Four thousand years ago in Ancient Egypt, if you were of higher status and died, you would have ended up getting mummified. The Ancient Egyptians believed that if your body was preserved after death in this world, then a comfortable life in the afterlife would be assured for your soul.
There was a special process that was applied when mummifying a body. The body was embalmed in chemicals and then wrapped up in several layers of cloth. However before the wrapping, the internal organs were taken out and put in jars.
The stomach, the liver, the lungs, and the intestines were all removed and placed in canopic jars made of either wood, stone or porcelain and sometimes topped with the head of a god. The heart stayed in, because the Egyptians believed that it would be weighted (and thereby judged) against the feather of the goddess of truth, morality and justice, Maat.
To remove the brain, a long, sharp object was first put through the nostril. It would break through into the brain and then liquefy it. The liquefied brain would then ooze out through the nostril. What would they do with it?
Once it came out, they would collect it and… throw it away! The Ancient Egyptians did this because they believed that it was of no importance for the human being. For them, it was the heart that was the center of all action.
For the Ancients, the brain just seemed to be some sort of a squishy substance with no real purpose, apart from filling up the head.
That view began to change when Galen (remember the former physician of the gladiators?), one of the most well-known doctors of Antiquity, did a demonstration where he silenced a squealing pig by isolating a nerve that tied the larynx to the brain. In this way he proved that the brain was the organ controlling the actions of living things.
Galen was not the first ancient to speculate on the nature of the brain and its role in the body (for example Hippocrates did too), but he was the first one that we know of that traced out the different nerves and muscles and connected them to the brain, and also who gave practical proofs (such as the pig experiment) of how this works.
However, among many people this view still didn’t catch on and most still kept on considering the heart as the primary seat of human actions until the Renaissance proved once and for all the central role of the brain in the body.
The role of the brain
The brain is the primary organ in the nervous system and controls the behavior of living beings. It is the most complex organ in the body. The basic structure of the human brain bears many similarities to that of other animals, but there are also some important differences. These differences are what give humans the power to reason.
There are numerous basic roles that the brain performs in the body:
handles all your physical movement (balance, walking, standing)
regulates internal processes (such as breathing, body temperature)
controls your actions (whether through instinct or reason)
This happens when signals from the outside (collected through sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing) are passed into the brain, which then interprets them and acts based on this interpretation. Most of this happens subconsciously.
For example this is how the signals that are captured by your hearing are transported to and then interpreted by the brain:
How does the brain perform its functions? Read More
The first principles approach for problem solving that Elon Musk uses is an awesome way to find unconventional solutions to all kinds of problems. However this type of thinking does not come naturally to most people.
How can you take this knowledge and these techniques and apply them in practice? How can you make first principles thinking a part of your life?
In Part 2, we learned how to think in first principles. In this part, we will learn how to use that thinking in order to solve real-life problems. Here we go from theory to application.
Concrete examples from history
“Eureka! Eureka!” These legendary words were shouted by Archimedes, the Ancient Greek inventor, as he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse. This word can be roughly translated as “I have found it!” and since that time has become a synonym of discovery.
Archimedes was a really clever guy and discovered a lot of cool and practical stuff, but his legend was solidified by this one famous incident. The story that precedes this is the perfect example of using first principles thinking to come up with solutions to problems (and it even includes discovering some first principles themselves!).
King Hiero II of Syracuse wanted a golden crown to be made and assigned the work to a local goldsmith. When the goldsmith came back with the finished product, King Hiero suspected that the crown was not all gold and instead that the goldsmith had sneaked in some silver. However how to prove this little hunch?
Luckily, the King had Archimedes loitering around his city and so assigned the problem to him. Archimedes had to determine whether the crown was pure gold or it also included silver, without damaging it. This was almost an impossible problem and no one else in the kingdom had been able to come up with a solution.
This problem was initially also hard for Archimedes himself. He kept pondering it in his mind, but just couldn’t get around to figuring out a method to solve this little conundrum.
That’s where the story gets interesting. Archimedes was a cleanly fellow and one day was getting ready for his bath. He filled up the bath almost to the top with water, stripped down and then got in. As soon as he got into the bath, the water overflowed and spilled over the edge.
Archimedes noticed that as he got into the bath, the level of the water rose. This is what sparked the lighting bolt of discovery. He had discovered a first principle!
He summarized this principle in one of his works “On Floating Bodies”:
“Any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object.“
This is the first principle that Archimedes needed in order to solve the problem. If he submerged the crown in water, the crown would displace an amount of water equal to its volume. Archimedes could then use this fact to test whether the crown contained silver. If it did, then the crown would be less dense.
