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How to think from first principles

Creativity & Innovation

Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk swears by first principles thinking. Musk, founder of online payments giant PayPal, space transport services company SpaceX and electric car maker Tesla says first principles thinking enables him to dig deep into problems and get to fundamental truths that lead to new ways of doing things.

Musk came across first principles thinking when he embarked on an applied physics PhD at Stanford University. He abandoned his PhD shortly after starting it to go into the world of business but he took the concept of first principles thinking with him. “I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy,” he said, in an oft-quoted interview.

“The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.”

Musk is a very modern entrepreneur, operating at the forefront of new, cutting-edge enterprises. First principles thinking could easily sound like a new fad thought up by tech-savvy innovators such as Musk, but the concept has actually been around a very long time. Over 2,300 years in fact.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was an advocate of first principles thinking. He always searched for first principles (or origins) in his philosophical journeying. First principles thinking is also deeply rooted in maths and physics. Wikipedia sums it up nicely:

“A first principle is a basic, foundational proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. 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 fitting parameters.”

Advocates of first principles thinking tend to be people who look at situations and problems afresh – i.e. innovators. They go back to the basics and look at what needs to be achieved, rather than looking at how to just improve something.

This is exactly what anyone who wants to follow first principles thinking needs to do. Start with a blank slate and work from the fundamental truths. What are you trying to achieve? How can you achieve it?

Look at what is already out there by all means, but don’t focus on trying to improve on it. Focus on what you need to achieve and how best to achieve it, operating from those fundamental truths.

This is particularly important if what needs to be achieved will break new ground and is complicated. As Musk says, analogies are not necessarily perfect and they rely on things that have already occurred. In this age of constant change, innovation and new frontiers, the right analogy might not even be there.

Old ways of doing things are being undone all the time and new ways are being forged. First principles thinking is the perfect vehicle for innovation.

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