Thinking 101: The class we should have all taken a while ago.

Ciara Sejour
Visionary Hub
Published in
7 min readOct 22, 2021

When’s was the last time you learned something? Earlier today? Yesterday? Last week? Regardless, it’s quite evident that we learn something every day. In the digital age, we live in today, information is at the tip of our fingers. With a click of a button, you can find whatever you want. Like who the first astronomer was, or what Kylie Jenner had for breakfast today (if that’s up your alley). Of course, like anything great, there’s always a catch. In terms of the digital age, information is our double-edged sword. We like to think that we consume information. Yet oftentimes it’s the information that consumes us. But don't worry, we’ve got first principle thinking to save the day.

First principle thinking?

First-principles are basic assumptions that can’t be broken down any further. Think of these principles as atomic particles (the basics of basics). Essentially, when you add the word think to the equation, first principle thinking is basically thinking deeper and deeper until you’ve reached a fundamental truth. This type of thinking is normally applied to complicated problems, but can be used in other situations as well. Many successful innovators break down complicated problems into basic elements and reassemble them from the ground up. Elon Musk’s Space X being a prime example.

So… how do you do it?

Being a first principle thinker isn’t as hard as it seems. Luckily, there are 3 systems we can use to implement them into our lives.

Socratic questioning

Socratic questioning is a disciplined thinking process that is often used to develop truth, reveal underlying assumptions, and separate fact from fiction.

The process

  1. Clarifying thinking and explaining the origins of your ideas: Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?
  2. Challenging assumptions: How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?
  3. Looking for evidence: How can I back this up? What are the sources?
  4. Considering alternative perspectives: What do others think? How do I know I’m correct?
  5. Examining consequences and implications: What if I’m wrong? What are the consequences if I am?
  6. Questioning the original questions: Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from this process?

Random Example:

Problem: I need to read a 600-page book by the end of the week, but I can’t.

  • Clarifying thinking and explaining the origins of your ideas: I think I will not be able to finish the 600-page book I have to read by the end of the week. I think this because I won’t have enough time this week to finish the book.
  • Challenging assumptions: Sometimes in class, I’m the last one to finish reading. Though, if I didn’t think this, I would be somewhat confident I could finish the book by the end of the week and would have already started.
  • Looking for evidence: There were two times in class where I was the last one to finish reading. By the time I finished reading, everyone else had already finished their summaries.
  • Considering alternative perspectives: My English teacher says I’m a good reader and my friend says I'm the best reader she knows.
  • Examining consequences and implications: If I’m wrong, I will have wasted time I could have spent reading the book. If I don't read the whole book, I’ll get a 0 on the assignment and most likely fail the upcoming test.
  • Questioning the original questions: I thought I couldn’t read the book because the book seemed super long and there were two occasions where I was the slowest reader in class. I wasn’t correct, because now it’s a week later and I finished the book. Overall, I learned that I should stop doubting myself and I can do anything I put my mind to.

Elon Musk’s problem-solving approach

  • Starts off with something he wants to achieve.
  • Then thinks about the first principles of the problem.

His 3 question framework

  • Identify current assumptions.
  • Breakdown problem into fundamental principles/ basics.
  • Create new solutions from scratch.


  • Current assumption: Making a video that explains something is complicated and takes too long.
  • Fundamentals of problem: All I need to make a video is a camera (real camera, or a device that has one). All I need to make a video that explains something is a topic to explain.
  • New solution: I’ll make a video using my phone camera. I’ll talk about a topic I am somewhat knowledgeable about.

The 5 why’s

With the 5 why’s thinking model, you are asking the question why until you reach the most fundamental answer.

  • Why is it happening?
  • Why is that?
  • Why is that?
  • Why is that?
  • Why is that?


Problem: Ran a red light.

  • Why?: Late to school.
  • Why?: Alarm clock didn't go off.
  • Why?: Forgot to check if it was set to go off.
  • Why?: Rushed to get to bed.
  • Why? : Stayed up late, and realized what time it was.

