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First principle - Thinking at elemental level


First Principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, and what that really means is that you boil things down to the most fundamental truths, and say what we are sure is true, or sure is possible is true. And then reason up from there - that takes a lot more mental energy
-        - Elon Musk


What is First principle?

The idea of using first principle is to uncover the basics of the problem and once you are able to reach those building blocks then follow a bottom-up approach to rebuild the problem.

Instead of relying on analogies, here we ask questions to understand the elemental level issues and then try to approach the problem but from different angle


Image source - Wikipedia


First principle would have led the invention of bicycle kick in early 1900s
Analogy is improvisation of the same over the time to make it more useful and situational



An example

Suppose you are designing a product description page of a website. What will you do?

Maybe check the industry to which this website belongs and then design as per the industry standards.
Or even add layers of content and simplicity to the page.

This is redefining the existing practice and is known as analogy

Let’s try to understand why we need to design the product description page?

To provide information to the customer so that he can decide easily
Also, description and other lengthy details couldn’t be placed on some other page
Finally, so that customer move to the next page and purchase the thing

So, what information customer needs to make up a decision?
Reviews of product, image, price, content

Now can you present these elements into some other form beyond the conventional design so that user can decide and purchase the product? – That’s first principle thinking

Another example we can think of is Chef & Cook analogy which was very well explained by Tim Urban during his interview with Elon musk -

Paraphrasing it from Tim’s blog Wait but Why

The words “cook” and “chef” seem kind of like synonyms. And in the real world, they’re often used interchangeably. But in this post, when I say chef, I don’t mean any ordinary chef. I mean the trailblazing chef—the kind of chef who invents recipes. And for our purposes, everyone else who enters a kitchen—all those who follow recipes—is a cook.

Everything you eat—every part of every cuisine we know so well—was at some point in the past created for the first time. Wheat, tomatoes, salt, and milk go back a long time, but at some point, someone said, “What if I take those ingredients and do this…and this…..and this……” and ended up with the world’s first pizza. That’s the work of a chef.

Since then, god knows how many people have made a pizza. That’s the work of a cook.

The chef reasons from first principles, and for the chef, the first principles are raw edible ingredients. Those are her puzzle pieces, her building blocks, and she works her way upwards from there, using her experience, her instincts, and her taste buds.

The cook works off of some version of what’s already out there—a recipe of some kind, a meal she tried and liked, a dish she watched someone else make. 


The first principles approach has deep roots.

Over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle said that a first principle is the "first basis from which a thing is known" and that pursuing first principles is the key to doing any sort of systemic inquiry - whether in philosophy, as he did, or in business, as Elon Musk does



It’s easier said than done



On papers, this mental model is as simple as Lego blocks.
You’ll deconstruct to get to the basic elements and then reconstruct using those elements.

However, application of it can be very challenging.

Take an example of investment.

You are looking to invest in potential profitable equity. You are searching for next Apple, Amazon, Facebook and relying on secondary research for the same.
Maybe you do primary research to uncover the similarities between new entrant in technology sector and Amazon.

But this is called analogy where we are relying on the past trends, historic winners for our success. It’s a conventional thinking.

Now instead of that, think of following points while investing –
-       Do I have knowledge of this industry?
-       Is the management capable and shareholder friendly?
-       Can this company continue to run for next 10,15,20 years?
-       Are there services or products habit forming?

Questions like these are the building blocks, the basic elements of investing. Following them while investing is a first principle.

In theory, first principles thinking requires you to dig deeper and deeper until you are left with only the foundational truths of a situation. Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and scientist, embraced this approach with a method now called Cartesian Doubt in which he would “systematically doubt everything he could possibly doubt until he was left with what he saw as purely indubitable truths.”

The first step of this principle is deconstruction which requires asking lot of questions – mostly Whys and What Ifs
The answer to these questions along with your understanding of the fundamentals will help you in second step which is reconstruction

Reconstruction involves alternate thinking. Different ways to use same piece of information held by everyone.
It requires understanding of the information you are holding.
Finding connection of this information to other ideas, past knowledge and current problem space is part of reconstruction process.

In his book Succeeding, John Reed wrote:

When you first start to study a field, it seems like you have to memorize a zillion thing. You don’t. What you need is to identify the core principles – generally three to twelve of them – that govern the field. The million things you thought you had to memorize are simply various combinations of the core principles.




How to think from First Principle


1      Have strong understanding of fundamentals – Know your industry, circle of competence
This will help you differentiate opinion from facts.

If you are an artist, the starting point can be an awareness of primary colours, how color mixing works, what are different types of colours – Oil, water, crayon, pencil, how can you draw a projection, what is object vision field etc.


2      Ask intelligent questions

Two frameworks to help you–
5 Why’s
Socratic method

You can read more about them, here

Continuing with our Artist example, questions here can be –

Why do we need to show real world?
Can I make Earth as flat?
What if instead of oil colours I use crayons?
Can I go beyond colours? Instead of using a black color for road, can tar be used?
Mixing primary colours yellow and blue will form green. But which color does mixing green and blue form? And then mixing resultant with blue again?


3      Restructure
Reconstruct the problem, solution, idea, thought or proposal basis the knowledge of fundamentals and then insights from questions you asked.

Questions will help you get to the elemental level objects
Fundamentals will help you deduce that these answers are really an at elemental level or can we probe further to get the fundamentals

Once you have fundamental elements, then you can experiment the new ideas basis original thinking.

In our artist case, it can become an abstract art

It can also become the Dilbert’s comics which depicts animal talking to humans, disproportionate size images



How can you use First Principle Thinking?

Investment

Instead of relying on trends or charts or modifications of scripts to identify potential profitable stock, try to understand what are the basics of successful company.

Does that company, whose share you are eyeing to buy, follows the basics of successful company?


Business

While expanding your business, are you merely relying on outfoxing the competitor or on creating your own USPs?

What are the principles which defines your company?
Does those principles value consumers as well?

Are your operations and processes a mere update of previous policies? Can they sustain next 10, 50,100 years?

How can you use USPs of your company to create something valuable, non-existential?


Writing

What’s your writing style? – Is it merely modifying someone else’s style or your unique. It doesn’t have to be unique always. For instance, stick figures are used by multiple bloggers, that doesn’t mean that you should not use them.

What kind of writings you prefer?
Why does the world need another writer like you? Or what are your USPs?
Do you prefer research or quick insights?
What kind of audience you are targeting?
Are your thoughts original or inspired?

Once you understand these basics then only you’ll be able to map your writing to your target audience.


Studies

As a student, it’s imperative to know the first principles or basics of any theorem, calculation, application.

What are the basic laws of physics?
What are the elements in chemistry? Knowing their properties will help you understand that why certain elements have affinities towards certain elements.

Similarly, in mathematics, what are the basic rules? What are the hypothesis of these theorems?



Relationships

Why are you in this relationship?
Are there any guiding principles in your relationship? How are you going to resolve the conflicts?
What are the values, hobbies, priorities of the person with which you are in relationship?
Can you reconstruct the magical moments surrounding their hobbies?
Can you offer something which will create value for them?

Understanding the basic elements of your relationship will help you to recreate the bonding.


One Caveat – Don’t reinvent the wheel

First principle promotes original thinking while Analogy is improvisation.
It’s good to possess first principle thinking but never rule out improvisation as well.

While designing the products it is good to know what are customers looking for but also try modification of the existing products. Who knows slight modification can solve the problem in an efficient and timely manner



“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool”

-       Richard P. Feynman

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