First principles thinking is the discipline of challenging all your assumptions about a problem or scenario. From that line of questioning, you create new knowledge.
Consequently, a first principle is a foundational assumption broken down to its atomic level — it stands alone.
Simply put: question everything you know or think you know about a problem, discover truths, and generate an original solution.
Why Use It
By asking more questions, you’ll peel back the onion, remove unseen blinders from your thinking, and arrive at foundational truths.
People create a society, participate in its existence and evolution, and inherit its systems and constructs. Most of the time, we accept it without questioning why, even though it can inhibit our creativity.
Any abstraction that does not come from nature is a shared belief. Society is built on shared beliefs: currency, religion, countries, communities, etc. While abstractions help us conserve mental effort and are valuable in parsing the world around us, they come at a cost.
It’s easy to accept norms because they’re widely agreed on, but it’s more important to think for yourself. Recognize that institutions and systems, no matter how ingrained, are all flexible and changeable.
When to Use It
As adults, we rely too heavily on conventions, and they take the place of questioning. Humans often reason by analogy, meaning we imitate what others have made or thought with minor differences instead of doing the hard work. Using other’s thoughts or constructs without thinking is a kind of prison for the mind.
Deducing problems using first principles thinking will make implausible outcomes seem possible. If knowledge was a tree, it’s essential to focus on the trunk and big branches before the leaves. Otherwise, you might not have a big branch (idea) to hold up your leaves (the details).
Using this type of thinking will empower you to develop an individual worldview and be more innovative.
How to Use It
The idea is to break down a complex problem into essential parts, and by doing so, dislodge yourself from linear thinking to non-linear outcomes.
First, when you face a problem, identify your assumptions, dig deep. Second, use ‘why’ to critique existing ideas and interrogate your assumptions. Third, after deconstructing the problem, you then reconstruct a solution without being tethered to the original thinking.
- Start by defining the problem, how it exists today, and why you think this.
Challenge yourself by asking why you think it’s true. Use inversion to consider the opposite.
- Note any existing evidence that supports your thinking and whether they are credible sources.
- Discover what others think and consider their perspectives.
- Determine what the consequences might be if you’re wrong.
Most importantly, emulate a more childlike version of yourself — the one that once asked “why” about everything. Young folks don’t adhere to convention firmly, and as such, they naturally think in first principles.
Get to that fundamental truth, or as close as you can. From there you can move mountains.
How to Misuse It
Gut check your process and ensure you’ve gone deep enough on a problem before claiming victory and coming up with a conventional solution unintentionally.
What may look like innovation could just be an incremental improvement or modification to an existing idea. And while that may not be the worst outcome, it could be a lateral step rather than a leap forward.
Stop letting others frame your perceptions, and strive to create it for yourself — break out of the herd mentality. Utilize this type of thinking when working on a complex scenario or solving a problem for the first time.
Where it Came From
The approach was first introduced by Aristotle and advanced by Aristotelians as well as Kantians. It remains a cornerstone for improving reasoning and is preferred by Charlie Munger and Elon Musk.
What Are Mental Models?
Mental models are thinking tools that help guide and shape our perceptions of the world. They simplify complexity so we can understand life better, make decisions confidently, and solve problems.