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First Principles Thinking: Definition, Examples, and Application

Classical Greek philosopher and polymath (384-322 BC)

Classical Greek philosopher and polymath (384-322 BC).

What is First Principles Thinking?

First Principles Thinking is a problem-solving approach that involves breaking down complex problems into their most basic, fundamental parts. It's about getting to the root cause of a problem or the core truth of a situation, rather than relying on assumptions, analogies, or past experiences. This method of thinking is often attributed to Aristotle, who said that the "first basis from which a thing is known" is a first principle.

Examples of First Principles Thinking in Action

One of the most famous examples of First Principles Thinking comes from Elon Musk and his work with SpaceX. When Musk first looked into sending rockets into space, he was faced with the high cost of purchasing a rocket. Instead of accepting this cost as a given, he applied First Principles Thinking. He asked, "What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. 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." By applying First Principles Thinking, Musk was able to create SpaceX for a fraction of the cost.

Another example can be found in the culinary world. When a chef creates a new recipe, they don't start with an existing recipe and make modifications. Instead, they start with the basic ingredients (the first principles) and experiment until they create something new and delicious.

How to Apply First Principles Thinking in Decision Making

Applying First Principles Thinking in decision making involves three key steps:

  1. Identify and define your current assumptions: When faced with a problem, we often start with assumptions or established beliefs. These are often based on past experiences or common practices. The first step in First Principles Thinking is to identify these assumptions.

  2. Breakdown the problem into its fundamental principles: This involves asking probing questions to get to the root cause of the problem or the core truth of the situation. These are the 'first principles' - the basic truths or elements that can't be broken down any further.

  3. Create new solutions from scratch: Once you've identified the first principles of a problem, the next step is to create new solutions from scratch. This involves combining these principles in new and innovative ways.

In conclusion, First Principles Thinking is a powerful tool for problem-solving and innovation. By breaking down problems to their most basic elements, we can see past traditional assumptions and create new, innovative solutions.