There is some discussion on the exact method that he used, but no matter the exact steps, it is a great example of coming up with first principles and then using them to solve a problem.
And yes, the goldsmith was a sneaky, dishonest dude and Archimedes proved it. Read More
Your brain encourages you to think in analogies, as this is the most efficient and safest way of thinking. So how do you break this programming, take a step back and start thinking in first principles?
For some people it comes more naturally than to others. In an article on Elon Musk on his blog, Tim Urban, makes an interesting analogy (sometimes thinking in analogies helps 🙂 ).
He compares people and how they behave to cooks and chefs. With a chef, he means a person who invents their own recipe, while a cook is someone who follows an already existing recipe.
Some people usually behave like cooks and follow recipes from a cookbook, while others prefer to come up with their own. However almost no one is a 100% cook or chef. That’s why Urban introduces a culinary spectrum, with some people being more on the cook side, while others more on the chef side.
A cook takes some ingredients and goes through a series of steps to come up with a standard dish. On the other hand, a chef might use those same ingredients, but mix them up in new and original ways and come up with a new dish. For both of these guys, the ingredients were the first principles, but the way they used them was different.
When I was reading the cooks vs. chefs part, it struck me how this analogy is similar to the NLP meta-program on options vs. procedures. If you remember a while back I wrote an article on why people talk and behave differently. One of the main reasons for this is that they have different meta-programs acting in their heads.
People who have a preference for the procedures meta-program, prefer to follow a standard way of doing things, while those more on the options side prefer to pick and choose from different choices and follow their own path. People on the procedures side are the cooks, and the ones on the options side the chefs.
As with any NLP meta-program, no one is 100% on either side and instead is most likely situated somewhere on a continuum. Whether you follow a standard procedure or take a bunch of options and come up with your own way of doing things can often depend on the situation.
Even if you are a procedures type of person, that doesn’t mean that you can’t change and start thinking more on the options side. How do you move away from being a cook and become a chef?
The Architect: “Elon, you have come to seek me?“
Elon: “Yes, I want to create a new function and then upload it into people.“
The Architect: “You want to update the operating systems?“
Elon: “Yes, essentially yes.“
Elon: “However, the original program is still useful in most cases. That’s why I just want to create a function that people could call up whenever they need it.”
The Architect: “That is possible. However some fundamental recoding will have to be done.“
Elon: “Cool. Now I go back to return to the Source.”
Have you ever wanted to know how Elon Musk thinks? The guy came up with some pretty cool ideas and has become a billionaire. What’s his secret? How can you replicate it? Well, I have the answer for you. However I am warning you, it’s going to be pretty heavy reading and you will need to really focus and maybe re-read it several times in order to get it. The first part will focus on giving an introduction to Musk’s way of looking at problems, as well as some common barriers that often prevent people from thinking that way. The second part will give you some techniques that will help you solve problems the way Musk does, while the third part will conclude by looking at some practical examples of first-principles thinking. Another series of articles will look at paradigm shifts and how scientific revolutions happen.
Supposedly we are living in the Matrix, a world that is hidden inside a computer simulation similar to the one depicted in the famous movie. This is a statement that was uttered recently by none other than Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla and Space-X.
This is what he had to say at a coding conference hosted by Recode:
“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale. So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.”
How did he come up with this? Whether the Matrix statement is crackpot or not doesn’t really matter at this point. Musk has a track record of some incredible successes (and some spectacular failures) and so when he says something, the world listens.
Neo from the Matrix: “Whoa, Elon! So you know we all stuck in the Matrix, too?”
Elon: “Yeah, Neo. I have been sensing it for a while. It just makes logical sense.“
Neo: “How come you still plugged in? Don’t you wanna break out?“
Elon: “Not really. I am pretty happy being plugged in. I have plans to go to Mars, create a hyperloop… Don’t really feel like partying with you in Zion.“
Neo: “But we have to destroy the program!“
Elon: “Nah, no need for that. We can just create a neural lace. This way we gain control, but the AI still serves us.“
Neo: “You think we could do that?“
Neo: “But you would give up on flying cool ships like the Nebuchadnezzar and battling those mechanical sperm-like looking thingies!“
Elon: “Don’t worry. I am building my own rockets.“
Neo: “How did you figure all this out anyways? When I was plugged in, I kept on detecting irregularities, but it was Morpheus who finally snapped me out of it.“
Elon: “First principles, Neo. First principles.“
Elon Musk has a very unique way of thinking that has helped him solve some really tough problems. At the basis of this is what he calls first-principles thinking.
This is an approach he borrowed from physics, where you start from a set of basic assumptions that you hold to be true and that cannot be broken down further and then reason up from there.
