I have recently binge watched Amazon’s new alternate reality sci-fi series called “The Man in the High Castle”. It’s an awesome show based on an old Philip K. Dick novel of the same name.
It is set in an alternative version of 1962, one where the Axis powers won the war and North America (and the rest of the world) is divided between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The territory of the old USA is split between the Greater Nazi Reich, which controls the East Coast, and the Japanese Pacific States on the West Coast. Separating them is a small sliver of territory called the Neutral Zone.
Season 2 will be released soon and the excited fan boy that I am, I have been trying to Google any news concerning this momentous occasion.
Recently a new trailer came out for the upcoming season. It showed some snippets of action from Season 2 and ended with a quote:
“Most people are different, depending if they’re hungry, safe, or scared.”
This got me thinking again. It’s something I have reflected on before. It often happens that people get criticized for certain courses of action that they had undertaken under specific circumstances. However who is the other person to judge if they haven’t been in the same situation and in the same circumstances? Would another person react in the same way or differently?
This is a question that goes at the heart of morality. Is a good man based on character or is a good man based on circumstances?
Many of us would like to think that we would always uphold the moral high ground under any circumstances. But would we? Read More
Can’t believe it’s been 3 years already since I started my blog. Time flies pretty fast. This wasn’t the first time I started a blog, but it’s the only time I have been consistent and persistent. Before this, I usually gave up pretty fast.
The origin of this blog starts off in September of 2013, when I was recovering from my ACL surgery. I had the idea of starting a fitness blog focusing on gaining weight (since everyone focuses on losing weight and there aren’t too many resources for skinny guys actually trying to gain weight).
Initially, I started a free wordpress.com blog, but then the following month, I decided to get serious and put my money where my mouth is and took the plunge and bought a real domain name. So in October 2013, the Gain Weight Journal was born.
At the same time, I also tried to continue maintaining some other blogs in niches such as language learning. However these were all side activities, which consumed a lot of time. So I decided to unite the different blogs and so the Renaissance Man Journal saw the light of day. The decision behind all this is better covered in a previous post.
What I want to cover now is what I have learned on my 3 year blogging journey. There have been and still are many ups and downs and the journey is still just in its initial stages, but there are already some lessons that I can share. 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
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.“
In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt travelled to Paris and while there, delivered a very powerful and inspirational speech on what is really important in the world.
In the speech, he praised the virtue of hard work and of trying. For him, it is not the end result that is the most important, but the process that goes into it.
It does not matter if you win or lose, but you need to try. Oftentimes in the modern world, people laugh at those who fail, yet they themselves sit on the sidelines and do not try at all.
If you want to succeed, you need to roll up your sleeves and go down into the arena, to fight your struggles like an ancient gladiator, and not sit around complaining and not doing anything. If you fail, just get up and try again! Read More
There once was a little guy, scrawny guy who wanted to be a soldier and fight his nation’s enemies. He tried to enlist, but was turned down because physical characteristics were lacking. He was physically small and weak. Luckily for him, there was a secret government project that created a serum that could change a person’s physical characteristics and create a superhuman out of them.
So this guy, named Steve Rogers, took the serum and turned to Captain America. He fought many supervillains and became a superhero.
Unfortunately this story is fiction. However it does speak to the way many people in this world are trying to do things.
People are often trying find that magic serum or to find that silver bullet for whatever problem they have. That’s why articles on “hacks” are so popular.
These articles are interesting to read, but they often present a simplified version of reality. Furthermore, even if people read these articles, they don’t act on them.
They finish the article, think how mind blowing it is and then go back to doing the things that they were always doing.
The “hacks” mindset creates the impression is that if you learn this one little trick or do this one special thing, you will magically solve whatever you are trying to solve. It’s the same type of thinking that gets excited about secret serums and magic wands.
The truth is a bit different though. Just like there are no magic wands or secret serums that will transform you into a superhero overnight, there are very few magic hacks that will help you take the easy way out.
In reality life is hard. There are short-cuts, but even they are usually not easy. You need to work for things that you want.
When you realize this and stop looking for short-cuts and instead start creating a vision for yourself and implementing steps to fulfil that vision, then you will start making progress. When you take the long-term view to goals and problems, then you will finally improve. Read More
Last weekend I realized how powerful adopting a goal-driven mindset can be. As I have written in my previous post on goals vs. systems, you need goals in order to drive yourself towards success. Systems are very necessary, but if you don’t have the goals to focus on, then you might not get the results you are looking for.
Doing things without goals can end up with you just going through the motions and not improving. A goal-driven mindset also has one benefit that I discovered last weekend.
I was walking home from a shop, lugging heavy jugs of water. I have recently set some very long-term goals for myself, those of reaching the top of Mt. Everest and also of getting to the fitness levels of special forces guys. While it is quite possible that I might not reach these goals, the thought of them still drives me.
The water jugs were incredibly heavy in my hands and I was having problems carrying them. Then I reminded myself of my goal of reaching Mt. Everest one day and of all the hard work required to do it. I reminded myself of the fact that I have always wanted to be a special forces type of guy (but never got around to doing). A guy who accomplishes those types of goals doesn’t give up and doesn’t take the easy way in these types of situations.
Those thoughts suddenly changed my perception of the entire situation and the loads in my hands seemed to get much lighter, as if by magic. I kept on going.
This is related to the placebo effect. Thoughts have a big effect on the body and can sometimes greatly aid in any endeavor. Maybe similar things are at play as with cognitive biases and framing effects?
That’s how you achieve impossible things. When you are feeling pain, that doesn’t mean that you are going to break down right then and there. That only means that you are close to it, but still have a hidden reserve left.
You need to quickly evaluate whether you can push on and usually you still can. One part of the hidden mental processes that can help you with this are goals. They give you the motivation that is needed at some of these critical junctures, when you are about to give up.
It helps if you can visualize all the benefits that accomplishing all these goals can bring. This can then focus the positive self-talk in your head that often goes on during critical moments.
Of course visualization and self-talk are not some magic bullets that can solve every problem you have, you still need to set up a plan and execute it (so set up the systems), but they can give you an edge during some very important moments and push you over the top. Read More