Learn From 4 Powerful First Principles Thinking Examples

Engineers solve difficult, often seemingly impossible problems. Their tool of choice is first principles thinking to solve these problems.

First principles thinking allows you to break down complex problems and approach them from a fundamental level. By doing this, you gain the ability to question existing poor assumptions and create new solutions. For example, you’re able to ask questions such as the following:

  • 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?

Elon Musk popularized this way of thinking, to spur innovation in his many ventures. 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.”

To support first principles thinking, I’m going to go over several problem-solving examples. First, though, why it’s powerful.

What are the advantages of first principles thinking?

first principles thinking

Typically, people solve new problems by relying on existing solutions. This is known as reasoning by analogy, which was in the earlier Elon Musk quote.

Through observation, you assume the solution to a problem carries over to a similar but unsolved problem. The problem is, many existing solutions are inadequate. Because prior assumptions, beliefs, and best practices have shortcomings.

As a result, you’ll limit your problem-solving abilities, and discourage the exploration of new solutions. Elon doubles down on his thoughts 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 strategies for learning like Elon Musk, check out this article.

4 easy steps to implement first principles thinking

Before we go over our examples, we’ll cover how you can implement this way of thinking. I’ll use starting a new business as a newbie as my example.

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: Identify your problem

How to start and run a successful business?

STEP #2: List each of your existing assumptions

The following are your existing assumptions:

  • Starting a business is expensive, difficult, and confusing
  • Customers shop more online, leading to so fewer brick-and-mortar customers
  • The possibility exists of getting sued

STEP #3: Break your problem down into fundamental principles

Break your problem down into the most fundamental truths. You question all the basic existing beliefs and best practices. The following would be some of the questions you’d ask:

  • What’s the most straightforward way to incorporate a business?
  • How to efficiently find protection from liability concerns?
  • How to find and source products to sell on a low budget?
  • What’s the best way to receive outside help without hiring employees?

In short, you don’t follow the socially accepted beliefs, which everyone touts in your town. Instead, you challenge the notion a business is difficult to start.

STEP #4: Create unique new solutions 

Finally, you look for new solutions, which include the following:

  • Using LegalZoom to cheaply incorporate
  • Using Amazon tools to identify top-selling products with the least competition, to sell
  • Source products cheaply from China
  • Use the Shopify platform to sell online and limit overhead costs
  • Leverage social media influencers
  • Create a blog and Youtube channel to extend marketing from local to global
  • Hire virtual assistants for cheap and effective labor

These steps allow you to optimize the old ways of starting a business in your town. You’ll then maximize profits with minimal extra effort.

Example #1: body engineering

I’ve been bodybuilding since I was 15 years old. I never ventured into the dark side of experimenting with anabolic compounds though.

Still, I’ve always had a fascination with how these compounds work inside the human body. Both in terms of chemistry and biology.

Especially, since the science for human mega-dosing doesn’t exist. And you can’t say,

“Hey doc, what’s a good steroid stack for building 20 pounds of muscle in 3 months.”

Bodybuilders just turn their own bodies into science experiments. They successfully do this by understanding human biology and physiology. They then can answer the following types of questions:

  • Which 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?
  • What symptoms to be watchful for?

Now, 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

We’ll go over a hypothetical approach to a bodybuilder’s pre-contest supplement stack.

Start your contest diet with a highly androgenic oral compound like Anadrol. Then as your diet advances, drop the Anadrol dosage, to remove subcutaneous water retention in your body.

Next, use two very anabolic compounds, Anavar and Winstrol. You gradually increase the dosage of these compounds week after week until the contest date. In the contest week, these compounds peak in dosage. Anavar and Winstrol don’t cause much fluid retention.

These compounds then combined with a regimented diet and exercise plan create a synergistic effect. You maximize hypertrophy while reducing fat and minimizing side effects. You can only properly do this though if you understand the chemistry behind anabolic-androgenic compounds. More specifically, how they work inside the human body at superphysiological levels. And understanding human physiology and the endocrine system too.

Yes, this all goes against conventional wisdom. Many say certain human musculature levels aren’t attainable. Also, the consumption of these compounds will instantly kill you.

Thus even more reason to employ first principles thinking in body engineering.

Example #2: substation design

substation construction sequencing

I’ve designed many substations of varying sizes over the years. What I’ve learned is, there’s a conventional way to do the design work.

I follow set design standards, to create a nearly cookie-cutter design process. Of course, the work still has challenges.

But here’s the kicker. The cookie-cutter design process falls apart when I need to retrofit an existing substation. Then throw in the requirement of limiting downtime in the construction phase.

To address such matters, I need to understand the following elements at a fundamental level:

  • How substations as a whole operate
  • Specifications and operations of types of substations
  • Dependency of substation equipment on one another
  • Substation construction process
  • The lead time of substation equipment
  • Real-world construction limitations (e.g. discovery of contaminated soil)

Then, I’ll know if a retrofit design will cause something to break. I’ll also know what steps need to be taken to ensure the substation is down for only 24 hours during construction.

Check out my real-world substation construction sequencing steps. It’ll vie you a more in-depth understanding of the design steps I took for a similar problem.

Example #3: Elon Musk’s pursuit to improve battery technology

Much of Elon’s work revolves around batteries. Because the heart of Tesla vehicles are batteries, and SpaceX can leverage the tech too. Not surprisingly, Elon wants to design better batteries.

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 a leg up on his competition. He knows the tech has room to improve. Because the laws of nature didn’t give Elon battery limitations. Rather, humans set battery limitations.

In the same vein, humans can create new limits, as illustrated by Elon. He’s constantly looking for incremental improvements, as he doesn’t see technological ceilings.

Example #4: NASA’s Apollo missions to the Moon

apollo 11 moon work
Apollo 11 moon work (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Not one human had traveled to the Moon before the Apollo 11 mission. In fact, not one agency had even deeply invested in traveling to the moon.

The mission undoubtedly seemed impossible to many countries and agencies. Leaving Earth and traveling 238,900 miles through radiation-infested space.

NASA engineers had to first break down each element of space through first principles thinking. Then figure out how to engineer around the elements. For example, for the astronaut spacesuit, engineers considered the following design elements:

  • Providing enough pressure to keep body fluids in a liquid state
  • Supplying oxygen and removing carbon dioxide
  • Maintaining a comfortable temperature
  • Allowing proper flexibility for all human joints
  • Allowing for finger mobility to handle tools
  • Protecting against meteor dust
  • Not using flammable materials
  • Maintaining minimal suit weight

These design elements were only discovered through a granular understanding of space travel. And in the process, NASA brought us the following amazing modern tech:

  • Renewable energy with solar panels
  • Freeze-dried food
  • Fireproof materials
  • Cooling suits
  • Spring tires
  • Integrated circuits
  • Cordless tools

There are a lot of mindset lessons to learn from NASA engineers.


First principles thinking is a powerful tool helping you see beyond the old ways and conventional wisdom.

Imagine having a crystal-clear lens for your engineering work, where you’re not bound by human limits.

Who knows, you might even discover some exciting new possibilities and unlock your full potential as an engineer.

Do you use first principles thinking? If yes, how have first principles thinking helped you in your engineering work? 


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