might others think? How do I know I am correct?)
Examining consequences and implications (What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?)
Questioning the original questions (Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?)
When we take what already exists and improve on it, we are in the shadow of others. It’s only when we step back, ask ourselves what’s possible, and cut through the flawed analogies that we see what is possible.
As entrepreneurs and business owners ourselves, we believe it is crucial for both personal and professional growth to consider different methods of thinking and ways to expand your cognitive approach. That is why we wanted to share this method with you. Take some time to go through these questions and see it in action for yourself! Who knows, maybe it will help you become the next Elon Musk.
(Vance, Ashlee. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (p. 354)