You wake up, trapped in a kitchen filled with piles of eggs, milk, baking soda, flour, sugar, butter, and chocolate.
A note written on the refrigerator tells you that you have two choices: either embrace your inner Gordon Ramsay and make something tasty, or die a gruesome death. (Just go with it.)
What would the average person do in this situation? Probably google a recipe online for chocolate chip cookies, following it to the letter because you’re scared that if you’re even a single millilitre of milk off, you’ll end up with burnt mush.
Basic, but understandable — it’s a life or death situation, and especially risky considering my personal past experiences with making anything that’s more than two ingredients.
But what would a pro chef do? Most likely they’d flex on us mere mortals, making some insanely complex arrangement of ganache-stuffed petit fours or whatever else they can conjure up that’s never been made before.
The difference between the pro chef and us:
The chef cooks using first principles. They understand the relationship between each raw ingredient on a very deep level, and can therefore predict the interactions between the ingredients; different ways to combine them to invent something completely new.
But we plebs make food through reasoning by analogy. Even if we make tweaks to the recipe, at the end of the day it’s still something that’s been made before. If every person was put in this (very strange) life or death situation, and they were allowed the help of Google and the big wide Internet, 99.99% of us would probably make something basic — like chocolate chip cookies — because we don’t understand what the ingredients actually do.
If we do somehow mess up the recipe and end up with an amorphous pile of doughy mush, we’ll never know what we did wrong, and what approaches to take to fix it. The chef, on the other hand, will be able to evaluate their errors, analyze them, and quickly fix their mistakes because they have real knowledge and understanding of the ingredients (a.k.a the first principles).
Your 3-year-old self (and Elon Musk) has some lessons to teach you
From the moment I could speak, I became The Most Annoying Toddler To Ever Exist. I was obsessed with talking.
In the car, I would scream out every sign we’d pass in an aggressive display of my newfound reading abilities. When my then pre-teen sister would get more pissed off than endeared by my constant babbling in her face, I’d sit back to have extremely loud conversations with my own alter ego I named Kelly so that everyone in the house could hear me gossiping about how rude my sister was.
But by far my best Piss-Everyone-Within-A-5km-Radius-Off tactic was just one word — “Why?”
Not because a young child’s glimmering curiosity for the knowledge our world has to offer was annoying in itself, but rather because I would say it in response to anything anyone would ever say.
“Stop running around like a headless chicken, your sister’s practicing piano right now.”
“Because you’ll disturb her.”
“Because if you’re running around screaming murder while she’s playing, she can’t concentrate!”
“Because I said so!”
Inevitably, I’d get the “because I said so” or “that’s just the way it is” combined with a noncommittal shrug and a condescending head pat after a couple prods with my “Why?” stick. (I do admit I kinda deserved it, though.)
It might shock you, but 3-year-old me (and 3-year-old you and everyone else) was an expert at reasoning with first principles. They’re really good at having the instinctual desire to break down assumptions of the status quo to the fundamentals in order to gain fundamental understanding of new concepts.
In this way, toddlers and Elon Musk are — unironically — very similar. Here’s Musk’s thoughts on the topic, pulled from Tim Urban’s article, The Cook and The Chef — Musk’s Secret Sauce:
I think generally people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good.”
But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up — “from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.
In science, theories are called theories for a reason — they can be disproved at any time. Even the most fundamental theories can become obsolete as we uncover more parts of our reality.
Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation stops working when you zoom out into extreme case studies. So Einstein’s theory of general relativity ended up coming out on top instead as a more universal solution. But then all of that is thrown under the glorious bus of quantum mechanics and spooky subatomic particle behaviour.
That’s why scientists always start with the very bare bones of fundamentals; the first principles, the axioms. We can apply this to solve tough problems in our lives, too. Or do pretty downright insane things, like singlehandedly becoming a self-taught rocket scientist to send people to Mars.
Here’s how Musk used first principles to break down the rocket cost and viability problem:
Historically, all rockets have been expensive, so therefore, in the future, all rockets will be expensive. But actually that’s not true. If you say, what is a rocket made of? It’s made of aluminum, titanium, copper, carbon fiber. And you can break it down and say, what is the raw material cost of all these components?
And if you have them stacked on the floor and could wave a magic wand so that the cost of rearranging the atoms was zero, then what would the cost of the rocket be? And I was like, wow, okay, it’s really small — it’s like 2% of what a rocket costs.
So clearly it would be in how the atoms are arranged — so you’ve got to figure out how can we get the atoms in the right shape much more efficiently. And so I had a series of meetings on Saturdays with people, some of whom were still working at the big aerospace companies, just to try to figure out if there’s some catch here that I’m not appreciating. And I couldn’t figure it out. There doesn’t seem to be any catch. So I started SpaceX.
It might seem really simple when we look at it now, but this kind of thinking is rarely ever done because breaking down what we take to be true by challenging the status quo is hard.
When scaled up, it can also start to get real risky. People are afraid of public opinion. Everyone thought Elon Musk was half unhinged, but look at him now. The only reason why this happened is because Musk applied first principles thinking and was able to understand on a very fundamental level why or why not making logarithmically cheaper rockets was viable.
Stop outsourcing your thinking
We let others tell us what’s possible, not only when it comes to our dreams but also when it comes to how we go after them. And when we let other people tell us what’s possible or what the best way to do something is, we outsource our thinking to someone else.
This is a quote from Farnam Street’s article on how to apply first principles. When you follow a recipe to make chocolate chip cookies, the software of it comes from the chef behind the recipe, not you. All you did was act as the hardware to execute some instructions.
