Breakthrough Thinking: How First Principles Unlock Innovation

Many principles in life are like invisible chains, binding our values, cognition, belief system and the way we learn to reason.

Our opinions are like kites pulled by chains, swaying in the wind, but they can never break free from the shackles of these principles.

When our brains are thinking, they often rely on conclusions learned in the past, just like old trajectories, constantly repeating old paths.

We have become accustomed to applying ready-made conclusions directly without first verifying whether they are correct and reasonable.

These principles may have been reasonable when they were first created. To know whether they are still applicable today requires overturning the old theory and establishing new principles based on reality.

First principles thinking requires people to embrace a new way of thinking.

Be skeptical of old ways of doing things because they may become obsolete.

It involves rejecting conventional wisdom, breaking through dogma, and constantly questioning our own inherent beliefs.

What are first principles

No matter your field of expertise, every day you encounter seemingly impossible challenges that you or your company can’t seem to solve, even after weeks, months, or years of hard work.

To solve impossible problems, we must improve the quality of thinking.

Fortunately, thinkers, creators, entrepreneurs, and philosophers have left behind many frameworks and tools for considering impossible problems, and first principles are one of these tools.

The concept of first principles was first proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He believed that there is a most basic proposition in every system, which cannot be violated or deleted.

For example, the earth is densely covered with rivers, lakes and seas. It seems complicated, but the core is this: water flows to lower places;

For example, currency circulates in a complex commercial society. It seems complicated, but the core is that “currency is a general equivalent”;

Li Shanyou also explained in the book “First Principles”:

“The way of thinking of first principles is to look at the world from the perspective of physics, which means to peel away the appearance of things layer by layer to see the essence inside, and then go up from the essence layer by layer.”

Elon Musk particularly admires first principles and believes that this method helps him find new ideas and methods to solve problems based on the essence of things.

First principles are very powerful. You don’t need to get into the details of a problem to solve it. You just have to look beneath the surface of the problem, find a few layers, take it apart, examine your assumptions and regroup your ideas. Get different answers.

How to use first principles

Let’s use a hypothetical example to better understand how this method works.

Case 1: Complaints about Dutch bicycles

Suppose you work for a bicycle manufacturer in the Netherlands and you have too many customers calling to complain that they are not satisfied with the condition of your deliveries.

Faced with this problem, the first thing we have to do is to dismantle the problem, go deep into its core, and explore its true appearance.

We ask ourselves:

Which customers are complaining?

Are they buying bikes or accessories?

Is it a specific model of bike?

Do they all live in the same area?

Do they spend more than the average customer?

Through data mining, we found that local customers in the Netherlands are quite satisfied with our bicycles, but most of the complaints actually come from the United States.

Next thoughts:

Are American consumers more demanding?

Or are our product standards failing to meet their expectations?

Do American transporters treat our products with the care we expect?

After in-depth investigation, we found that there was no problem with the quality of the bicycles. However, the bicycles delivered to customers were often damaged, with a damage rate of up to 1 in 4, which was far beyond industry standards.

Next, we further ask:

What causes damage to bikes during transportation?

Does our packaging meet industry standards?

Is there a problem with the delivery staff’s operations?

After internal investigation and communication with transportation supply companies, our packaging is actually better than industry standards.

But the problem was with the delivery people, who didn’t pay enough attention to our bike boxes.

We observed that delivery drivers treated differently labeled shipments differently.

They take extra care with boxes labeled electronics or televisions. And our bike boxes are often thrown haphazardly on the front porch or on the ground because they are not clearly labeled.

When asked why they were not as careful with their bicycles as they were with their televisions, they said they did not want to take the loss because the television was more fragile and more valuable than the bicycle.

So, we get to the crux of the matter: In America, the reason our bikes get damaged so often is because they’re not treated with the same care as electronics or big-screen TVs.

So, can we take a page from the way delivery companies treat TVs and electronics and improve our bike packaging?

Van Muef, a bicycle manufacturer in the Netherlands, faced a similar problem.

