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

Mental Models
8 Minutes
Reading Time

First Principles thinking has incredible benefits, just ask Elon Musk. The approach has led him to increase battery capacity, making electric cars more practical and from there, building Tesla cars into a multi-billion-dollar company. Not only that, but Elon used the same approach; first principles thinking to dramatically reduce the cost of space travel. So, with examples such as these, why aren’t there more examples of this skill in use?

The answer is a sad one. A failing reality of our education system is it focuses on memory function rather than core skills, such as problem-solving and decision-making. Our schools crush the curiosity found in every child over the age of three or four. The curiosity is first principles thinking…

First Principles Thinking from a Childs 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?” And often this is swiftly followed by “Why do I need to sleep?” My brother-in-law humour’s the questioning to a point, but as with most parents’ his patience soon disappears.  

Like every five-year-old, my nephews’ brain is like a sponge, and he wants to fill it. But, 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, at which point memorization becomes the dominate 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 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 simple reason being a child will keep questioning. It is first principles thinking in action.

The Difference between Knowledge and Understanding

As children 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 a level of knowledge. When the world of 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.

Understanding comes through using first principles thinking. Breaking down systems or functions to their parts enables you to develop a granular appreciation of how a system works. By getting to this level, you have grasped the process in its simplest form.

First Principles: Asking Questions as a Child Does

We’ve covered how we see first principles at work in young children. I have also explained why we need to develop an understanding over knowledge. 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 knowledge – and the assumptions – you’ve made. So, therefore, it’s practical to opt to use first principles thinking in selected situations. A good example is the need to solve problems.

Problem-solving is complex, particularly with difficult problems because our assumptions decide our approach and response. A first-principles approach will look like this:

  1. Break the problem down into its core parts
  2. What forms the foundational blocks of the system in operation?
  3. Ask powerful questions to get to the truth of the problem
  4. How do the parts fit together?
  5. What was the original purpose of the system working in this way?
  6. Name and separate your assumptions from the facts
  7. 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 his explanation of first principles thinking, we can see this approach in operation. A bold problem such as do we get to Mars opens a vast number of foundational blocks. He would have to hire a rocket from NASA, with the cost – a huge amount. Why were rockets at NASA so expensive?

As Elon quickly discovered, it is because each one has a one-time use. From a commercial point of view, Elon had found a big problem. But it only led to more questions. What are the foundational blocks of a rocket? More importantly, what happens once a rocket has jettisoned its payload?

Ask a NASA scientist, and you’ll get a raft of assumptions about why they can’t return a rocket to earth once it's finished in space.

It is first principles thinking in action and it is 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 which breaks with conventional thinking. It is this step away from knowledge to understanding. The language of assumptions litters our thinking, it limits our decision-making and often stops us from making progress.

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 of past behaviour, as we see in our System 1 thinking. The automatic, impulsive act of making decisions comes from an earlier learned experience. And 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. Applying first principles thinking will impose a more methodical decision-making process, and that is a good thing.

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