Pioneered 2000 years ago by Aristotle and popularized most recently by Elon Musk, First Principles is a method of reasoning which involves breaking down a complex problem into its most fundamental parts and reasoning upwards from there.
In his interview with Kevin Rose, Musk says:
“It’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So the normal way we conduct our lives is, we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing… with slight iterations on a theme. And it’s … mentally easier to reason by analogy rather than from first principles. First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, and what that really means is, you … boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “okay, what are we sure is true?”
Given his ubiquitous popularity in the mainstream culture, it is easy to forget that what Musk is doing is literally unearthly! Take a minute and read this page on SpaceX's mission statement. It's hard to fathom how courageous, confident and clear one needs to be in their thinking, to come up with a plan to colonize Mars(!) and saying it publicly without the fear of being ridiculed. How does he do it?
He takes an insanely complicated problem, goes to the bottom of it and comes up with intuitive solutions which people before him never came up with because they reasoned by analogy. Notice how this theme of first principles based problem-solving underlies all of his work:
SpaceX — Space flight is crazy expensive. Why? Because we use new rockets for every launch. That sounds dumb. Let's find a way to make reusable rockets. To the layman it sounds obvious. But why didn't people before him question these basics? Lack of first principles based thinking.
Tesla — Fuel-based automobiles are bad for the planet. Why can't people switch to electric cars? Because they are not battery efficient, lack performance and are often poorly designed. Boom! Tesla now builds some of the most good looking and fastest cars on the planet.
The Boring Company — There's too much traffic on the road. Why? Human settlements are multiple storeyed. But human transport is still archaic and restricted to one plane. Let's change that by boring underground transportation tunnels.
All of this sounds so damn obvious and it is hard to believe that people never questioned these basic premises in their fields. It is mind-blowing how restrictive reasoning by analogy can be.
First Principles Approach to Life
I know. First principles seems overly simplistic in theory. But trust me, it can be quite difficult to implement. Now I don't know how to make rockets like Elon but over time I have learned how to use first principles as a strategy for living life.
Living abroad and building your life from scratch in a new country is a great way to identify with these principles. In retrospect, I realise that the most fundamental elements of my life were often the things which I took for granted while living at home. Which included my physical and mental health, my friends and family, and a sense of belonging which your homeland provides.
Lockdown-induced self-introspection made 2020 a year of tremendous personal growth and I realised that I had made a lot of decisions in my personal and professional life which did not allign with my principles. But that's okay. We all get influenced by culture and the people around us. We try to replicate other people's life strategies because we see them working. Once you identify and build your life around your own principles, you quickly become unapologetic and make decisions without seeking external validation.
Imagine your life is a tree and every decision you make branches you out into the world. Now all trees branch out differently so it is futile to imitate the trees around you. Of course, you can get some idea about what kind of decisions lead you where but it is really stupid to shape yourself in somebody else's reflection. The reason why first principles drastically improves your decision making and life satisfaction is because every decision you take, every new branch you create, is strongly attached to your own core. Even if it doesn't work out, you will love it as your own.
As it often happens with people, your principles may change over time and that's okay. You can rebranch your tree gradually but honestly, I do believe that there are some core, non-negotiable principles to live a good life. These can also be a good starting point to create your own list of first principles. Here are three undeniable ones — taking care of your body, maintaining healthy relationships and doing satisfying work which pays the bills. Everytime I find myself in a rut, I reason upwards from here.
First Principles as opposed to Backwards Induction
I have never found it useful to set specific goals. An unpopular opinion, I know. A notoriously flawed concept in self-improvement circles is the concept of S.M.A.R.T. goals. It is an acronym for goals which are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. This life strategy is a derivative of Backwards Induction way-of-reasoning where you take the end goal in mind and reason backwards from there. Personally, I've found this strategy to be too restrictive and given my temparament and personality-type, I have always enjoyed some amount of spontaneity in life. I like to diversify my interests, trying different things and adjusting my sails as I move forward making sure that I don't miss the forest for the trees. In Tim Minchin's words, "the disciplined pursuit of short-term goals."
I would rather aim to build systems which are in allignment with my principles. Instead of setting a goal to run a sub-4 hour marathon in 6 months, it is more sustainable to create a system which allows me to become a better runner. This means I run every other day, focus on recovery and nutrition, and push my self everyday without injuring myself. Since I don't care about the specifics, I am never dissapointed even if I fail to reach these arbitary metrics. You might say that every system inherently has a goal, no matter how vague. That is true. But the important point is not to make these goals too specific.
This way, reasoning by first principles clears your head, getting rid of assumptions, external influences and perceived limitations drastically improving life satisfaction.
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