A framework for innovating in larger leaps, rather than through incremental improvements.
"First principles, Clarice. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask what is it in itself? What is its nature?"
It may sound strange opening up an essay with a quote from Silence of the Lambs, but Thomas Harris’s cultured yet chilling psychologist / sociopath has provided an amazingly simple articulation of the stoic philosophical concept of First Principles.
Stoicism was a Hellenistic philosophy developed in Greece in the 3rd century BC. Stoic doctrine was hugely popular during the Roman Empire, and Emperor Marcus Aurelius was one of the most famous adherents, documenting his own self-improvement and guidance in his personal Meditations books.
Stoicism codified a philosophy of personal ethics and logic. The word “Stoic” today has come to mean unemotional or an indifference to pain, however rather than seek to extinguish emotions, the Stoics sought to transform them through logic, reflection and self-discipline.
Stoic philosophy is made up of many concepts wide and deep, but the primary area we are interested in here is the idea of ‘Contemptuous Expression’.
Rather than its more ready negative connotation, contempt was used by the Stoics as an agent to lay things bare, or to “strip away the legend that encrusts them”.
In practice, this means peeling away something sacred into its most basic parts.
When you see how unromantic an object of power really is (or look at it from a new angle), the object loses its power over you. You maintain your sovereignty of self.
Sex is just rubbing and semen.
The cloak of the Emperor differs only in color.
Vintage wine is simply old, fermented grapes.
Death is but the end of feeling.
First Principles then is a tactic to remove obstacles.
First Principles Today
The Stoics created a system of logic designed to filter the natural world, so it makes sense that its natural predecessor can be found in the sciences. Today, First Principles is most often quoted in the context of physics.
On a personal note, when I hear the word physics my eyes glaze over immediately (sorry physics buffs). But explaining its context is actually fairly simple.
Physics always starts directly at the level of established laws, and does not make assumptions above the level of foundational truths.
Approaching things from First Principles therefore follows a simple formula;
Identify and define a current assumption
Break down the problem into its fundamental principles or parts
Create new solutions from scratch by working up from this base
Innovation and creativity always follow a process of breaking things down into their base parts, and then using recombination from this base to create something new.
First Principles and Elon Musk
From PayPal through to Tesla Motors and SpaceX, Elon Musk has become the poster child for achieving what was thought of by the vast majority of experts to be pipedreams. Appearing on Kevin Rose’s Foundation series, Musk sparked a renewed interest in First Principles thinking as an agent of his personal approach to innovation. The transcript is a fascinating way of seeing the process and application of this concept to the real world problems facing Tesla.
"It's important to reason from First Principles rather than by analogy. So the normal way that we conduct our lives is that we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it's like something else that was done. Or it's like what other people are doing.
It's mentally easier to reason by analogy, rather than from first principles. First Principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, and what that really means is that you boil things down to the most fundamental truths, and say what we are sure is true, or sure is possible is true. And then reason up from there - that takes a lot more mental energy.
Somebody could say (and in fact people do) that battery packs are really expensive, and that's the way they will always be, because that's the way they have been in the past. That's pretty dumb, because if you applied that reasoning to anything new, then you wouldn't be able to ever get to that new thing.
You can't say "nobody wants a car because horses are great, we are used to them, they eat grass, and there's lots of grass all over the place. There is no gasoline that people can buy, so people will never get cars".
Well people did say that.
And for batteries, they said historically it's going to cost $600 per kilowatt hour. And so it's not going to be much better in the future.
What are the batteries made of? First Principles would say "What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents?"
It's got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. Break that down on a material basis, if we bought that on a London metal exchange, what would each one of those things cost.
Oh gee, it's like 80 kilowatts per 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."
What is interesting is that the firm “analogy” on both electric cars and space rockets was that they were cost prohibitive. It took a First Principles approach to question the foundation of this assumptions to create a new, more interesting reality.
In your personal life and in business, you are going to continually come up against naysayers, obstacles, and the words “no” or “it can’t be done”. By adding a First Principles approach to your toolkit, you have a chance to break free of these artificial traps, and hopefully make a much larger dent on the universe.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”.