First Principles Thinking

Photo by Milad Fakurian / Unsplash

The Premise

Our thinking shapes our reality. Our choices are based on our thoughts, and our decisions are primarily emotional, not logical. None of us are new to decision-making, and we have improved our decision-making skills as we grew up. Life has taught us many things, and we carry the lessons with us subconsciously. In a grand scheme of things, we have similar lives with some personalization.

While most problems have solutions from our or others' lessons, sometimes it happens that finding a similar situation or experience is not enough. Some issues are novel and demand new ways of thinking. Sometimes there is a demand to think beyond our capabilities. We get overwhelmed by the choices in front of us, which seem impossible. During those times, we question our ways of thinking. How do we handle such situations? How do the best thinkers of our time handle it? Who are these people? What solution do they propose? What constitutes a decision-making process? Read on!

Analogical Thinking

Have you ever had a problem that made you think of a solution from a similar situation? We have all come across thoughts like "I'll resort to this solution because this worked for me last time" and "A similar situation happened to my friend, and this is how they dealt with it, so I'll try that out." It is called "Analogical Thinking." We think by analogy in most situations, i.e., we identify and apply the best features from other solutions to the problem at hand. This type of thinking prevents us from reinventing the wheel.

When faced with a decision, more often than not, we use our or others' past experiences to drive our choice. Humans are mimetic in nature. When we learn something, we learn primarily by copying. We start learning by copying the letters and numbers, and the pattern continues as we grow up. We compare situations, we compare people, we compare ourselves, and we try to find patterns. This is a more traditional and widespread way of thinking.

Problems with Analogical Thinking

The problem with analogical thinking is that it's not always applicable to port one solution from another, as the base assumptions and logic between the problems differ. We tend to miss out on many details. It is almost impossible to apply everything from one situation to another. In a way, the bulk of thinking has been made by others, and we just adapt the solutions to our problems.

For example, critics of technological progress ask questions like, "Where are the flying cars?". But we have flying cars. They are called Airplanes or Aeroplanes, depending on where you live. They are so focused on the form (a car-shaped object flying in the air) than the idea behind it (transportation by air). This is an example of the limiting beliefs of thinking by analogy.

When we take existing solutions and improve on them, we are in the shadow of others or our past selves. Analogies make us see the problem like how everybody sees the problem. Analogical thinking is based on the stories we have told ourselves, and they restrict us from thinking freely. Let's stop here and ask ourselves — Why do we have to apply the solution from a similar problem just because it worked? What if there is a different solution that nobody has tried before?

First-Principles Thinking

I heard about first-principles thinking in one of Naval's podcast episodes. Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, first discussed first-principles thinking. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle defined a first principle as "the first basis from which a thing is known." Physicist Richard Feynman was a firm practitioner of first principles, and Elon Musk credits the success of Tesla and SpaceX to thinking by first principles.

A first principle is a foundational proposition or assumption that stands alone. We cannot deduce first principles from any other proposition or assumption, and it is the fundamental truth upon which something is built. First-principles apply to everything. Every problem or situation, irrespective of its nature, can be broken down into its first principles.

First-principles thinking is a way of problem-solving where you break down the problem into its most fundamental components and reconstruct them to find a solution. It is one of the best ways to get breakthrough ideas and to reason your decisions from the origin, backed by the most fundamental truths of the problem. It is one of the best mental models to improve your way of thinking.

A person who thinks in first principles can derive things on the spot without relying on any assumptions or conventions. A first-principles thinker falls back to the basics when things get tough and build the solution from the ground up. The basis of first principles thinking is understanding, and it is the best way to think for yourself without inheriting ideas from others.

Examples of First Principles Thinking

In theory, first principles thinking requires us to dig deeper and deeper until we are left with the foundational truths of a situation. In practice, we are not always required to go down to the atomic levels of a problem, and we just have to dig deeper than other people. Different solutions present themselves to varying levels of abstraction.

Example 1: Children

Children think by first principles. They always keep questioning things around them. It could not be enjoyable for the adults to answer their questions, but they keep asking why. Many first principles thinkers also employ the "The Five Whys" method of deconstructing a problem. It is all about asking "why" repeatedly until we get to the fundamentals. This process enables children to be curious and get to know the world around them. But as they grow up, their curiosity is suppressed into limiting beliefs, and they start relying on analogy.

