First Principles Thinking: Why We Need to Ask Questions Like a Child

Mental Models
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First Principles thinking creates incredible opportunities.

Elon Musk wouldn’t have had the success he has had without his use of first principles thinking. This approach led to an understanding of how Tesla could increase battery capacity. This made electric cars more practical which led to Tesla cars becoming a multi-billion-dollar company. Dig into the early stages of Space X and you’ll see how this approach to complicated problems profoundly changed the cost of space travel.

And yet, even with all these examples, we still don’t see first-principles thinking in action.

It’s easier to accept what others have already learnt.

It’s easier to accept doing what we do because we’ve always done it that way.

Insanity reigns supreme, much to the disgust and horror of Albert Einstein and others.

What’s so sad is that first-principles thinking isn’t just a mental model used by geniuses. It’s a built-in cognitive function that operates in every young child.

As I will explain, young children ask questions. In their quest to learn and understand, they keep asking questions. They push to break topics down to their fundamental truths so they can understand them. This process of understanding is no different to the one Elon Musk used when he learned about space rocket functions.

But if children learn by using first principles thinking, why don’t we use it as adults?

The answer is a sad one. A reality of school is it focuses more on memorisation than transferrable skills. The ability to solve problems, or make effective decisions isn't taught in school. Instead, our schools crush the curiosity that drives first principles thinking found in every child.

First Principles Thinking from a Child's Perspective

My nephew is five.

Like every five-year-old, he questions everything. “Why is it bedtime?” “Because it's dark and time for you to get some sleep,” replies his dad. “Why does it get dark?” often followed by “Why do I need to sleep?” My brother-in-law answers the questions for only so long before his patience disappears.

“Because it does.” comes the blunt end to the questioning.

Like every five-year-old, my nephew’s brain is like a sponge, and he wants to fill it. Even at such an early age, his mind wants to utterly understand what is in front of him. If the first answer he gets doesn’t make sense to him, he keeps asking why until the explanation is something he understands.

“If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself.”—Richard Feynman

First-principles thinking is the way children learn until they reach school age. Then, memorization becomes the dominant way they learn.

Young children have an innate urge to want to understand. It drives their questioning and their thinking beyond just knowing something. They want to fully understand the basic truths of what they see and hear. Richard Feynman said it best when he said, “If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself.” The point is two-fold. A child wants to understand, and if you can’t explain it so they get it, you don’t get it.

To understand this we need to know the difference between knowledge and understanding.

The Difference between Knowledge and Understanding

As a child at school, and then through college and into working life, we become accustomed to knowing.

In some specialist matters, we might undertake the learnings to understand something, but often we don’t. We become conditioned to accept that if we don’t need to understand something, we can get away with having some level of knowledge.

When whatever you’re doing works, it’s okay.

Knowledge is sufficient to enable you to keep doing the same thing day after day. But what if something goes wrong, what if it fails, or stops working? Knowledge without understanding is useless.

Knowledge doesn’t enable you to think outside the box. Understanding does.

What is First Principles Thinking?

Understanding comes through using first-principles thinking. Breaking down systems or functions to their basic elements enables you to develop a granular appreciation of how a system works. By getting to this level, you have grasped the fundamental truths.

If understanding comes from the granular level, then knowledge is a top-down view of an operation or process. Assumptions dominate our beliefs rather than basic truths. We accept analogy over principle.

It means complex problems remain a problem.

We need mental models like principle thinking to help us improve life. In business, having the mental toolbox to think through difficult problems. Our current assumptions will only allow us to keep things the same.

It’s why we need to ask questions like a child.

First Principles: Asking Questions Like A Child

We now know why children ask questions.

It’s a simple process of asking question after question to draw out the foundational truths. It utilizes the power of open questions to not only question something, but to draw explanations that support the answer.

As adults, we settle for knowledge over understanding. We know why this happens, but we also know we are missing ideas to make our lives better. The problem is that most of us have become institutional in how we reason by analogy. So now, it’s time to look at how we can apply first principles thinking as an adult.

Without re-living your education, it's hard to break the learning from analogy—and the assumptions—you’ve got. So, therefore, it’s practical to opt to use first-principles thinking in selected situations. A good example is the need to solve complicated problems. Problem-solving is a complex process that requires our best thinking.

Often, we look to solve problems by seeking analogy. What worked in another problem can work in another. It means we are relying on our assumptions and beliefs, rather than looking at complex problems from the ground up.

Taking the first-principles approach looks like this:

  1. Name your current assumptions about the problem.
  2. Break the problem down into its core parts
  3. Identify the foundational blocks of the system in operation?
  4. Ask powerful questions to get to the truth of the problem
  5. What was the original purpose of the system working in this way?
  6. Remind yourself of the goal and create a new solution

A child might steam-roller through these, asking pointed ‘why’ questions at each stage. As an adult, we must apply the same logic to solve the problem at hand. “Why does the system work like this”?

Elon Musk, Space X and First Principles Thinking in Action

If we step back to Elon Musk and my explanation of first principles thinking, we can see this approach in operation.

Asking how we get to Mars generates several questions. Principally,  he would have to hire or buy a rocket. An enquiry with NASA brought a negative response, so Elon tried in Russia.

The costs were beyond huge.

Why were rockets so expensive?

It was a problem made for Elon.

As Elon quickly discovered, each rocket had a one-time use. From a commercial point of view, Elon had found a big problem. But it only led to more questions. What was NASA's commercial model? What happens once a rocket has jettisoned its payload? What was going on with the materials cost?

Assumptions littered most people's thinking when it came to space travel. There was more than a little ‘insanity’ thinking going on.

With first principles thinking in action, the success has been breath-taking.

Even more so when you consider Space X has launched 650 satellites into space and is making money doing it. Although Space X hasn’t made it to Mars yet, this demonstration shows the logic of problem-solving using first principles.

Concluding Thoughts

There is a power to first principles thinking that breaks with conventional thinking.

It is this step from knowledge to understanding. The language of assumptions litters our thinking. It limits our decision-making and often stops us from making progress.

And yet it is a behaviour we’re all capable of.

We all did it as children—much to our parent’s annoyance. We pushed the limits of our parent’s knowledge and understanding, which sadly ended most of our inquisitiveness.

I see it being a power in decision-making as well.

Decisions are all too often made from the assumptions formed from our past behaviour, as we see in our System 1 thinking. The automatic, impulsive act of making decisions comes from an earlier learned experience.

As Daniel Kahneman points out in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, this is a dangerous way to make important decisions. Far better to slow down and use system 2 to think through the choice ahead. Thinking from first principles will impose a more methodical decision-making process, and that is a good thing.

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