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Understanding and using first principles

This article Map: Blog - Understanding and Using First Principles

What is First Principles?#

First principles refer to breaking down things into their most basic elements and analyzing them in order to find the most optimal path to achieve a goal.

This principle originated from a philosophical viewpoint proposed by ancient Greek philosophers: "In every system, there exists a fundamental proposition that cannot be violated or removed."

This term gained popularity mainly because of Elon Musk, who mentioned his admiration for the "first principles" thinking method in an interview: "Through first principles, I elevate things to their fundamental truths and start from the core."

"It is important for us to use first principles thinking instead of comparative thinking when considering problems. We tend to compare and do what others have already done or are doing, which only leads to incremental development.

The thought process of first principles is to view the world from a physics perspective, which means peeling away the surface of things and seeing their essence, and then moving up from the essence layer by layer." This is his "first principles thinking model" - retracing the essence of things and rethinking how to do them.

From: Reference Answer

How to Better Understand First Principles#

To understand first principles better, it involves understanding the fundamental nature of truth or things and building thinking and understanding based on these basic facts. This approach is fundamentally different from relying on traditional assumptions, analogies, or conventional thinking patterns.

Here are some key points to understand first principles:

  1. Go back to basics: It requires us to strip away existing knowledge and assumptions and go back to the basic components of the problem. It's like breaking down a complex problem into its most fundamental, indivisible facts or concepts.
  2. Rebuild: Once these fundamental truths are identified, we can use them as building blocks for constructing solutions. This often leads to innovative thinking because you are no longer limited by existing frameworks or models.
  3. Question common sense: In the process of thinking with first principles, you need to question the "common sense" that is widely accepted but not necessarily correct. This helps eliminate erroneous assumptions or beliefs that may hinder innovation.
  4. In-depth analysis: First principles require a deep analysis of the problem, rather than accepting surface-level explanations. This requires critical thinking and a thorough exploration of the details.
  5. Logical reasoning: Building solutions from first principles requires rigorous logical reasoning, ensuring that each step is built on a solid foundation.

In practical applications, first principles are used in various fields, including physics, philosophy, engineering, and business strategy. For example, Elon Musk is a well-known advocate and practitioner of first principles thinking, and his innovations in fields such as electric vehicles (Tesla) and space exploration (SpaceX) are based on first principles thinking.

In summary, first principles are a way of thinking that promotes deep understanding and innovation. It encourages us to reconsider the essence of problems and find solutions from the ground up.

An Example 🌰#

Musk's thinking applies the "first principles" and he highly recommends using this principle to solve problems, which has led to some disruptive innovations in fields such as electric vehicles, aerospace, and clean energy.

First, start with the most fundamental and unchangeable conditions.

If you don't start with the most basic conditions of things, the elements that are broken down may not be effective. For example, to solve the problem of high cost of lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles, if Musk starts with the basic condition of suppliers and tries to persuade them to lower prices, it may not only be unsuccessful but also strain the relationship. A more feasible approach is to solve the raw material problem of batteries because the raw materials of batteries are relatively fixed, which is the most basic starting point.

Second, the deductive process needs to have a rigorous logical relationship and minimize the introduction of assumptions.

The reason why applying first principles thinking consumes more cognitive energy is precisely because the entire deductive analysis process must be reasonable and reliable. Otherwise, it may be off track and lead to futile efforts. Of course, this requires a wealth of knowledge, life experience, and thinking training as support.

Third, do not refer to similar solutions or existing experiences at will, respect objective deductive results.

To do well in "finding the starting point" and "ensuring logical relationships," the most important thing is to learn to maintain an "empty cup mentality" and block the interference of various known factors during deductive analysis. Without reference, sometimes seemingly imaginative ideas may arise. If the starting point and logical relationship are correct, then the objective deductive results should be respected. Perhaps this is a genius idea with great value.

From: Reference Answer

How to Better Use First Principles#

5W1H Analysis#

The 5W1H analysis is a basic problem analysis tool that requires us to examine problems or situations from six aspects: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. This method originated in the field of journalism and reporting and is considered a fundamental guideline for obtaining comprehensive information. Later, it was widely applied in management, planning, project management, writing, research, and other fields that require a comprehensive understanding of problems.

Here are detailed explanations of each part of 5W1H:

  1. Who: Refers to the people or entities involved. Asking "Who" helps identify the participants, influencers, or decision-makers of the problem.
  2. What: Describes the nature of the problem, what happened, or the tasks that need to be completed. This dimension helps us understand the scope and content of the problem.
  3. When: Involves time factors, including the time the problem occurred, deadlines, or time sequences. Understanding "When" helps us grasp timing and schedule.
  4. Where: Refers to the location where the problem occurred or where the problem should be resolved. Location often affects the approach and feasibility of problem-solving.
  5. Why: Explores the reasons or purposes. Understanding why a problem occurs or why a certain task needs to be executed helps us identify the root causes or goals.
  6. How: Involves the methods, means, or processes to solve the problem or complete the task. Asking "How" helps us plan implementation steps and methods.

By analyzing these six aspects, 5W1H helps us build a comprehensive understanding of the problem, clarify the situation, and plan solutions or action plans clearly. In practical applications, this method helps teams avoid missing important information, ensure that each aspect is considered, and promote deeper thinking and discussion.

For example, in project management, using 5W1H can help project teams clarify project goals, scope, key stakeholders, timeline, location, purpose, and implementation plans. In marketing, 5W1H can help marketers build comprehensive marketing strategies covering target customers (Who), products or services (What), promotional timing (When), sales locations (Where), market demand (Why), and promotional methods (How).

5Why Analysis#

The 5Why analysis, also known as the "5 Whys," is a simple yet highly effective problem-solving method commonly used for root cause analysis. This method was introduced by Taiichi Ohno, one of the founders of the Toyota Motor Corporation, and is widely used in the Toyota Production System and lean production. The core idea is to explore the root cause of a problem by asking "Why" five times in a row, rather than just addressing surface-level issues.

Here are the steps of the 5Why analysis:

  1. Define the problem: First, clarify what the problem is. In this step, ensure a clear and specific description of the problem that occurred.
  2. Ask the first "Why": Inquire why the problem occurred. This step is an initial exploration of the problem and usually points to a direct cause.
  3. Ask subsequent "Whys": For each answer, ask "Why" again, and so on. Each answer should lead to the next "Why," gradually delving into deeper levels of causation.
  4. Repeat until the root cause is found: Generally, repeating this process five times helps reveal the root cause of the problem, but it is not a fixed rule. Sometimes more or fewer "Whys" may be needed to reach the core of the problem.
  5. Take action: After identifying the root cause, develop and implement an action plan to address the underlying problem.

For example, if a machine in a factory stops running:

  1. Why? The machine has no power.
  2. Why? The fuse is blown.
  3. Why? Because the fuse is overloaded.
  4. Why? Because the motor is running with an overload.
  5. Why? Because the motor's filter is not regularly cleaned, causing increased resistance.

In this example, the fifth "Why" reveals that the root cause is insufficient maintenance of the motor's filter. Subsequently, a solution can be implemented, such as developing a regular cleaning maintenance plan for the filter to prevent future overload issues.

The advantage of the 5Why analysis is its simplicity and the ability to quickly identify and solve problems. However, this method also has limitations as it relies on the knowledge and experience of the questioner and may sometimes lead to overly simplified conclusions. To overcome these limitations, the 5Why analysis is often used in combination with other tools and techniques, such as cause-and-effect diagrams (fishbone diagrams).

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