Example 2: The Snowmobile Thought Experiment

John Boyd, the famous fighter pilot and military strategist, created the following thought experiment that showcases how to use first-principles thinking practically.

Imagine you have three things:

  • A motorboat with a skier behind it,
  • A military tank, and
  • A bicycle.

Now, let's break these items down into their constituent parts:

  • Motorboat: motor, the hull of a boat, and a pair of skis.
  • Tank: metal treads, steel armor plates, and a gun.
  • Bicycle: handlebars, wheels, gears, and a seat.

What can you create from these individual parts? One option is to make a snowmobile by combining the handlebars and seat from the bike, the tank's metal treads, and the boat's motor and skis. This is the process of first principles thinking in a nutshell. It is a cycle of breaking a situation down into the core pieces and then putting them all back together more effectively. Deconstruct, then reconstruct.

Example 3: The Printing Press

Most groundbreaking ideas in history have resulted from boiling things down to the first principles and substituting a more effective solution for one of the critical parts. For instance, Johannes Gutenberg combined the technology of a screw press—a device used for making wine—with movable type, paper, and ink to create the printing press. Movable type had been used for centuries, but Gutenberg was the first person to consider the constituent parts of the process and adapt technology from an entirely different field to make printing far more efficient. The result was a world-changing innovation and the widespread distribution of information for the first time in history. The best solution is not where everyone is already looking.

Example 4: Elon Musk

Watch this video of Elon Musk's example of using first principles in his companies. I see this as a great example of how an innovator thinks:

The First Principles Method Explained by Elon Musk
Interview by Kevin RoseThe benefit of “first principles” thinking? It allows you to innovate in clear leaps, rather than building small improvements onto som...

How to employ First Principles Thinking in your life

Here are some practical tips that we can use to think in first principles:

  1. Be wary of the ideas you inherit.
  2. Employ the Five Whys — ask yourself repeated whys to get to the bottom of the problem.
  3. Clarify your thinking and explain the origins of your ideas. (What exactly do I think, and why do I believe this?)
  4. Challenge your assumptions (How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?)
  5. Look for evidence (How can I back this up? What are the sources?)
  6. Consider alternative perspectives (What might others think? How do I know I am correct?)
  7. Examine consequences and implications (What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?)
  8. Question the original questions (Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?)
  9. Question your gut feeling. This helps verify your intuitions and limits emotional responses.

Challenges of First Principles Thinking

  1. The biggest challenge of first principles thinking is that it is straightforward to talk about but incredibly difficult to implement in practice. It takes a lot of practice and patience to change how we think.
  2. It takes more mental energy to break down a situation into its fundamental parts. Once broken down, the essential components could be challenging to understand. So, understanding the basics is the key.
  3. Thinking by first principles is slow, and it's a marathon, not a sprint. In any situation, it's easy and quick to devise a solution based on analogies, but reasoning from the first principles could be time-consuming. As powerful as it is, the process is dragging, especially if you are surrounded by analogical thinkers.
  4. Not all situations demand it, and no way of thinking is a one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes, the answer lies in analogies too. One of the key challenges is identifying when it is required and recognizing if it is not working.
  5. The human tendency to imitate is another roadblock to first principles thinking. Our first response is to emulate and execute the actions of others who have faced similar issues. Sometimes it demands abandoning our ideologies and unlearning our existing beliefs to get to the bottom of the problem.

Final Thoughts

First-principles thinking relies on a firm understanding of the basics. Analogical thinking, on the other hand, relies on incremental and continuous improvements. First-principles does not replace continuous improvements but change the direction of improvements. Without reasoning by first principles, you spend time making minor improvements to a bicycle rather than a snowmobile. It acts as a course-correction mechanism. If you want to enhance an existing process, continuous improvement is a good option, but if you want to think by yourself, reasoning by first principles is one of the best ways to do so. Keep questioning things until they make sense to you—Nullius In Verba (take nobody's word for it). Dig deeper. That's how you improve your thinking. Thanks for reading. Peace out!


  1. First Principles: Elon Musk on the Power of Thinking for Yourself — James Clear.
  2. The First Principles Method Explained by Elon Musk — YouTube.
  3. First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge — Farnam Street.
  4. Naval Ravikant's podcast episodes —
Vivek Arvind

Vivek Arvind

Santa Clara, CA