First principles thinking

First principles thinking


First principles thinking is a strategy for breaking down complex problems and generating original solutions, popularized by Elon Musk.

🔖 Table of contents

💡 About First principles thinking

The key premise of First principles thinking is breaking down complexity into fundamental parts that you know are true and building up from there. This is an iterative cycle - break down a situation down into the core pieces and put them all back together in a more effective way. This strategy can be used to navigate complexity and make ambiguous problems more tangible and approachable (e.g., How can my business become more profitable?). It can be also used in situations where you need to foster innovation and challenge the status quo (e.g., How can I make space travel accessible to everyone?)

✂️ How to use it?

1. Define problem statement

First, define your problem statement - i.e., What is it that I'm solving for?

Notionery tip: Try to formulate your problem statement in maximum 10 words. Phrase it as an action call or a hypothesis. For example "Make my business more profitable"

2. Break down the problem into its core elements

Use an issue tree to think about elements of the problem. Use the following guiding questions:

  • What are the constituent part of this problem?
  • What are the underlying principles this problem / system relies on?
  • What has been proven?
  • When it comes to parts of this problem, what do I know absolutely holds true?
  • Can I restart from those principles to identify a remarkably better way to approach this problem?

Notionery tip: You can use an issue tree to break down the problem statement into its elements (you will find a guide linked in the Additional resources section). In practice, you don't have to break every problem down into the atomic level - often, it's enough to go 2-3 layers deeper than most people would. For example, let's create an issue tree for our "Make my business more profitable" problem statement.

Problem statement: "Make my business more profitable"

  1. Pathway 1 - Increase revenue
  2. 1.1 Increase # of orders

    1.2 Increase pricing

  3. Pathway 2 - Reduce costs
  4. 2.1 Reduce costs for rental

    2.2 Reduce raw material expenses

    2.3 Reduce salary expenses

3. Brainstorm solutions

Brainstorm solutions to tackle constituent parts of the problem, as you've defined them in step #2.

If dealing with an innovation problem, ask yourself - What is the most efficient way to solve this problem if I started from scratch? Here, beware of the form vs. function bias. When people envision the future, they are often married to the current form, instead of thinking about the function first, and abandoning the form. For instance, when criticizing technological progress some people ask, “Where are the flying cars?” We have flying cars. They're called airplanes. People who ask this question are so focused on form (a flying object that looks like a car) that they overlook the function (transportation by flight).

🌊 Example


John Boyd, the famous fighter pilot and military strategist, created the following thought experiment which showcases how to use first principles thinking in a practical way.

1. Define problem statement

Imagine you have three things: A motorboat with a skier behind it, a military tank and a bicycle. What can you create from these individual parts?

2. Break down the problem into its core elements

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.

3. Brainstorm solutions

One option is to make a snowmobile by combining the handlebars and seat from the bike, the metal treads from the tank, and the motor and skis from the boat.

📚Additional reading resources