Their products were damaged due to the delivery driver’s lack of attention. To change this situation, Van Muf redesigned the bicycle’s delivery box to look more like a big-screen TV box, making the delivery driver realize that it is equally delicate and expensive.

Therefore, the final solution to the problem is to modify the bicycle delivery box.

Through such improvements, we can reduce product damage during transportation, improve customer satisfaction, and thus resolve current complaints.

Case 2: SpaceX’s reusable rocket

A perfect example of utilizing first principles is SpaceX’s reusable rocket.

The following will introduce in more detail how Musk solved the problem of non-reusable rockets through first principles.

First of all, traditional rocket launches are one-time. After each launch, the rocket booster and other parts will fall into the sea or be discarded, causing a huge waste of resources and rising costs.

This not only limits the frequency and scale of space exploration, but also increases the economic burden of space activities.

Musk realized that if the rocket could be reused, it would greatly reduce the cost of space exploration and push humans to explore the universe more deeply.

To achieve this goal, Musk used first principles.

He first returned to the basic principles of rocket launch and thought about why rockets cannot be reused.

Through analysis, he found that the rocket needs to withstand extreme temperatures and pressures during launch and return, and also requires precise control and navigation technology to ensure a safe landing.

These technical problems are not fully considered in traditional rocket design.

Next, Musk and his team began to redesign the structure and materials of the rocket based on the most basic physical principles.

They developed new materials that are resistant to high temperatures and pressures and are used to make rocket casings and boosters.

At the same time, they also developed advanced control and navigation technology to ensure that the rocket can remain stable and precise during launch and return.

After many tests and improvements, SpaceX has successfully achieved the recovery and reuse of rocket boosters.

After the launch mission is completed, the rocket booster can automatically adjust its attitude, re-enter the atmosphere, and accurately land on the predetermined landing site.

This technological breakthrough not only reduces SpaceX’s launch costs, but also makes space exploration more economical, efficient and sustainable.

How to Develop First Principles Thinking

We can gradually develop a first-principles thinking method through daily training, and continuously improve our innovation capabilities in practice.

1. Delve deeply and explore the essence

To develop a first-principles thinking method, you first need to delve deeply and explore the essence of things.

As Aristotle said: “We think over and over again, not to discover something new, but to gain a deeper understanding of it.”

By in-depth study of the basic principles and core concepts in the field, we can gradually understand the nature of things and better apply first principles to thinking.

For example, Tesla’s success in the field of electric vehicles is based on its in-depth understanding and innovation of the nature of battery technology.

2. Cross-domain integration and breaking the stereotype of thinking

First-principles thinking encourages us to draw inspiration from different fields and think outside the box.

Einstein once said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Through cross-field learning and thinking, we can discover the commonalities between different fields, thereby generating new ideas and solutions.

The success of SpaceX is a good example. It combines aerospace technology with the concept of reusable rockets to achieve innovation in space exploration.

3. Dare to practice, verify and optimize

Practice is the only criterion for testing truth.

To cultivate a first-principles thinking method, we need to have the courage to practice and verify and optimize our thinking through actual operations.

As Steve Jobs said: “Innovation is the only thing that separates leaders from followers.

“Through continuous trial and iteration, we can gradually improve our first-principles thinking and apply it to solving practical problems.

4. Keep an open mind and keep learning

You must remain open to new knowledge and new ideas, and continue to learn and update your knowledge system.

Confucius said: “Be tireless in learning and tireless in teaching.”

Only by continuous learning can we keep up with the times, discover new first principles, and apply them to practical problems.

At the same time, through communication and discussion with others, we can broaden our horizons, absorb the wisdom of others, and further improve our own way of thinking.

Science is more of a way of thinking than a system of knowledge.

If you need to come up with an innovative solution to a complex problem, first principles thinking is the perfect place to start.

Finally, I would like to end this article with a quote from Elon Musk: “We tend to compare rather than start from first principles. Comparisons keep us stagnant, but first principles keep us moving forward. OK.”

Let us continue to use “first principles” on the road to future growth, explore more possibilities, and realize the continuous improvement of self-worth.

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