First Principles

I first heard of the term “first principles” when I was watching an interview of Elon Musk with Kevin Rose. His explanation:

“I think it is important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [When reasoning by analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done or it is like what other people are doing — slight iterations on a theme.

First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “What are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there.

Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”

With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”

It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”

It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

— Elon Musk

At first I thought such thinking is meant for complex, groundbreaking things—making rockets, for example. But as time goes by, I’ve come to realize that thinking from the first principles can and should be applied to not only complex things. I can talk about all the things that I’ve done—from small matters to huge decisions—that could have been way better had I taken my time to apply the first principles thinking to them.

This revelation was a surprise, even to myself. I’ve always loved thinking; things that make me think are fun, and my definition of the ideal vacation is not only getting lost in new places but also having the perfect space and enough time to think about anything. I even had this fear that I’m way too much into thinking that I probably am not going to be good at executing (I’m trying my hardest to take care of that problem though). It’s a shame since things wouldn’t be executed properly without a proper thinking. Vice versa—a deep thinking would be nothing without execution. Both things go hand in hand.

I can go on and on explaining why I love thinking and how it has affected my life, but I’d end up writing a book so I’ll just stop it here.

So, the question (which I asked myself): why didn’t I apply the first principles thinking in the first place?

It takes time

I think this is not a problem that is exclusive to thinking from the first principles; it also is a problem for thinking in general. It’s easier for people to see the process of executing instead of the process of thinking. Of course—thinking happens in our head. Therefore, it’s easy for people to mistake that a process hasn’t begun before some form of execution takes place.

I myself have heard a lot of comments about how I think too much and how it is risky in making things complicated. Thinking seems to have this connotation of overcomplicating things that it is seen as something that halts a process instead of supporting it. As a fan of thinking in general, it truly is a shame, but it got to me a few times that sometimes I’d just shorten or even skip my thinking process so that the process could begin. It happened even when I realized that there was still something… strange. Something that didn’t seem right. Because of this reason too, sometimes I had this fear of asking people to think together with me; to breakdown our thoughts and discuss them and rebuild them again, because I was afraid I’d just waste their time.

Of course, it’s possible for overthinking to happen. And it’s possible for a thinking process to get too complicated, making things worse than before. But I don’t think it will happen with thinking from the first principles. Thinking from the first principles, in fact, solves this problem. Once you’ve found the most fundamental pieces of your idea or problem, things will be much simpler. It simplifies the entire thinking process itself. With the fundamental pieces in your hand, all that’s left for you to do is determine what you’re going to do with them.

The hardest part, of course, will be to find all of those fundamental pieces. But I guess it shouldn’t be a huge problem if you take your time to trace them. Perhaps finding them doesn’t only require thinking; it might also require a mix of expertise and insights which you can get from conversations with people, discussions, books, and every source of knowledge available. That’s the fun part! It will be even better if you have someone else or a team to go through the process together with you.

It might sound time-consuming and it’s easy for us to fall into thinking that finding the fundamental pieces is not really worth it. But speaking from personal experience, going to the wrong direction due to not knowing what actually matters will even be more time-consuming. When that happened, I spent so much time looking for a way to make a detour. Sometimes I couldn’t even afford making a detour at all. Other times I didn’t even know what to fix because I didn’t understand the fundamentals—I didn’t know where the detour was. It’s the worst feeling, knowing that you could have done so much better had you just put some more efforts to think. It’s that simple.

It forces us to face that what we have believed to be true all this time might not be true

The opposite of thinking from the first principles is thinking from analogy. By analogy, we assume that what has been true before must be true in the future. I’ve never realized how much we humans actually rely on analogy; it shows that we probably don’t do much thinking at all. We simply assume. We don’t need to think anymore—the other person has done it for us!

Sure, thinking from analogy is efficient, quick, and comfortable. It doesn’t take much time and with thinking from analogy, we’re not going to be confronted with any surprising discovery, which might be off-putting to some. I’ve also come across instances where people refuse to go over the first principles thinking process and eventually resort to thinking from analogy, simply because someone else has thought about it and it just can’t be wrong. But by living with that idea, we’re undermining our capability of thinking for ourselves. Each person is unique; we have different perspectives, insights, backgrounds… I could go on forever. All of these variables—even a tiny difference—could make a difference in a way someone approaches a problem, thus possibly making room for a solution unlike any other. When we believe in our capability, whenever we’re confronted with a surprising find, there’s no reason to worry. We wouldn’t see it as a threat. And oftentimes, this surprising find might just be the key that makes the entire first principles thinking process worth it.

What’s next?

I’ve learned enough lessons to remind myself to always apply the first principles thinking whenever possible. It becomes even more important when you’re the leader: it means that the thinking part is really your homework to do, not someone else’s.

The next difficult part is trying to convince others that I’m taking my time to think for a good reason—or better yet, convince them to take their time and think together, before going to the next step. It’s still a huge challenge, at least for me.

Interestingly I found this line when I was reading Marvin Minsky’s paper “Steps Toward Artificial Intelligence”, which might be one of the reasons why:

”… once a generalization about the past has been made, one is likely to build upon it. Thus, one may come to select certain properties as important and begin to use them in the characterization of experience, perhaps storing in one’s memories in terms of them. If later it is discovered that some other properties would serve better, then one must face the problem of translating, or abandoning, the records based on the older system. … One does not simply give up an old way of looking at things, if the better one demands much effort and experience to be useful.

— Marvin Minsky

Well, I think Minsky got it perfectly. :-)

August 26, 2016