If you want to come up with innovative solutions to problems, then Elon Musk’s approach for thinking in first principles can be very helpful. However it can be really hard to implement in practice. We have already established that much of this is due to the way your brain is structured.
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.”
Thinking in first principles
In order to be able to solve problems using first principles thinking, the first thing for you to do is to make an effort to understand what your basic ingredients are. That means the first principles.
You need to go back to the basic assumptions that are the basis of whatever subject you are working on. Each field usually has some assumptions that form the cornerstones of the knowledge that comprises that field and without which all the other things would crumble like a deck of cards.
These assumptions (or first principles) are considered very rigid in physical sciences and good approximations in social sciences.
In physics, the framework centers around certain basic assumptions called laws. These are for example the laws of thermodynamics, or Newton’s laws of motion. Things like: in a vacuum, an object stays in motion or continues at rest, unless acted upon by another object. This is what all of physics is built on.
In biology, one of the basic cornerstones of the field is evolution. This is the first principle which shapes how all living things live and behave and why they are the way they are.
In economics, for a long time, the basis of all theory and calculations in the field was the assumptions of the rational actor. All the different economic models built on top of this assumption.
With physical sciences, the first principles are what we assume to be true and are usually pretty solid. They can change once the basic scientific paradigm changes (we will get into that in the next part), but this is often a ground-shattering event.
On the other hand, in social sciences, the first principles are usually just approximations of the world and so not as solid as the first principles of physical sciences.
This goes all the way down to how individual humans think. Humans make assumptions on the nature of the world which may or may not be true, and then they build up their reasoning based on these initial assumptions or views.
This is what I mentioned in my article on critical thinking. People think and do certain things resting on these basic assumptions that they have about the world. These are their own first principles and their behavior is based on them.
At the basis of all the different applied problems that people are trying to solve are these underlying assumptions.
Usually someone used these core assumptions to come up with a solution that works. Since people tend to think in analogies and use best practices (if it works, why change it?), these solutions then become the standards.
Almost everyone then just reuses these solutions and comes to regard them as the only way to solve the problem and stops considering alternative ways. However these standard solutions are not always the best ways to solve that particular problem.
If you want to come up with a better way to solve the problem, you need to go back to the basic assumptions underlying whatever you are doing. You need to understand them before you move onto solving whatever you want to solve.
These first principles are the basic building blocks of any type of solution. Elon Musk has a good analogy that you can use to see how this works:
“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” Elon Musk
So how can you think in first principles? First you have to learn to break a problem down to its constituent parts and then dig down. You can do that by asking fundamental questions.
By asking the why, when, what, how, you can start your search for the main parts of the problem. These questions can help you on your quest to get down to the nitty gritty details.
One psychologist, Tony McCaffrey, who has done research on functional fixedness, has also come up with a method to try to overcome it. He calls it the generic parts technique.
It consists of two questions:
1) Can it be broken down further?
2) Does my description of the object imply a use?
He uses one example to illustrate this. You have a candle and a match. A person comes up to you, hands you two steel rings and tells you to join them together so that you get a figure-8.
How would you do this?
Most people would probably start off by trying to melt the wax and then somehow trying to put it on the rings to make them stick together, but this wouldn’t work. The wax wouldn’t be sticky enough to hold them together.
So then you start asking the two questions. Can the tools you have be broken down further? Yes, the candle is composed of a wick and wax. However these two descriptions can still imply a use and can form functional fixedness in your mind.
You need to dig down and use more generic terms. If you look at it more deeply, the wick is just a string.
Now that you have described one of the constituent parts of a candle as a string, can you come up with a way to solve the problem?
For many people, the description of the wick as a string immediately resolves the problem. You can use the string to tie the two rings together!
In his example, McCaffrey goes down even deeper and describes the string as long interwoven fibrous strands and the wax as cylindrically shaped lipids.
This decoupling of an object from its use through generic naming is very powerful. If you go back to the box of thumbtacks and candle problem we described in Part 1, the experiments show how this works in the mind.
The experiments were conducted in two different ways, one with the thumbtacks being inside the box, while in the other experiment they were outside of the box.
In the first experiment, the people trying to solve the problem thought of the box as a box for thumbtacks. That is how they named it inside their heads. In the second experiment, the fact that the thumbtacks were outside the box did not tie them to the box and the puzzle solvers had a more general meaning of the word box in their head.
It’s no wonder why the second group of people was much more successful in coming up with a solution to the problem.
Notice how this technique is very similar to the way Musk went about solving the battery problem. Musk kept breaking down the battery further and further until he got to the basic elements that made it up (carbon, nickel, aluminium).
These were the first principles that made up batteries and their listing did not imply any use. Musk then started solving up from there.