Let’s analyze a bit what Elon Musk means by first principles thinking:
“I also think it is important to reason from first principles, rather than, by analogy. So the normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. We’re doing this because it’s like something else that was done or like what other people are doing, iterations on a theme. It’s kinda mentally easier to reason by analogy rather than from first principles. First principles is kinda a physics way of looking at the world and what that really means is you kinda boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say okay, what are we sure is true? Or sure as possible is true? And then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.”
Musk states that there are two basic ways that people reason: through analogy or through first-principles. Using analogies is probably the most common way of thinking for the majority of people. It is much easier for a person to take something that they already know and apply it as an analogy on how things should work. This thing is tried and tested and so they think that that’s how things should be done.
However Musk believes that this is not the best way to think about problems. In his opinion, this type of thinking can often prevent people from coming up with the most optimal solution.
For him, if you want to come up with a truly innovative solution, you need to go back to the basics. In physics, the basic propositions of the field are called first principles.
A first principle is a basic foundational assumption that cannot be broken down further and that forms the basis of the thinking in its own particular field. All the other works in that field are based on this basic assumption being true and built up from there.
If you want to make progress you need to go back down to these first principles and look at what is really true based on them and what is in fact just a stubborn orthodoxy dependent on not being able to see beyond the way things are now.
“Somebody could say… in fact, people do… that battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they’ll always be, because that’s the way they’ve been in the past. Well, no, that’s pretty dumb, because if you applied that reasoning to anything new, then you would never be able to get to that new thing. You can’t say, oh, horses – nobody wants a car because horses are great and we’re used to them and they can eat grass and there’s lot of grass all over the place and you know, there’s no gasoline that people can buy, so people are never going to get cars. People did say that, you know.”
Most people are incremental thinkers and think within established paradigms. They take the reality of the world as given and can’t really fathom that other different ways of doing things are possible.
Musk gives the example of horse-drawn carriages. For hundreds or thousands of years, that was the way people would transport themselves from one place to another. During those times, if you would ask a person to think of transportation, that would be what they would think of.
Ask a person now what transportation is for them and they will say cars, trains, airplanes… That is the transportation paradigm for people in this age. I am sure that will change soon. 🙂
You see that transportation changed and horse-drawn carriages have almost completely disappeared. This is because someone went back to first principles and completely changed the fundamentals of transportation.
“And for batteries, they would say, oh, it’s going to cost – you know, historically it’s cost $600 per kWh and so, it’s not going to be much better than that in the future, and you say no, what are the batteries made of? So first principles mean you say okay, what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? So you can say, it’s got: cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon and some polymers for separation and a steel can. So break that down on a materials basis and say okay, if we bought that on the London metal exchange, what would each of those things cost? Like, oh, jeez, it’s like $80 per kWh. So clearly, you just have to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell. And you can have batteries that are much cheaper than anyone realizes.”
Musk gives an example on how you can challenge the common view on a certain subject by going back to first principles. He uses batteries to demonstrate this.
Most people assume that batteries are expensive and not much can be done to change that. That’s just the way things are. However Musk shows how he went down to the basic constituent parts of the batteries, the raw materials that make them up, and turned that impression upside down. Read More
You have no doubt heard the story of the Trojan War. The Illiad and the Oddysey are two of the most enduring and influential works of literature in the Western world.
They were created by Homer, an ancient Greek poet, most likely based on accounts passed down orally for generations. Even 3 thousand years after the supposed events took place, they remain well-known to myriads of people from around the world.
For a long time, it was thought that these stories were works of pure fiction. Yet there were always people who thought that they were based on real events, real people and real places. One of these believers was Heinrich Schliemann.
The Life of Heinrich Schliemann
Heinrich Schliemann was a true rags to riches story, a man of German origin who grew wealthy by being a shrewd businessman. However today he is most remembered as an archaeologist.
He was a real-life Indiana Jones, travelling the world, living through many adventures and discovering great ancient treasures.
As a kid, he grew up on stories of the Illiad and the Oddysey and the great adventures that the heroes of these tales had to go through. Unlike most other people who listened to these stories, he took them at their word. To him, Troy was a real place which was now buried somewhere on the Aegean coast of Turkey. He decided that he was going to find it.
What is not so well-known is that he was also a great linguist who managed to master many languages. Wherever he travelled, he tried to learn the local language. He would often write in his diary in different languages, which resulted in him keeping his diary in at least 12 languages.
What is most remarkable is that he managed to do this in a world without quick travel, without the internet and starting off as a poor errand boy.
