First-principles thinking

Date created: 2021-11-09

A first principle is a foundational assumption or principle that stands alone, it can’t be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. It’s a very useful Mental models

One analogy is coach vs “play stealer” in the NFL where a coach reasons from first principles (the rules of the game) to decide on what to do, whereas the “play stealer” will use a play that already exists and do some tweaks. When something goes wrong, the coach will be able to understand why and adjust, while the “play stealer” stands there confused.

Another way to describe a “play stealer” is to reason from analogy. Or the difference between a chef (knows the raw ingredients, invents recipes) and a cook (blindly follows a recipe made by someone else).

Using analogies may result in some incremental improvements, but to really jump in success you’ll need to reason from first principles.

This got me thinking about the Marginal gains in many aspects can have a big impact where the coach Dave Brailsford broke down every process involved in cycling and tried to improve it.

Techniques for establishing first principles

Socratic Questioning

The Five Whys - Root Cause

  • Start from established truths. What do we know is true?

One Level Higher

When is it useful?

Reasoning by first principles is useful when you are (1) doing something for the first time, (2) dealing with complexity, and (3) trying to understand a sitaution that you’re having problems with. In all of these areas, your thinking gets better when you stop making assumptions and you stop letting others frame the proble, for you.