Engineering is about problem-solving, and some problems may seem unsolvable. This is where first principles thinking comes into play to save the day.
First principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse engineer problems. In return, you can innovate and solve complex problems unlike anyone has done before.
The idea is very simple too.
You break a complex problem down into basic components. Then, you approach the problem from the ground up.
This thinking approach gives you the ability to question existing assumptions on problems. For example, you’d ask the following questions:
- Does a given assumption logically make sense?
- Is a given assumption backed by science?
- Why is a given element the underlying reason for a set limitation?
This type of questioning then allows you to create new solutions. All because you spot and improve over the shortcomings of existing assumptions.
To point out, Elon Musk popularized this way of thinking. He believes it’s the best way to think for yourself and to bring out your creativity. He stated,
“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.”
I believe first principles thinking is one of the best ways to approach problems as well. To support my beliefs, I’m going to go over several varying problem-solving examples. They’ll showcase the effectiveness of using first principles thinking.
Before I do though, let’s go over some important information on this way of thinking.
What are the advantages of first principles thinking?
As we already went over, you can crack problems that seem impossible to solve.
Because typically, existing solutions govern how people solve new problems. This is reasoning by analogy as referenced earlier in Elon’s quote.
So through observation, you pin two things to being similar. Then you assume they may be similar in other ways as well. In other words, two similar problems must have a similar solution.
The problem is, many existing solutions are inadequate. Or to be blunter, they’re garbage.
The prior assumptions, beliefs, and best practices have shortcomings.
As a result, you’ll limit your future problem-solving abilities. Thus, you’ll never take the extra necessary steps to improve an existing solution.
Fortunately, in history, engineers and scientists have always pushed the problem-solving boundaries. Hence, the amazing modern technological world we live in today.
Elon Musk highlights the importance of first principles thinking the best, by stating,
“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.”
For more Elon Musk learning strategies, check out this article.
4 easy steps to implement first principles thinking
Before we go over our examples, let’s see how you can implement this way of thinking. This will help you better understand the examples we go over.
In covering these 4 steps, I’ll use starting a new business as my base example.
Assume you’re a newbie when it comes to starting a business. All you know about business is what you’ve seen in your small town. Just a bunch of brick-and-mortar stores lined up one after another.
STEP #1: pin down your problem
Starting a successful new business is your goal. But, you need to figure out how to start and run a successful business. This is your problem.
STEP #2: list out each of your existing assumptions
The following are your existing assumptions:
- Starting a business is expensive
- Starting a business is difficult and confusing
- Customers are shopping more online, so fewer brick and mortar customers exist
- Possibility of getting sued
- A business is an overly expensive undertaking
STEP #3: break your problem down into fundamental principles
Here, you break your problem down into the most fundamental truths. To do this, you question all the basic existing beliefs and best practices.
In our example, you break the process of starting a new business down. The fundamental principles are the following:
- What’s the most straightforward way to incorporate your business?
- How to easily protect yourself from liability concerns?
- How to find and source products to sell on a low budget?
- What’s the best way to get outside help without hiring employees?
In short, you don’t follow the socially accepted beliefs that everyone touts in your town. Instead, you challenge the notion that starting a business must be difficult.
STEP #4: create unique new solutions
Finally, you look for new solutions. These solutions include the following:
- Use LegalZoom to incorporate properly and cheaply.
- Use Amazon tools to reverse engineer sales figures of existing selling products. Then identify top-selling products with the least competition, to sell.
- Source products cheaply from China.
- Use the Shopify platform to sell solely online to limit overhead costs.
- Leverage social media influencers.
- Create a blog and Youtube channel to market globally and not just locally.
- Hire virtual assistants for cheap and effective help.
These steps allow you to get away from the old ways of starting a business in your town. You can now create a business that’s cheap, easy to run, and highly profitable.
Now, let’s cover our four different first principles thinking examples.
Example #1: body engineering
I’ve been bodybuilding since I was 15 years old. But, I never ventured into the dark side in experimenting with anabolic compounds.
Still, I’ve always had a fascination with how these compounds work inside the human body. What can I say, I love everything science-related!
That said, there’s no hard science in how to take anabolic compounds. You can’t say, “hey doc, what’s a good steroid stack for building 20 pounds of muscle in 3 months.”
Plus, when it comes to anabolic compounds and humans, science is probably 20 or so years behind. It’s for obvious ethical reasons, as you can’t just mega-dose a human with compounds. Humans aren’t lab mice.
So, bodybuilders just experiment on themselves with anabolic compounds. Their body’s become their very own science experiments.
Now, to successfully pull this off, bodybuilders need to understand the human body at a granular level. Only then, they can answer the following points:
- What compounds to take to build muscle and strip fat
- How much of each compound to take and for how long
- How to stack compounds together
- What ancillary products to take to limit side effects from the anabolic compounds
- Understanding symptoms
- The regimen customization for a unique body biochemistry
To point out, I’ve never heard a bodybuilder refer to ‘first principles thinking.’ But what bodybuilders do when it comes to their diet and anabolic regimen is just that.
Example of oral anabolic usage for a bodybuilding contest prep
The following can be an approach to a bodybuilder’s supplement stack to look like a superhero:
Use a highly androgenic oral compound, Anadrol, at the beginning of your contest diet. Then as you progress in your diet you drop the dosage. This will remove subcutaneous water retention in your body.
