First Principles Thinking Explained with Examples

elon musk first principles thinking

In this post, you will learn about the concepts of First Principles thinking with the help of examples. The following topics will be covered in this post:

  • What are first principles?
  • What is first principles thinking?
  • Examples of first principles thinking

The first principles thinking can be used to solve any type of problem including real-life problem, product related problems, science related problems etc. 

What are First Principles?

As per Wikipedia, the first principle is a basic proposition or assumption that can not be derived from any other proposition or assumption. From a Mathematics perspective, the first principle can be thought of as Axioms. Axioms are propositions that are regarded as accepted or self-evidently true. For example, 2 x 2 = 4 or any number multiplied by zero is zero. From a Physics perspective, the theoretical work is said to be from the first principles if it starts from the established laws of Physics. From a Philosophy perspective, first principles are considered as the prior established facts based on which conclusions are derived.

Simply speaking, the first principles can be considered as the basis of origins from which a thing can be understood in a better manner.

What is First Principles thinking?

First-principles thinking is a tool to solve problems. We can use first principles when there are no easy solutions or it will be difficult to find the solution otherwise. For example, how do we make our business more profitable? If two or more departments have opposing viewpoints, what should our policy be? What’s the best way to use space in a small apartment?

First-principles thinking is not only applicable to engineering, but also in business and everyday life. Recognizing that there are fundamental aspects of reality is the first step in first-principles thinking. Problems would be much easier to solve if we knew the proper set of first principles (essentials of reality). If we don’t have them at all or are operating on assumptions that won’t stand up, solving issues will be considerably more difficult.

It is about breaking down a problem statement into the basic elements by asking questions and creating solutions by combining basic elements in an innovative manner. First-principles thinking removes all assumptions when looking for the solution of the problem.

There can be different ways in which first principles thinking can be applied:

  • The five whys: Start breaking down the problem in sub problems by asking “why”. The popular “why” technique could result in the statement which can not be deduced further. Here is a great video that describes what is five-why analysis and how one could identify a real problem in form of root cause and work on the solution to fix the root cause.
  • Cartesian doubt: Cartesian doubt is a method adopted by Descartes. Cartesian doubt is based on the first principle that suggests that we should doubt all the information and assumptions in front of us. It suggests that we need to question everything, even if it appears like absolute truth. For example, you might assume your business partner is trustworthy without doing background checks on them. If this first principle was applied when making decisions with your business partners, it would prove to be beneficial. It would enable you to question the trustworthiness of your partners and take precautions before entering into something that could potentially harm your business.
  • Socratic questioning: Socratic questioning helps in arriving at the first principles in a systematic manner. The following are some of techniques used in Socratic questioning:
    • Examining the ideas origin
    • Challenging assumptions
    • Looking for evidences
    • Consideration for alternative approaches
    • Examining consequences and implications

The first principles thinking has recently become very popular because of Elon Musk. He openly has made the statement in different forums that he applies the first principles thinking to solve several problems.

Examples of First Principles Thinking

Let’s try and understand how first principles thinking can be used to solve a machine learning classification problem. Lets say there is a problem of classifying an image as cat or dog. Let’s start by breaking down the problem statement into sub-problems. Here could be some of the sub-problems:

  • How do we classify an image?
  • How do we differentiate a cat and dog image?

Let’s break each of the sub-problems to another set of sub-problems. We will take up the problem statement – how do we classify an image:

  • By color (self-evident truth)
  • By objects present on the image
  • By how different objects are laid out on the image

What are objects on the image made of?

The objects on the image are built of pixels.

What are pixels made of?

The pixels are made of different combinations of red, green and blue. And, pixels can be represented as numbers. For two colors black and white, 1 bit is enough. Two bits can be used to represent four colors. Four bits can be used to represent 16 colors and so on and so forth.

Thus, it can be said that the images can be classified based on how pixels are laid out on the image.

From machine learning perspective, if we can convert the image into pixels (numbers) and feed into machine learning algorithms, we can classify the image.

Hyperloop project based on first-principles thinking

Elon Musk is known for first principles thinking. His approach to solving problems is by first understanding the first principles of reality and then applying them to make decisions. He has had many successful ventures with this mindset, including SpaceX (space exploration), Tesla (sustainable energy), Hyperloop (transportation), and Boring Company (minimalist design).

Musk first asked the question: what’s the best way to travel from point A to B? He then determined that traveling in a straight line would be ideal, and he applied first principles thinking as well as utilized his engineering knowledge to create Hyperloop. Musk first found out all of the first principles of reality (traveling at high speeds in a tube) and then applied them to his Hyperloop project and came up with his fourth business venture, the Boring Company.

Rocket launch based on first-principles thinking

In relation to a rocket launch, Elon musk first asked the question: what’s the first principles of reality that I need to consider when trying to launch a rocket? He first analyzed all aspects of his project, including speed and trajectory. Then he applied first principles thinking by looking at how rockets are launched today (adding more fuel), but instead looked for ways to apply first-principles thinking and decrease the weight of his launch vehicle.

Ajitesh Kumar
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Ajitesh Kumar

I have been recently working in the area of Data Science and Machine Learning / Deep Learning. In addition, I am also passionate about various different technologies including programming languages such as Java/JEE, Javascript, Python, R, Julia etc and technologies such as Blockchain, mobile computing, cloud-native technologies, application security, cloud computing platforms, big data etc. I would love to connect with you on Linkedin.
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