When you let others dictate what’s possible and what’s not, you’re not thinking for yourself. You’re letting someone else do it for you, and living life by their conclusions of what life is.
I’m gonna say that one more time for those of you in the back:
By letting other people dictate what’s possible and what’s not, you’re letting someone else do the thinking for you, and living by their idea of what life is supposed to be.
Think Elon Musk coming up and actually going through with all these crazy companies is insane? Nah, I think living your entire life based on someone else’s opinion of the world is even crazier. But we all do it anyways!
One of the biggest missteps people make before they even start trying to reason by first principles is starting off on the wrong foot to begin with. Instead of having your ideal outcome be focused around how to most efficiently deliver a function, we optimize for form instead. From James Clear:
When criticizing technological progress some people ask, “Where are the flying cars?”
Here’s the thing: We have flying cars. They’re called airplanes.
What is a car supposed to do? Move people from point A to point B, and fast. What is flying supposed to do? Move people from point A to point B, and in the air so you can both go faster and cross oceans too.
So, an airplane.
Like James Clear mentions, this is a clear example of people reasoning by analogy instead of with first principles; outlining a goal by thinking of what something’s supposed to look like — just because that’s the way it’s always looked — instead of what it’s supposed to do.
If we think about it, this faulty reasoning is a big reason why new exponential technologies aren’t being adopted as fast as they should be — people are still waiting for mechanical horses when they already have cars.
We’re waiting for humanoid robot assistants when we already have machine learning algorithms that help us make smart decisions way better than we do. They don’t have to look like us. In fact, they’ll probably work even better if they didn’t look like us.
Because of first principles thinking, more of the world opens up to you — by actually knowing and understanding the constituent elements of any problem, you can rebuild a solution that’s 10x more effective than anything we have now. It’s why moonshots are only possible with first principles thinking.
Reasoning by analogy gives you incremental improvement.
Reasoning by first principles gives you possibility.
See the value now?
Okay, cool, but how the heck does it work?
There’s a handful of people in history who have been famously good at first principles thinking, and Socrates is one of them.
He would do this thing we now call Socratic Questioning, which was basically the ancient Greek philosopher version of a toddler asking you “why” all the damn time.
All things considered, it’s a pretty straightforward 6-step process, but asking yourself these tough questions is what will help you break down all assumptions to unveil the bare-bones fundamentals of a problem.
Here’s my distilled version of the Socratic Method:
- Ask yourself: why do you think what you think? Dig deeper.
- What kind of assumptions are you making? Do a case study of what would happen if it were the opposite situation.
- What kind of evidence do you have to back up your thinking? Is your evidence legit?
- What are other perspectives on this, and how do I know mine is the correct one?
- What would happen if you went through with this? Okay, then what would happen if you did the opposite?
- Why did I choose that specific question to ask initially? How could I have optimized this?
Asking good “why” questions that really dig to the depths of why you think in a certain way is so key, because we’ve lived our lives learning by analogy to such a point where we feel like they’ve become universal “truths”. It’s a difficult hole to dig yourself out from, which is why Socrates’ constant questioning got him into trouble often because having to challenge your fundamental beliefs is super unsettling and uncomfortable to do.
How do we apply first principles in our daily lives though? In his article, Tim Urban extensively explains Musk’s “software”, which provides a bigger decision-making framework for life in general, powered by first principles thinking.
There’s four things to take into account in Musk’s framework.
The Want Box
Surprisingly, it’s a lot harder than you think to know what you want. What drives the person you are on a deeper level? Is it a desire for recognition? Wealth? Happiness? Good relationships, or making an impact on the world? Most people don’t like doing this because a lot of the truths (the first principles) we uncover about ourselves can be a lot uglier than we think. But don’t worry — as we grow, we can change, and so this “want” box evolves along with our growth.
As soon as you figure out what things go into your “want” box, you’ll have better direction. What’s your truth?
The Reality Box
Reality is what’s happening in the world around us. Not only what’s happening right now, but the projected possibilities in the next 5–10 years given the information we have now. First principles is even more important to apply in this step, because now you have to make sure you break down assumptions of reality so that you have the right data to make decisions later. Don’t think too hard about the information in your Reality box yet though — analysis is for later.
The Goal Pool
Your goals will be the intersection between what your Want Box and your Reality Box. It’s the combination of the data you have, and the things you want to achieve. By doing this, you can start with a good objective to keep in mind as you move forwards, an objective that reflects both who you are in your current state and the world in its current state (and projected state).
The Strategy Lab
Move from planning to execution. The Strategy Lab actually is more of a cycle of attempt → result → feedback → reiteration until eventually you get one thing right. Yes, this is the part that motivational Instagram accounts and people like Gary Vee call “The Grind”.
In the end, you get something that looks a little like this (thank you, Tim):
This diagram isn’t static. It’s constantly moving, constantly flowing, back and forth between the boxes and pools and labs. As you change and as the world changes, so does your entire framework on a macro level. This is why it’s not only important to understand the first principles, but also maintain a continuous stream of information on how the world works right now.
Don’t think you can sneak past me, you with the short attention span. Here’s the TL;DR you’ve been scrolling for.
- First principles thinking means to stop using other people’s opinions, assumptions, and reasoning to draw your own picture of how the world works.
- Reasoning by analogy gives you incremental improvement. Reasoning by first principles gives you a whole new realm of possibilities.
- Prioritize function over form.
- Follow the Socratic Method as your baseline methodology to understand the deeper “why”. Use it on yourself first so you don’t piss off people by accident.
- Use Elon Musk’s framework to be able to apply first principles thinking to your life. Figure out what you want, figure out how the world works, compute your goals from that, then execute strategies.
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