Have you grasped how these two questions can be helpful for thinking in first principles?
This technique also helps you search for obscure features, which McCaffrey and Lee Spector believe is the key to innovation. They state that most people trying to solve the problem above fail to notice that the wick is basically a string. The wick being a string is an “obscure feature”.
In their research study they state:
“Logically speaking, if an unsolved problem is solvable, then something crucial to the solution is being overlooked. If it is overlooked by the problem solving community for a long period of time, then the crucial something is either infrequently-noticed or perhaps never-before noticed (i.e., obscure).“
You see that there are special techniques that can help you think in first principles, but that there are always some obscure features of a problem that can prevent you from finding the most optimal solution.
How you frame the problem is important
That’s why probably the most important part of problem solving is not the methodology you use, but the simple act of setting up the right question to solve. The first thing you need to do is to formulate the problem.
Supposedly Albert Einstein once said:
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Albert Einstein (supposedly)
There is debate over whether he did actually say that statement, but nevertheless the quote brings about a very important point.
Don’t take my word for it, or Einstein’s. Elon Musk says the same thing:
“If you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. So, to the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask.”
The way you frame your problem will determine the way you solve it and what the answer will be.
Let’s once again go back to Musk’s battery example. In this example, Musk is working under the assumption that a car has four wheels, goes on the ground, and needs some sort of an internal power source (in this case a battery) to make it go.
However if you frame the problem differently, the assumptions change. You can even argue that the assumption that a battery is needed for a car is not really first principles thinking.
When rethinking the problem and breaking it up to its constituent parts, you can even go a level down and think of it in a totally new direction.
You can question the individual parts, for example does a car need a combustion engine? Can it use a battery for electricity instead?
Or you can go deeper and frame it as a problem of transportation. What does a car do? Get from point A to point B. There are different ways of doing that.
Your answer will depend on what types of restrictions you will set as well. You can use all types of transportation (trains, hyperloop). Or you can use limiting criteria, for example it needs to be an independent means of transport. So with that things on fixed tracks like trains would fall away, but flying cars would still fit.
Now you see how framing the question differently can set up vastly different problems to solve?
In his thinking, Musk did go a level deeper and set his sights on transportation. That’s how he came up with the concept of the hyperloop.
Basically this would be tubes stretching out between different cities and you would sit in a pod, which would whisk you to your destination in record time. It would involve new, ground-breaking technologies and would revolutionize transportation.
The importance of setting the right question is also at the basis of Google’s process for Moonshot thinking. Moonshot ideas are the ones that are really radical and change current paradigms. Fuck tweaking plane designs, let’s go to the Moon instead!
In his article in “Wired Magazine” on X Moonshot thinking, Sonal Chokchi underlines how important picking the right problem to solve really is:
“What if we could replace all that effort on the wrong problem with the bravery to change the very question itself? Often, if you step back and apply enough audacity and creativity, the new perspective you get makes doing the impossible, possible.“
The process for coming up with the right question is very similar to the process for coming up with the first principles. It consists of asking a lot of questions.
Another article in “Wired Magazine” has Astro Teller (what a name 🙂 ), the chief of Google’s Moonshot division Google X, explain how Larry Page (one of the founders of Google) approaches a problem:
“Teller imagines wheeling a Dr. Who time machine into Page’s office. He plugs it in and—it works! But instead of being bowled over, Page asks why it needs a plug. Wouldn’t it be better if it didn’t use power at all? “It’s not because he’s not excited about time machines or he’s ungrateful that we built it,” Teller says. “It’s just core to who he is. There’s always more to do, and his focus is on where the next 10X will come from.”“
Coming up with the right problems to solve and with the right first principles comes after a long session of questioning. You need to examine your assumptions and find the ones which are solid.
How do you find out which is a good assumption and which one has holes?
One way of doing this is through the Socratic Method. Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher who went around asking tough questions that often ended up revealing the internal contradictions of the beliefs that people held.
This got him killed, since people are hypocrites and don’t really like to face the truth, but it is still a useful method nevertheless.
Dr. Richard Paul, a lecturer on critical thinking, has classified Socratic questions into 6 basic types:
1) Questions for clarification
2) Questions that probe assumptions
3) Questions that probe reasons and evidence
4) Questions about viewpoints and perspectives
5) Questions that probe implications and consequences
6) Questions about the question
Asking these types of questions can really help you examine things from different angles and see whether the assumptions you are starting off with are indeed the right ones. Also the deeper you dig, the more innovative you can be with your solutions.
If you want to dig deeper in order to find the root cause of a problem (and not just the symptoms), you can use the 5 Whys technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries and one of the men behind the rise of Japan as an industrial power.
