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Thinking in First Principles
For some leaders, the best way to understand a problem is to break it down into its most fundamental assumptions and principles.
The idea of thinking in “first principles” was first discussed by Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago. Today, Elon Musk champions this approach to arrive at sound reasoning, quality decisions, and innovative solutions.
Leaders who adopt this approach essentially reverse engineer a problem. They break a problem down into its most basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. The key is to discern what is fact and what is assumption. Not surprisingly, most current solutions to problems are full of well-accepted assumptions that blind leaders from taking a different path.
A chef, for example, understands the basic building blocks of designing great food. By breaking down a well-known recipe into facts (cooking temperature, ingredient freshness, and spice proportion), they are left with assumptions worth challenging.
Most notably for the most creative chefs, one assumption worth testing is flavor profiles or flavors that go together. Sticking to the facts but experimenting with the assumptions can sometimes yield an intriguing new dish. Who knew that licorice and salmon, tomato and strawberry, feta cheese and watermelon, and avocado and chocolate could complement each other and create a new flavor profile? A chef working from first principles did.
When chefs, or anyone else for that matter, challenge the assumptions of a product, service, or process and build forward from the immutable facts, they can be said to be thinking in first principles.
First principles are the rules and causes that govern what you can and can’t do. Leaders who think in first principles are not bound by convention. They examine a problem by starting with what is true. They then identify the common assumptions attached to the problem that masquerade as facts. Now, they unleash creativity by challenging those assumptions, while at the same time making sure whatever conclusions they draw do not violate any of the fundamental truths.
The deeper a leader digs into a problem using this type of thinking, the more fundamental truths and assumptions are exposed. Great leaders, decision-makers, and entrepreneurs use first principles thinking to plot a new course and create entirely new solutions to age-old problems. Musk’s daring innovations across a number of industries speak to the power of this approach.
Maybe you should try it.