Solution: Stop staying up so late.

Change the way you think!

Stop letting others think for you!

The whole first thinking process is easier said than done, especially when we’ve got the whole world telling us what to do! If you think about it, many of the online posts, videos, podcasts, and blogs we consume can often be some of the biggest decision-makers in our life. Take for example online review blogs (blogs that give ratings and share opinions on products and services). We could be thinking of buying, say a mattress. So, we look at some sites, and about half of the sites say a Tempurpedic mattress is the best and the other half of websites say that Helix mattresses are the best. Now, we’re stuck with two mattresses that have an equal amount of good votes. So, we decide to go on a deep dive and look for bad reviews. This time, we find more bad reviews on Helix mattresses, so right then and there we choose Tempurpedic mattresses. Notice how we didn't give ourselves time to actually think about the decision ourselves. This is just one example of the many naïve things we do on a daily basis.

How I think ≠ How you think

A lot of the time when we are explaining stuff to people we use analogies. Analogy in this context is the “process of arguing from similarity in known respects to similarity in other respects.” In other words, it’s a way to reason using comparison. For example, if I were to say that making everyone take the same IQ test is like making a fish climb a tree, then that would be an analogy. Analogical reasoning is thinking that relies on analogy. I’ve made a few analogies in this article, and while they are great ways to understand complex topics they still can’t replace actually understanding the topic for yourself. Basically, analogies are other people’s way of understanding/viewing a topic. If you base your reasoning on somebody else’s analogy, your essential viewing a topic/problem through somebody else’s perspective. This takes away the actual reason you’re even looking at the analogy, to understand the topic for yourself. Bottom line is, use analogies as a study guide, not an answer key (see, another analogy. They just keep flowing)

One step at a time doesn't cut it.

Incremental improvements are a way of focusing your efforts on smaller solutions, slowly working towards the bigger goal. These improvements tend to be within the boundaries of the current situation. The effectiveness of this method depends solely on what your current situation is. I like to think of it this way, would you put a Band-Aid on a small cut or a big gash? Many of the problems we are faced with today are too urgent to be fixed in increments. Sure, it may be easier to put off the bigger issue for while, but when you are forced to deal it, it’s going to be harder to solve the problem.

Great minds think alike

What is one thing all innovators have in common? They all had a crazy idea that they stuck to and that turned into a success. One of the most popular examples of this is Elon Musk and his idea for Space X. Elon Musk started off with an idea, he wanted to build a rocket that sent people to Mars. Then he thought of the problem from a first-principle perspective and figured he needed to make rockets less expensive, so he decides to build his own. He didn't focus on how the rocket looked/what materials it was made of but rather based focused on what he wanted the rocket to do. This is an example of favoring function over form. Meaning he was focusing on the desired result, rather than the current form of the situation. Elon Musk obviously isn’t the only success story. Many others like Steve Jobs, Aristotle, Marie Currie, Leonardo de Vinci, and Jeff Bezos all utilized this framework and in turn impacted the world in a huge way!

Key takeaways

A lot of information was just thrown at you, so let’s summarize it real quick.

  • First-principles are basic assumptions that can’t be broken down any further.
  • First principle thinking is when you continue to think deeper and deeper until you have reached a fundamental truth.
  • There are 3 key systems that can be used to implement first-principle reasoning: Socratic questioning, Elon Musk’s problem-solving approach, and the 5 why’s.
  • Currently, we think/reason by: Letting others think for us, over-relaying on analogies, and by solving big problems in increments.
  • Almost all innovators utilize this reasoning framework.
  • When you favor function over form, you are focusing on the desired result rather than the current form of the situation.
  • First principle thinking: Is it true?
  • Analogous thinking: It’s been done before, therefore making it true.

Here are some links if you want to learn more:

First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge

First Principles: Elon Musk on the Power of Thinking for Yourself

First Principles Thinking: The Definitive Guide



Ciara Sejour
Visionary Hub

AI for education and biosensors for disease detection/monitoring.