What makes Elon Musk stand out as an innovator? Is it his audacious goal of going to Mars? Or his determination to challenge the all-powerful automotive industry? Those are merely the consequences of reasoning from first principles. And innovating based on them.
Innovation is the ability to come up with something new, surprising and valuable. Where the outcome is not only valuable to you (that’s creativity), but for others.
Copying comes at a cost
Most people think in analogies. They start from something that already exists. They might see an example and copy it. Make a link to another context and use the idea in a new situation. Analogies are very useful. They make complex problems easier to communicate and understand. In fact, research by Robin Dunbar, cited in the book Range by David Epstein, shows that people with experience from other fields problem solve better than those hyper specialised in one field only. They are more likely to see analogies and connect ideas across domains. And, herein lies the difference. These experts are applying their knowledge (derived from first principles) in a new context. They succeed, because they understand the fundamentals to begin with. That’s different from only observing something and copying it. While copying may yield a short-term benefit, it isn’t sustainable in the long term.
Those who copy, work off what’s already been done, but without deep understanding. That can be effective, and tweaks can help improve the outcome. And while both may look the same, but when something goes wrong the difference is visible. Copying something limits our belief about what’s possible to what has been already done. We have allowed someone else to frame our thinking.
Reasoning from first principles is hard but worth it
Reasoning from first principles is about breaking down complicated problems into basic elements. Like taking a LEGO model and breaking it down into constituent bricks. Then reassembling from the ground up. It is one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself. And it unlocks creative potential by moving you from linear to non-linear results. (and why you should ALWAYS take a LEGO model apart once built and make your own models or you miss half the fun!).
Aristotle defined first principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known*”. It is removing all assumptions and conventions. And yes it is a lot of work. That’s why so few people are willing to do it. But the benefits are enormous. We don’t let others think for us, by copying their conventions, or possibilities. We aren’t beholden to a world of conformity. Or prisoners of incremental thinking. Musk, in an interview with Kevin Rose put it this way:
..First principles is a kind of physics way of looking at the world, and that that really means is, you… boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “okay, what are we sure is true?”…and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy”**
When you understand the underlying principles, you can decide if the existing approach makes sense. Children are hard-wired to reason from first principles. This is why they drive teachers and parents crazy by incessantly asking why? They are intuitively using a well-known technique called The 5 Why’s. One of the most effective techniques for getting to the bottom of something. Being curious, challenging convention and finding out for your self. And the worst thing you can do as a parent? Tell them ‘because I said so’.
What you can do to get closer to first principles
So what can you do to get closer to first principles? You could try Socratic questioning. It is a way of questioning to uncover truths and separate knowledge from assumptions. Some questions to ask:
Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?
How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?
How can I back this up? What are the sources?
What might others thing? How do I know I’m correct?
What if I’m wrong? What are the consequences if I am?
Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from how I reasoned?
Why do it? So you can build something that lasts. Avoid emotional responses and reconnect with your creativity. To allow you to adapt to a changing environment, deal with reality and grab opportunities others can’t see. We are all born creative, yet we often forget to nurture it as we grow up. Teachers and parents are busy telling us what to think. And many of us learn only too well to curb our curiosity and settle for convention and copying.
Thinking from first principles is liberating. Many things become more possible, because we can rebuild from the ground up, rather than tinker with the surface only. Like a LEGO model. We can’t go from a space ship to a robot without rebuilding from the ground up. Looking at the underlying structure before we decorate the surface. And knowledge is the same.
Or as Elon Musk puts it:
“it’s important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree…make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
*Aristotle, Metaphysics 1013a14–15