Schliemann’s Language Learning Method
He simplified the process by developing a method that he applied consistently. Supposedly the system that he developed allowed him to learn any language in around 6 weeks.
He applied this method every time he was about to learn a new language. When he couldn’t find one of the elements of this method, he always came up with a work-around.
The main elements of the method consisted of constant writing in the target language, reading out loud in it, and trying to get as much native input as possible.
He was a self-directed learner and one of the main elements of this learning were books in the target language. The key to this was one little book: “The Adventures of Telemachus”.
This book talked of the adventures of Telemachus, the son of Oddyseus and his quest to find his father. Since it was set in the times of the Trojan Wars, the subject matter was very interesting to Schliemann and never grew old. He ended up memorizing the story in the book by heart.
When he would start learning a new language, he would always try to track down a copy of that book (or some other book that he had read previously in another language and knew the story well) in his target language.
That way, he could compare the two texts and learn new words and grammar structures by reading along in a new language, as well as in a language he already knew. Read More
Successful people are often used as examples for others. The message that you often hear is that if you do things like them, you too can become successful. Follow what they do, act like them and riches beyond your wildest imagination will come knocking at your door.
However one of the things that I have been thinking about lately is what lessons can you really learn from these types of cases. Are there relevant things that you can pick out and use them as blueprints for your life or is this just a case of survivor bias coming into play?
This question goes to the heart of self-improvement and any type of advice, in different kinds of fields (business, life, fitness).
There are many people who try to present themselves as gurus or authorities and convince people to do what they are saying. Many of these people don’t do it to help others, but instead just to line their own pockets or to increase their influence. Sometimes this advice can be downright dangerous.
Not everyone is out to get you though and some people do offer tips in order to genuinely help others. However even this has its own problems. Most successful people downplay the influence of luck and much of this advice does not take into account randomness, survivor bias or hindsight bias.
David McRaney (author of “You Are Not So Smart”) describes the magical, almost mystical pull of survivor bias in this way:
“Survivorship bias pulls you toward bestselling diet gurus, celebrity CEOs, and superstar athletes. It’s an unavoidable tick, the desire to deconstruct success like a thieving magpie and pull away the shimmering bits. You look to the successful for clues about the hidden, about how to better live your life, about how you too can survive similar forces against which you too struggle.“
What creative process do you need to go through in order to come up with an idea for a joke and then craft it in a funny way?
Watch the video below to see Jerry Seinfeld’s process:
A lot of humor is based on things happening around you, whether in the news or in your own life. These are the basic starting points of all jokes or funny stories. You just need to be able to capture that, process it and then deliver it in the right way.
You can write a simple story about your day, job, life and use a specific comedy formula to shape it in order to create laugh points that will make the audience start rolling in the aisles.
“Aside from velcro, time is the most mysterious substance in the universe. You can’t see it or touch it, yet a plumber can charge you upwards of seventy-five dollars per hour for it, without necessarily fixing anything.” Dave Barry
Edgar E. Willis (author of “How to be funny on purpose”) states that every joke has what is called an expressed idea and an inferred idea. The expressed idea is what the joke teller says in an explicit form, while the inferred idea is the idea that the listeners should get out of what he is saying.
So basically the joke is delivering two ideas simultenously, what is said literally and what those words are implying.
Since you have two basic ideas in a joke, you also have two main starting places for a joke: either think up the inferred idea (what you want the audience to draw out of what you say), or come up with the expressed idea (material that will lead audience to make inferred idea).
Listen again to Jerry Seinfeld’s description of his joke creation process. In the example he gives, he is starting out from the inferred idea: Pop Tarts are weird and food is crazy.
Once he has the message he wants to pass in his head, he goes about crafting the words that would deliver it.
Here is another Jerry Seinfeld clip which has as its inferred idea the craziness of the shopping experience. Notice the words he uses in order to show this:
How do you craft the words themselves? Even if the inferred idea is good, the actual words that you use can be the difference between the audience giving out a slight chuckle or breaking out in roaring laughter that makes half the people end up in the hospital due to the fact that they were cracking up so hard that they forgot to breathe.
One way to do this is visualization, describing in such a way as to paint a vivid picture in the head. Another good joke formula is the use of exaggerations, either overstatements or understatements in order to better convey your idea.
This can be done by combining metaphors or analogies with hyperboles. Your brain often thinks using metaphors and analogies and that’s why their use can really underline what you are saying.
These are very powerful ways of expressing an idea. Using these tropes in different contexts can often give a very different spin to your message.
A metaphor basically says that A is B. For example the “war on drugs” is saying that there is a war on drugs.