Thereafter, you throw in two very anabolic compounds, Anavar and Winstrol. These compounds are gradually increased week after week until the contest date. In the contest week, these compounds peak in dosage.
While noting, Anavar and Winstrol don’t cause much fluid retention. Thus, you get full muscle bellies while you hold little water as you cycle these compounds.
You combine all this with a regimented diet and exercise plan.
Everything you do goes hand in hand. It’s a synergistic effect.
This is why it’s important to understand these anabolic-androgenic compounds. More specifically, how they work inside the human body at superhuman levels.
You need a deep understanding of human physiology and the endocrine system too. This is the only way to get optimal results with minimal side effects.
Yes, it goes against conventional wisdom. Many say certain human musculature levels aren’t attainable. Also, the consumption of these compounds will instantly kill you.
Thus, the importance of first principles thinking in body engineering.
Example #2: substation design
I’ve designed plenty of substations of varying sizes over the years.
What I’ve learned is, there’s a conventional way to doing the design work.
This conventional design process makes my work much easier. I follow set design protocols and standards.
Of course, the work is still challenging and the devil is in the details. But, I have a near cookie-cutter process I’ve assembled together.
Hence, the importance of great documentation. It’s one of the very important engineering habits of successful engineers. Without proper documentation, I couldn’t put together a cookie-cutter design process.
But I digress.
Sometimes, I need to retrofit an existing substation with new equipment. All the while, limit power downtime in the construction phase. This is because you can’t cut the power to existing customers for more than 24 hours.
In these instances, the work no longer is cookie-cutter. Because each and every one of these retrofit projects is unique.
So to do my work properly, I need to understand the following elements at a fundamental level:
- How substations as a whole operate
- The specifications and operations of individual substation equipment
- The dependency of different substation equipment on each other
- The construction process
- The lead time over equipment procurement
- Real-world construction limitations (e.g. discovery of contaminated soil)
Sure, you can try to piece together the project using conventional cookie-cutter methods. But I guarantee you’ll make mistakes in your design without first principles thinking.
This will then lead to major construction problems, which will be costly. Also, you’ll have a heated customer breathing down your throat.
In the end, if designed right, you can retrofit a substation in 24 hours. This despite what anyone says.
Check out my real-world substation construction sequencing steps. You’ll get a more in-depth understanding of the steps I took to complete a similar project.
Example #3: Elon Musk’s pursuit to improve battery technology
Much of Elon’s work revolves around batteries.
The heart of Tesla vehicles is batteries. But also, I’m sure he’ll use more and more battery technology at SpaceX.
Without a doubt, Elon wants to constantly improve over battery technology.
The following is Elon’s description of Tesla’s approach to improving battery technology:
Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”
With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”
It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”
It’s like $80 per kilowatt 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.”
“You just have 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.”
Through first principles thinking, Elon has got a leg up over all his competition. He’s not sitting defeated thinking he can’t improve existing battery technology.
For one, the laws of nature didn’t give Elon battery limitations. Humans developed batteries and then humans set their own limits.
So on the same token, humans can also create new limits. And this is what Elon is doing.
Elon constantly iterates over existing tech. Even if it’s to gain incremental improvements.
Example #4: NASA’s Apollo missions to the Moon
No one human had traveled to the Moon before the Apollo 11 mission.
What’s more, before the Apollo missions, no agency had deeply invested in traveling to the moon.
Thus, the mission I’m sure seemed impossible to many countries and agencies. Getting off Earth and then traveling 238,900 miles in space is no easy feat.
The conditions of spaceflight are anything but pleasant.
For engineers to figure out how to make the trip, they had to breakdown each element of space. Then figure out how to engineer around these elements.
For the astronaut spacesuit on Moon alone, NASA had to consider the following design elements:
- Provide enough pressure to keep body fluids in a liquid state
- Supply oxygen and remove carbon dioxide
- Maintain a comfortable temperature
- Allow proper flexibility with all human joints
- Allow for finger mobility to handle tools
- Protect against meteor dust
- No flammable materials
- Minimal suit weight
NASA engineers used first principles thinking to engineer the perfect spacesuit. They had to fully understand the problems of stepping on the moon from a fundamental level.
Only then, they were able to engineer a solution to keep astronauts safe.
What’s more, in the process, NASA brought you and me the following amazing modern tech:
- Renewable energy with solar panels
- Freeze-dried food
- Fireproof materials
- Cooling suits
- Spring tires
- Integrated circuits
- Cordless tools
The list goes on too. But the point is, solutions always exist. It comes down to how you choose to tackle problems.
What’s more, NASA engineers taught us many other mindset lessons too. Check them out, to further level up up your way of thinking.
Old ways of doing things can trap your mind in a state of mediocrity.
In other words, you may think you can only do things in certain ways. Because that’s all you know and have seen.
BUT, first principles thinking is the cheat code that allows you to dismiss old methods. Also, you’ll overlook conventional wisdom that’s pushed down your throat everywhere you look.
In return, you’ll have a crystal clear lens for doing your engineering work.
As a result, YOU will decide what limits exist. You may find out, there are many shortcomings to the existing methods you’re analyzing.
In short, to tap into your full potential as an engineer, use first principles thinking.
Do you use first principles thinking? If yes, how have first principles thinking helped you in your engineering work?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.