This technique is quite simple: You just repeat the question “why?” after every answer 5 times. The idea here is not to be satisfied with the first explanation, which is usually just a byproduct of the problem, but instead to really follow the trail until you find the ultimate source of the problem, the root cause.
Toyota has an example on its site of how Taiichi Ono, one of its legendary gurus and vice-presidents, used the method to find out why a welding robot stopped functioning in the middle of a process.
He came up to where the problem happened and started the questioning:
““Why did the robot stop?”
The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
“Why is the circuit overloaded?”
There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
“Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?”
The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
“Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?”
The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
“Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?”
Because there is no filter on the pump.””
That’s how he found out that the root cause of the welding robot stopping to function was not a blown fuse, but instead the fact that there was no filter on the pump. This questioning technique to find the root cause is exactly the same technique you can use to find first principles.
Sometimes in very rare cases, you might even want to question the first principles themselves. Always ask: “How do we know that this is true?” When it comes to basic scientific principles, the answer might be very easy to find.
However when this question touches upon some of the basic assumptions that you are making in an argument, finding an answer to this question can cause you to start changing these assumptions. Asking this question can help you determine whether you are being intellectually honest or are falling for cognitive biases.
Once you have done all this, another useful technique is visualization. This is one of the techniques that the very original and innovative, if sometimes wacky scientist Nikola Tesla did:
“By that faculty of visualizing, which I learned in my boyish effort to rid myself of annoying images, I have evolved what is, I believe, a new method of materializing inventive ideas and conceptions. It is a method which may be of great usefulness to any imaginative man, whether he is an inventor, business man, or artist.” Nikola Tesla
Here you create a mental image of the thing that you are trying to build and walk yourself through it in your mind. Nikola Tesla is an interesting guy (and not only because he is the inspiration for the name of Musk’s electric car) and deserves a blog post all of his own (I promise to do one in the future 🙂 ).
Tesla wasn’t the only first principles thinker who used thought experiments and visualizations to come up with creative solutions. Another one was Einstein. He supposedly imagined himself chasing after a beam of light and that helped him develop his theories on relativity.
Visualization is just a technique that you can use when you want to examine the different parts of a system and then also the system as a whole. You can use it in conjunction with all the questioning that you are doing.
However, basically it all comes down to critical thinking. This type of thinking helps you look at and challenge assumptions, which is the basic thing you need to do when you want to come up with a new innovative solution.
Going back to first principles can give you a fresh perspective. It aids you in understanding the nature of the world much better.
The Architect: “You have many questions, Elon.“
Elon: “Yes, I do.“
The Architect: “While your first question may be the most pertinent, you may or may not realize it is also the most irrelevant.“
Going back to the basics of human behavior
For example if you want to find out why humans behave the way they do, you need to go back to the first principles of human behavior.
Why is there violence in the world? You have to go back to evolutionary psychology and how humans evolved in order to get the answer. Here the basic assumption you can use is the selfish-gene theory of Richard Dawkins.
The gene wants to replicate and in order to do that, some basic things need to happen. A human needs to survive long enough to reproduce and so the most basic human needs are to eat and to reproduce.
However resources are finite. The individual with the higher status has better access to resources and so their chance of replication is higher. In order to achieve that status you need to struggle and fight. Hence violence is ingrained in human nature. Human behavior stems from these basic principles not only in terms of violence, but also other things.
That’s why in some of my articles I try to go back to the basics of human behavior. I try to understand why people behave the way they do. My series on how chimpanzees behave goes back to the evolutionary psychology of behavior and strips down all the cultural baggage to the primitive state of living in nature. These are the first principles behind the way people act.
One of my favorite programs as a kid was “MacGyver”. This was about a guy named Angus (what kind of a parent tortures their kid with a first name like that?) MacGyver, who would get into different adventures and would find his way out of tight spots with very ingenious solutions.
You are stuck in a room which will soon explode and all you have on you is a soap on a rope, a chewing gum, and a paper clip. How do you get out?
Well MacGyver would find a way!
For him, functional fixedness did not exist. He could take all these things and figure out a way how to combine these different objects and create a device to get out of there.
When you “MacGyver” yourself out of problems, then you are using first principles thinking. This type of thinking can not only be used to solve the big problems of society, but also the little everyday problems that you might have.
Elon: “Do you have any advice for me?”
MacGyver: “If you have a soap on a rope on yourself at all times, you can always get out of a tight spot and solve all of life’s problems.“
If you haven’t already, go back to read Part 1 on thinking in first principles. There is also Part 3 of the series, where discuss the practical applications of first principles thinking. In Part 4, we will look at paradigm shifts.
When To Be A Contrarian Thinker And When Not To Be