First Principles: How To Simplify Complex Problems


Ever feel that certain people see the world differently than you?

Like they play by a different set of rules and can bend reality to however they need or think it should be.

They innovate and connect disparate ideas that end up making total sense as if they have some unreasonable advantage that you don’t.

You might think they’re more ambitious or work hard than you. However, it’s not how they work, it’s how they think.

This unreasonable advantage is called First Principle Thinking.

First principles is the thinking framework people like Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Charlie Munger, and Elon Musk, use to accelerate learning, solve difficult problems and increase creative output.

It’s a framework that once you know about it, it will change the way you see the world and help you achieve extraordinary results.



A first principle is an assumption that cannot be deduced any further. It is a pure thought or the most basic element of something.

Aristotle defined first principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”

Based on facts and logic, first principle thinking removes any bias introduced by an assumption or preconceived notion.

It asks that you break everything down it down until you can’t go any further. It’s the practice of discovering what we know to be absolutely true.

From there you can start to put things back together in a more efficient way.

Reduce then rebuild.

During an interview with TED curator, Chris Anderson, Elon Musk explained his process and how he applies first principles when asked what his secret was for achieving so much.

Musk: Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. Generally, I think there are — what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations.

The key point isn’t so much what he says to do, as it is what not to do -- reasoning by analogy.



Reasoning by analogy is what most everyone does every day. It’s how we were taught to learn. Since I know this to be true, then this should work the same way as well.

However, what we think we know to be true may not always be supported by facts. We believe what we’re told and are held back by limiting beliefs imposed on us by others. Over time these biases come to define our reality.

First principles allow us to break out of that and see things as they truly are.

Common limiting beliefs that we tell ourselves are:

  • I don’t have enough time

  • I don’t know where to start

  • I don’t have the resources to do what I want

  • People say it’s impossible

  • There are no more good ideas

  • It’s been done before

It takes challenging these limits to catalyze innovation rather than accepting them as facts.



The trap is, however, once something new has been created it’s quickly regarded as a new limit.

Venture capitalist, Peter Thiel argues that we’re in a period of technological stagnation. That advancement in technology is focused on incremental improvement rather than innovation.

He calls this as going from 1 to n; copying what’s been done, or, if first principles are applied, going from 0 to 1; innovation and new technology.

We have to remember that everything was original once.

However, due to our propensity to reason by analogy we then revert back to focusing on incremental improvement. Enhancing things that have been done rather than work toward innovation and progress.

By reasoning from first principles we can work toward innovation rather than minor improvement.



Of course, for many things applying first principles wouldn’t be practical. Doing so would actually make you less efficient.

But as Musk says it’s the best place to start when you want to do something new.

Musk: Through most of our life we get through life by reasoning by analogy which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. You have to do that otherwise it’s -- mentally you wouldn't be able to get through the day. But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really about how to discover new things that are counterintuitive.




While it’s easy to think and theorize about what first principles are, they can be difficult to establish. Two frameworks for getting there are: Socratic Questioning and The Five Whys.

Socratic Questioning
Socratic questioning takes critical thinking a step further. Beyond a traditional discussion, Socratic questioning is a disciplined analysis meant to assess the truth and reveal underlying assumptions. It’s a process fit for exploring complex ideas, analyzing concepts, and determining what we do and do not know. Typically, Socratic questioning follows this progression:

  1. Clarify what you know - What do I believe? Why do I think this?

  2. Challenge those assumptions - How do I know that’s true?

  3. Search for evidence - What is similar to this? How can I prove it?

  4. Change your perspective - What if I thought differently?

  5. Think forward - What does this affect? What are the consequences?

  6. Return to the beginning - Was I right? Why did I think that? What did I learn? What do I know now?

Doing this allows you to put your assumptions aside and focus on the facts. By removing judgment you’ll be more likely to come to a rational conclusion.


The Five Whys
Formally developed by Taiichi Ohno for the Toyota Production System, The Five Whys is used to uncover the root cause of a problem. Simply, it’s the process of asking ‘Why’ five times, or until there are no more layers to investigate. For example:

Problem - My network isn’t big enough.

  1. Why? - I haven’t made enough of an effort.
  2. Why? - I always figure I will sometime later.
  3. Why? - I think I can rely on the people I know for now.
  4. Why? - I feel safe with the people I already know.
  5. Why? - I worry I don’t have enough to offer new people. (Root Cause)

Straightforward in execution, by solving a problem from a root cause you give yourself the advantage of developing both a deeper understanding and likely, a lasting solution.



When faced with a difficult or complex problem our tendency is to default to what we know. We reason through problems by relating them to situations we’re familiar with. This leads us to reason by analogy, rather than focus on innovation.

By identifying our assumptions and reasoning from first principles we’re able to step outside those constraints and think for ourselves.

This approach is best applied when you need to solve complex problems, develop an innate understanding of something, and come up with original ideas. It’s the framework that allows you to adapt to changing environments, question your reality, and recognize opportunities others can’t.

It’s how you can see the world differently.

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