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Thinking from First Principles : An Introduction

Mental Models Sep 26, 2021

Most of the decisions we make in life are based on untested assumptions! Did you know that? Or are you someone who takes time to validate your assumptions before you make a decision? If you are, then you might be a First Principles thinker!

If you are not, here is what First Principles Thinking is and why you should care!


What exactly is First Principles thinking?

It is a mental model for thinking. You could imagine it is a framework for thinking that allows you to think deeply about something, going beyond what is seen from the surface.


What it gives you is the ability to make better decisions as you are solving a problem.


It helps you identify the problems that are best suited to be solved by you and figure out solutions that treat the disease instead of the symptoms.


If you are someone who wants to do both I urge you to read on.


Before we can unpack First Principles Thinking is, we must unpack what a "First Principle" is.

First Principles

Aristotle calls it the first basis from which you know something. You could call it the truth that stands for itself.

First Principles cannot be derived from anything else. It is similar to how we saw atoms in the classical model of physics ("An atom is the smallest indivisible part of matter"). That is, you cannot further break down a First Principle.


Axioms in Mathematic are the original first principles. They are universally accepted and considered to be a general truth. Every other argument and inference in Maths is a derivative of one Axiom or the other.


In other words, First Principles are the immutable truth or it is the knowledge that can be known. First Principles are all around us. But we pack them with so much detail and fluff that they go rarely noticed.

Defining First Principles Thinking

Then, First Principles Thinking is a thinking framework within which you consciously stripe down every other surface detail to bring out the First Principles. You then rely on these base truths to guide every other decision you make.


The world is the ocean and the First Principles are its pearls. A First Principles thinker is the person who wears the scuba gear, takes a torch and goes on to hunt the pearls.


Applying First Principles Thinking is not as easy as defining it. It requires astute observation and a lot of applied thought to separate the wheat from the chaff. The more complicated the world becomes, the more distracted we are and the more effort it takes to uncover the first principles.


Yeah, that's right, pearl hunting is not easy. But one diver alone cannot collect all the pearls out there. If you learn to dive you can also start collecting your own pearls.


I will be writing about First Principles Thinking as a series starting today hoping to paint a better picture of it and possibly help you figure out how to use it in daily life. It made more sense to not do it as one long essay as it is easier to consume information in related chunks than digest it as a compact whole. Besides, it would be too ironic to write about first principles thinking as an essay.

Cover photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

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