The Most Powerful Way to Think | First Principles

In the previous video, we discussed the idea of power and created a framework for thinking about it. I claimed that someone needed two fundamental ingredients to be powerful: a true understanding of the world and the resources to shape it. As promised, we’re going to go over what I left out of the last video which was how to obtain a truer understanding of the world. I believe this essay will shine light on the fact that some ways of thinking are more useful than others. Out of all of the essays that I’ve ever written, this one is the most important. 

Today, we’ll be discussing how to think from first principles.


What are First Principles?


First principles are the fundamental building blocks of an idea; they are the most indivisible parts that we know to be true and that we use to build more complex thoughts. I know this sounds a little abstract right now but let me give you some history, an analogy, and an example.

A Brief (and Selective) History of First Principles

Thinking from first principles isn’t a new or groundbreaking idea. In fact, it’s been the dominant mode of thinking among all great scientists and philosophers for awhile now; it’s probably the single most consistent factor among great thinkers. Although there have been many practitioners of this way of thinking, I’d like to zoom in on one that you may have heard about: Aristotle. He was a prolific organizer who believed that everything could be divided into categories and subcategories. The smallest subcategory in any domain is what we would call a first principle. He was also one of the earliest empiricists that we know about. [3, 5, 7, 8]

Empiricist: someone who believes that all knowledge is achieved through experience.

As one of the earliest major contributors to the study of biology, it makes sense that Aristotle was a first principles thinker. He would dissect animals to gain real world knowledge and then use his capacity for reason to organize and categorize this information. This cycle of seeking knowledge through experience and using reason to give it structure is how one comes to know the first principles of a subject. Aristotle believed that we couldn’t possess true knowledge unless we understood these principles.  [7]

…we do not think we know a thing until we are acquainted with its primary conditions or first principles, and have carried our analysis as far as its simplest elements. [3]
— Aristotle

Now that you have a slight understanding of the history, let me give you an analogy about thinking from first principles. 

The Tree of Knowledge

Imagine your knowledge in a specific domain as a tree. Someone who thinks from first principles - an unconventional thinker - will understand that body of knowledge from the fruit all the way down to the root. The fruit is what we see in front of us: it’s the unearned knowledge that we can obtain, experience, and repeat right away. We can look at an apple tree, say that it’s just a thing that produces apples, and call it a day. It’s a very shallow understanding of the tree but it’s not untrue. 

On the other hand , a first principles thinker will want to know how this creation really came to be. They will see that the apple is connected to a branch. Every branch is a subset of a greater whole called the trunk. Finally, they see that the root is the most fundamental part of the tree which gives rise to the fruit. They have gathered multiple pieces of information about the tree through experience but they have also organized the pieces of information in relation to each other. These free-floating facts have been transformed into an organized body of knowledge.

The conventional thinker will believe that they can put the apple seeds anywhere and grow delicious apples; they lack true understanding. Upon examining the roots, the first principles thinker will see that a delicious fruit starts with good soil; they have a nuanced understanding. 

The conventional thinker is the guy at the cocktail party who has all of the interesting facts: his knowledge consists solely of fruit that he can display. On the contrary, the unconventional thinker is consistently focused on building trees of knowledge. Like Aristotle, he or she goes back and forth between experience and reason to build an organized and structured body of knowledge.

A tree planted in good soil will have strong and healthy roots and thus produce delicious fruit. Likewise, an idea that blooms from true and beautiful first principles will itself be beautiful and true. Naturally, if the simple parts that make up a complex whole are good and true, then the complex whole must be good and true as well. This is important because, as we discussed in the last video, a true understanding of the world is necessary to obtain power. Any complex beliefs we hold can only be true if the parts that make it up are true. 

To make this more concrete, let’s think about the process of writing an essay from first principles. 

Essay Writing

A well-written essay is like a delicious fruit: it’s enjoyable to consume and difficult to produce without understanding its fundamentals. We can identify its fundamentals by breaking it down into its component parts. An essay is a collection of paragraphs. Well, a paragraph is a collection of sentences. A sentence is a collection of words. Words are a collection of letters and letters are the fundamental building blocks of an essay. 

Once the components of an essay are understood, we can look at improving each one from the simplest to the complex. If we can make each individual component remarkable then the totality should be remarkable and that is the art of first principles thinking. Now, let’s talk about the benefits.


What’s the Benefit of First Principles Thinking?


Several benefits come from understanding an idea down to its fundamental components.

Innovation

Once you understand the fundamentals of an idea, you can rearrange them, change them, or put them together differently to create a new idea or product. In our writing example, we could have created another layer above the essay: we could call a collection of essays a book. We have now invented something new. 

Optimization

A fundamental component can be changed in order to improve an idea or a product. For example, once we knew the fundamental components of the essay, we could put each of them under scrutiny to see how each component could be its best. But, without knowing these components, it’s impossible to make any sort of improvement. 

Integration

Once you understand the foundational components of an idea, it becomes a lot easier to integrate new knowledge into your understanding. For example, once you know how to write letters it becomes easier to make words. Once you know how to write words you can make sentences. Once you can make sentences, you can make paragraphs, then essays, then books, then entire libraries. 

Dissemination

Understanding the foundational components of an idea makes it easier to transfer that complex idea to another person. You can start with the simplest component and build up the idea from there; this is exactly what we try to do in schools. We teach kids how to write the alphabet, then words, and so on. First principle thinkers are better teachers because they can determine the exact level where a student’s understanding falls apart. So, you see the benefits but how can someone become a first principle thinker?


How Can Someone Think from First Principles?


Thinking from first principles is simple, but not easy. I just have one piece of actionable advice and it’s inspired by Aristotle: create hierarchies (like what we did with the essay example). Most ideas are nested inside or outside one another and it’s the job of a first principles thinker to map out how these ideas are linked. 

As Aristotle, like all empiricists, would say, knowledge begins with experience. The world is presenting fruit all around you: amazing and complex acts of creation. Discovering the roots of these creations starts with questions such as why or how. The ultimate truth-seeker must not be satisfied with fruit, yet they realize that the search for roots is never ending. Once they’ve reduced an idea down to the smallest fundamentals that they can conceive of, they have arrived at the first principles. These fundamentals can be used to innovate, optimize, learn more complex ideas, or to teach others. One of the best ways to discover these fundamentals is by actually writing down and organizing the information in a subject that you’re interested in by using a hierarchy or a mind map like how we did with the essay.


Conclusion


So, that concludes my little mini-series on power. I put forth a framework for power in the last video and discussed the idea of being valuable to obtain it. In this video, I put forth a common mode of thought for the truth-seeker. In the next video, I plan to discuss something that might catch you by surprise: the danger of being a first principles thinker.