First Principles: A framework for deconstructing complex problems
As we prepare our youth and ourselves for the coming decade, the World Economic Forum and several other think tanks and thought leaders suggest that problem solving skills, especially that of complex problem solving, will be most critical. I often meet people ( especially parents of young children ) who want to know how and where to learn such skills.
Although there is a well known Institute of Complexity at Santa Fe, New Mexico (https://www.santafe.edu) founded in 1984 that explores ‘ Science for a Complex world’ and is leading the world in complexity science, with a mixed group of physicists, biologists, economists, political scientists, computer experts, and mathematicians working together, ordinary folk also have to deal with complex problems on an everyday basis. All innovation whether incremental ( Kaizen), disruptive ( Clayton Christensen) or Blue Ocean ( W Chan Kim and Renee Maubourgne) requires solutions to challenging problems with a fresh perspective.
One of the challenges of really complex problems is that unlike many difficult problems that we routinely solve these days, there is no ‘algorithm’ to solve a complex problems. Even the recent powerful computing methods like machine learning or quantum computing, suffer from the defect of ‘non-explainability’. We have to look for other methods.
One such method is the use of ‘first Principles’, a phrase that was used more than 2000 years ago by the Greek Philosopher Aristotle, who believed that the best way to understand a subject is to break it down to its most fundamental principles, and made popular in recent times by the immensely successful innovator and entrepreneur Elon Musk. Elon Musk simplifies this to two main steps of which the first is to identify the problem and its common assumptions. The second more difficult is to break the problem down to its fundamental truths. Keep digging deeper and deeper until you are left with only the fundamental truths.
My own initiation to the importance of ‘first principles’ happened in the year 1967 when as a Ph.D. student in Solid State Physics, I read Sir John Ziman’s “ Principles of the theory of Solids”. Books on Solid State Physics at that time usually had titles with adjectives such as Introduction, Advanced…but Prof Ziman’s book had “ Principles” as part of its title. In the preface to the book, he says “ It has never been supposed that a student could get into his head, the whole of Physics, nor even the whole of any branch of Physics. A few sentences later he writes “ It is a book about ideas, not facts. It is an exposition of the principles, not a description of the phenomena.”
When we use First Principles thinking,we are able to discover unconventional insights based on fundamental truths. This in turn can lead to game-changing innovation — the kind of “10x thinking” that creates breakthrough product ideas. Four very different types of thought leaders Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla and SpaceX), Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon), Peter Thiel (ex-CEO of PayPal), and Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize winning physicist) have all supported this approach, although they may not all have used exactly the same phrase, but that is what it is in essence.
The exceptional person that he was, Feynman relished solving problems entirely on his own, from scratch — not relying on previous work from so-called experts. Feynman was intensely curious and wanted to truly understand problems before attempting to solve them. This means that he would often break a problem down to fundamental truths that he could prove, and then build up theories and solutions from there. He would also question assumptions and data. Feynman was at a conference in Rochester, NY, where he heard a talk by some researchers about beta decay, and largely believed their findings. A few years later, Feynman was reviewing the same problem and realized that they had made a mistake. Feynman realized afterwards that he relied too much on the reasoning of others (“reasoning by analogy”). From that point on, he never relied on the reasoning of experts. He approached problems from a First Principles standpoint — what do you know to be fundamentally true, and then reason up from there.
My encounter with first principles again happened in the unexpected area of law, during my years of practice as a lawyer. In fact I even wrote an article in a legal journal on the principles used to classify goods in the context of sales tax levied on them. Two principles of natural justice are often considered the basis of much of modern first principles of justice. The first is “ Audi alteram partem” which is a right to fair hearing of the other party. The other is of no bias, often invoked as the Latin maxim “ nemo judex in causa sua”. Reasoned decision is almost a first principle of justice.
Another interesting example of use of first principles is the Drake equation. In 1961, scientist Frank Drake ( https://www.space.com/25219-drake-equation.html ) wrote down a simple-looking equation for estimating the number of active, technologically-advanced, communicating civilizations in the Milky Way. From first principles, as there was no good way to simply estimate a number, but Drake had the brilliant idea of writing down a large number of parameters that could be estimated, which you would then multiply together.
As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essayist and Poet
The above quote from Emerson becomes very important in this age of information overload and an exponential growth of information. There is often a clamour to add more and more subjects to the curriculum at all levels. Adding subjects like AI at School level is an example of this. A few decades ago the 2 year undergraduate course was padded up to become a 3 year program and more recently some Universities even explored a 4 year undergraduate degree.
In this era of availability of large number of digital learning resources, it is even more important to become aware of the importance of thinking from first principles and training the youth in it.
In my pursuit of programs for future readiness, I have designed a weeklong course on First Principles. The structure of the course is as follows:
Day 1: The concept of first principles
1.1: Philosophical Origins
1.2: The building blocks of true knowledge
1.4: Occam’s Razor
1.5: First principles in law
Day 2: Elon Musk’s use of first principles
2.1: Elon Musk on the importance of first principles
2.3: The Tesla Car
2.4: Space X
2.5: Solar City
Day 3: Learning and practicing first principles
3.1: Barriers to First principles thinking
3.2: Elon Musk’s 3 step approach
3.3: The 7 step approach to first principles thinking
3.4: The Fermi method
3.5: Mind maps
Day 4: What is not a first principle?
4.1: Widely held beliefs
4.2: Analogies (comparison thinking)
Day 5: Applications of first principles thinking
5.1: First principles in design
5.2: First principles in Psychology
5.3: First principles in Programming
5.4: First principles in societal problem solving
5.5: First principles in marketing strategy
This is an initial draft of the topics. They may be tweaked continually and in respond to feedback and ideas received from the course participants.
To know more about this program and register for it, please send a WhatsApp message to Prof MM Pant at +919810073724 or an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org