On the other hand, a simile compares two things that are similar in some way. A simile often states that A is “like” B. In order to tell apart a simile from a metaphor look for words like “like” or “as”. For example when Forrest Gump said that “life is like a box of chocolates” or when you say something is “as cute as a kitten“.
An analogy is essentially an extended, more elegant simile. For example this quote from the character Matt McGrath in the movie “Broken Hearts Club” is an analogy: “Dumb gorgeous people should not be allowed to use literature when competing in the pick-up pool. It’s like bald people wearing hats.” Read More
The Art of Learning: One Mindset Change That Redefined My Life
You learn to live life on the go. At birth, you are not given infinite wisdom, but instead you need to learn by trial and error. Some people are lucky and discover the right paths quite early, for some it takes longer, while the majority of people breeze through life without a clue.
Some people have the luck of getting a mentor who guides them on the right path, while others arrive there in other ways. One good thing about the current period is the explosion of knowledge that we have available at our finger tips.
If you don’t have a mentor, it is much easier now to embark on the path by yourself, aggregating information from different sources and building up a framework to guide you.
Books are one resource that you can use for this purpose. There are a small number of books that can give you a unique insight into your life and the best way to live it.
Reading them, not only do you gain a lot of knowledge to incorporate into your ever-growing mental library, but you also experience a few “aha” moments. It is during these moments when questions you have been asking yourself about life and how you should be living it suddenly appear clearer.
You are reading a certain passage and suddenly things click. At that moment you know what was that one mistake that you made that redefined your life. You realize what was that one mindset change that you should have made, but didn’t.
These books are the ones that end up having a powerful effect on the rest of your life. These “aha” moments that they provoke, give you a clearer perspective and an understanding of the things that you should be doing in order to be successful in life.
When you apply these little lessons in practice, your life suddenly becomes better, you start doing things differently and you finally start doing things in the right way.
The Art of Learning
One of the books that has had a huge impact on my mindset and the way I live and experience life has been “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin.
Josh is a remarkable character. As a kid he was a chess prodigy and the personality on whom the film “Searching for Bobby Fisher” was based on.
From early on, he was dominating his age groups in chess. He brought piercing focus and intensity to the game that catapulted him to the top.
He was on his way to becoming one of the top chess players in the world. However suddenly things changed and he refocused his life by switching disciplines completely.
He went from chess, a discipline of the mind, to martial arts, more particularly tai chi and push hands competitions, a discipline of the body. Remarkably, he was able to dominate there too.
Not only did he become the US National Champion in the martial art of push hands, he also became the World Champion, beating the Taiwanese on their home turf in their own national sport. This was a rare achievement, made even rarer by the fact that he had switched from a totally different discipline just a few years earlier.
How did he do it? He didn’t do it because he was naturally born to be a chess champion or a martial art champion. He did it because he was good at the art of learning. Read More
As an intermediate to lower advanced level learner, you face many challenges that can prevent you from rising to the next level. Many language learners reach a certain level, but then do not progress further. Once you can already have a conversation or better, how do you go from there?
Many times you lose the motivation to keep on going and your language learning dies as a result. You get stuck in the intermediate level purgatory. What you need to do is continue on learning the language by combining it with something else you love or want to know more about. That way you kill two birds with one stone and keep yourself motivated.
This is something that I have been applying to my own foreign language studies. Unfortunately, my motivation is not always that great, so I often skip doing those grammar exercises that I should be doing.
By using the technique described above, where I combine learning languages with doing something else that I am interested in, I do keep on progressing in my target languages. It sort of lets me bypass the problem of not having motivation and keeps me on the right path.
Learning Spanish by Reading About Gladiators
There are several examples of how I apply this strategy in practice. Last summer, I was in Spain for a few days and did what I always do, I found a local bookstore and went in to browse the books that they had available. I am really interested in ancient history and went over to the history section to check out the books. Since I was in Spain, all the books were in Spanish of course. 🙂
I was looking at the books, when I noticed one on gladiators. I was always interested in ancient sports and this topic caught my interest. Then it hit me, why not satisfy my curiosity by reading a book on gladiators, but do it in Spanish?
That way not only do I get to learn more about gladiators and how they lived, but I also get to practice my Spanish! I decided to buy the book.
When I returned from Spain, I opened up the book and started reading. My Spanish is at a B2 level and so I understand most of what I am reading, but I do come across some words or sentences that I don’t understand.
The key here is to do what I call active reading. While reading the book, I have Google Translate open (or a dictionary) and consult it whenever I don’t understand a word or phrase. I keep the words and their translations listed on screen and when I am finished with the chapter, I transfer them to Anki in order to review them later. That way any new words you learn will stick in your head better.