‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”’— Richard Feynman
Nobel-prize winning physicist and Caltech professor, Richard Feynman, was intensely curious. He relished solving problems on his own, wanting to truly understand them, before attempting to solve them.
Feynman followed clear principles to drive his thinking, breaking down problems to their fundamental truths, and then finding solutions from there.
Principles, which serve as the foundations for what you get out of life, are not just for the ‘Richard Feynman’s’ of the world.
On the 8th of October 2013, I experienced my first day clean after 15 years of chronic heroin addiction. Since then, I’ve become a lecturer at the top two universities in Ireland, all while pursuing a PhD in a subject that I love.
I’ve also recently acquired a book deal with a mainstream publishing house, and I’ve just shot a pilot for a TV show about the tools I used to change my life.
So what changed? How did I go from addict to lecturer in the space of 6 years?
I developed a set of principles for every aspect of my life. They have not only helped me to recover from addiction; they have helped me to thrive, providing the foundations for the amazing life I have today.
Here are 3 timeless principles that have supercharged my thinking, and as a result, helped me to successfully navigate my new life:
1. First-principles thinking
First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complex problems. Often called reasoning from first principles, it’s the act of boiling things down to their most fundamental truths.
This is done by separating the underlying ideas from any assumptions they might be based on. A first principle, therefore, is a basic assumption that can’t be deduced any further.
An excellent example of first-principles thinking comes via entrepreneur Elon Musk. In an interview with Kevin Rose, Musk expertly explained how Space X used first principles to innovate at low prices.
In the early days of Space X, Musk was told that “battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be.” Instead of settling for this answer, though, he broke the problem down into its fundamental parts.
First, he identified the material constituents of the batteries. Then, he priced the materials on the London metal exchange and calculated the construction costs. As it turned out, the cost of building a battery from the bottom-up was only 13.3% of the original price.
By reasoning from first principles, Musk was able to cut through the fog of pre-existing beliefs to see opportunities others had missed.
Inversion is one of the most powerful thinking tools. Its origins can be found in the word ‘invert,’ which simply means ‘turn upside down.’ It helps us to successfully identify and eliminate obstacles by tackling them from the opposite end of the natural starting point.
For example, say you were working on a project and you need to push on. Instead of asking yourself, “What three things will help move the project forward?” ask yourself, “What five things will hold the project back?”
The idea is, rather than thinking about what you want, consider what you’d like to avoid. Or as Charlie Munger once said,
“All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.”
Inversion won’t give you the answer to every problem, but it will always improve how you think about it.
3. Second-order thinking
Every action has a consequence, and each of these consequences has further consequences. These are called second-order effects.
Second-order thinking means thinking about these second-order effects. In other words, it means thinking about the effects of the effects.
This is a powerful thinking tool because things are not always as they appear. When we solve one problem, it’s often the case that we inadvertently create another one.
Second-order thinking allows us to examine the long-term consequences of our decisions before we potentially make a bad choice.
This process is best explained in terms of deficiencies. Here’s a great example from Shane Parrish’s latest book on mental models:
“We have been feeding antibiotics to livestock for decades to make the meat safer and cheaper. Only in recent years have we begun to realise that in doing so we have helped to create bacteria that we cannot defend against.”
In other words, instead of making meat safer, we have nurtured an army of dangerous, drug-resistant bacteria that have become part of our food chain.
Could these second-order effects have been avoided?
Yes. Anyone with a basic understanding of biology knows that organisms evolve and adapt, and those with shorter life cycles adapt quickly. If second-order thinking was implemented, this situation could have been avoided.
All You Need to Know
When you supercharge your thinking, you’ll see huge changes in your life. You’ll also get closer to your goals every single day.
The principles above will also make your life much easier. They will guide your decisions when life gets complicated, and provide you with a road-map whenever you feel stuck.
Your future tomorrow depends on the decisions you make today. So make sure you’re using the best thinking tools possible to ensure you’re making good ones.