First Principles Thinking
What is ‘First Principles’ Thinking? For our purposes, I will define this type of thinking as starting with what we know to be true. This implies that there is some inherent objective that I am working towards. There’s a problem that I am trying to solve.
I first heard this idea from Elon Musk, Tesla CEO. He explains in this brief video:
The part that caught me when I first heard Musk explain this idea was when he mentioned that we often reason by analog. Basically, we want ‘something’ and we look at situations where that ‘something’ has been achieved and we mimic what we think we see:
- I want to be in shape like that person. They’re working out really hard so I’ll start working out really hard.
- I want a new car and everyone I know who has a new car took on a car payment so that’s just what you have to do.
- Every one knows that once you get married and have kids, your health and finances go out the window. It’s impossible to exercise and budget at that point. It’s the way it is.
I’m taking some creative license with these examples but have you ever found yourself doing this in your head or heard other people making these types of statements around various parts of everyday life? These statements sound like stories. Stories that create an easy to understand narrative but the truth is not that simple. In the video, Elon Musk explains that it’s much easier to reason by analog rather than first principles. He says it takes less cognitive energy. It’s not at all about lower intelligence. It’s more about avoiding some hard word in the form of critical thought. Let’s look at the same three situations through some first principles reasoning:
- So your goal is to get in shape? What is it physically that you want to be able to do? What physical activity have you been doing recently? How much time do you have and what resources can you access?
- Well, do you want a car that’s new to you or do you want one that’s off the assembly line? How large of a car payment can you reasonably take on? How long do you think you’ll be keeping you’re current job (auto loans are being stretched out over 7 years in some cases) ? What happens if a second wave of the pandemic eliminates your source of income?
- There are married couples who flourish in their relationship in all kinds of ways. Have you ever asked one of those couples what their doing and how they approach self care and care for family? Have you had any in-depth conversations with your significant other about what family life looks like or what you want it to look like?
I could ask a billion questions but I think you get the point. It’s harder to think through all these things rather than just make a bunch of assumptions that we see many other people make. So one must be willing to so some heavy mental lifting to reach be able to acknowledge the truth and make some reasonable assumptions about the future.
Finding Stability in Chaos
Ballast in a boat is heavy material placed in the bottom of the boat to give it lateral stability in the water. It prevents the boat from capsizing. This is especially critical in choppy water. The ballast keeps the boat right side up.
In my mind, goals do a similar thing for the mind. If life is about problem solving then in part I want to be able to accurately define problems, but I also need to identify which problems I want to solve. A goal is a problem that I pursue intentionally. Having goals has helped to modulate my mood and behavior in chaotic situations. This is cheesy and I apologize but it’s true: goals are your lighthouse to the shore in the middle of a storm. Meaningful goals are your emotional ballast.
Chaos can take many forms in our lives:
- Boredom that leads to overeating
- Being cut off in traffic and letting the anger we feel throw us into road rage
- Persistent trouble in finding a romantic partner causing us to feel isolated and depressed
- Losing a job
- Losing a loved one
- This goes back to the Pain that is an inevitable part of life.
Our emotions are tricky things and how they form and respond to the varying circumstances of life is a process that takes introspection to notice and change. When we don’t have understanding of what our basic needs are and what our goals are in those areas, what do we focus on when life gets chaotic? When we hit unexpected problems (emotional or practical) we want to try to learn how to use those challenges as accelerators towards our goals. Without goals, you don’t have direction.
A Myriad of Distractions
If not contextualized to goals, our emotions have the potential become huge distractions. One day I feel like exercising so I do it. Another day, news about the second wave of the pandemic keeping my favorite social outlets closed makes me feel down, so I don’t exercise. Remember, one of the places from which our stories come is society. New’s, Social Media, Coworkers, Radio, Advertising, Extended Families… We all tell and sell our narratives about how the world works. We look for narrative arcs. There are some many unique things happening in 2020 that something called doom scrolling is now a thing. The number of unprecedented events that have caused death and unearthed deep ideological divides can be overwhelming… or you can turn the news off and ask yourself what your goals are and what you need to do right now.
Is scrolling on your phone helping get in better physical shape? If you’re scrolling to find good music to move to.
Is spending an hour on Amazon looking for something to buy helping you achieve financial stability? Sure, if you’re looking for a good book on investing.
Is spending time listening to the doom and gloom predictions about jobless claims helping you figure out your next career move? Yeah, if you’re using that information to understand what industries are in decline and what industries will be in demand in the future.
The challenge of the modern world is the fact that technology advances at a pace that’s faster than our our ability to use it with self awareness and wisdom. Life is filled with distractions. Distractions from what? Our Goals/hopes/dreams, assuming you have some. Otherwise, I suppose you just get tossed with the waves.
First Principles Focus
I would say that the secret to resilience and personal growth is to focus on what we already know to be true. It’s not about another new secret it’s about focusing on fundamental truths regarding your goals and reasoning up from there. Sometimes it makes you look boring like doing some pushups for exercise. Other times it makes you look complex and seem to be a dreamer like pursuing MMA Fighting at 40 plus years old. Both start from asking the simple question of what’s true?
I always talk about four core areas of everyday life – health, money, relationships, and career. Let’s look at these through first principles reasoning:
You know you only have one body and I think it’s reasonable to assume you want to have physical independence for as long as you possibly can. I also think it’s reasonable to assume that you want a strong immune system. Therefore, exercise and greater awareness of how and why you eat should always be a part of your goals. Doesn’t matter what’s happening around you. You decide the specifics.
You know that you need money to pay for needs and wants. Therefore consideration of what you do with your money will always be deserving of some attention. Doesn’t matter what’s happening around you. You decide the specifics.
I’m guessing you have to engage other human beings in some form on a regular basis (barring those who have chosen a life of isolation, which is their choice, obviously). Therefore consideration of how you communicate both verbally and non-verbally is always of some concern and worth due attention. Just as important (maybe more so) is how you interpret what others communicate to you. Doesn’t matter what’s happening around you. You decide the specifics.
If you’re like me, you want meaningful work to do. When I say ‘work’ I don’t mean the normative definition like work you do for money to pay bills. I mean meaningful work that fills you up and probably serves others in some way. It would be nice if we got paid for it but that’s certainly not always the case.
Let Me Clarify ‘Career’
A friend challenged me on my advocacy of people finding a career goal when I wrote this post several weeks ago. In that post I was thinking more in terms of people like my self who still have to work for money, while we also work doing that which is meaningful to us. I am still trying to make those two things converge. But this friend is in a different place. This friend is good financially and has had a career that they are now retired from. What now?
In the last year I have truly internalized the idea that more money won’t make me happier. It might free up more of my time but it won’t make me happier. For instance, I could have $2,000,000.00 in a simple vanguard index fund for the S&P 500 and be withdrawing 4% annually on that money. Basically that’s a passive income of $80K/year. That is far beyond what I need. I wouldn’t have to work for money. But I would need to do something with my time. Writing, speaking, mentoring, teaching resilience through problem solving and training and teaching martial arts is what I would do. It’s not much different from what I do now just more of it. Oh, by the way, there would still be the massive challenge of spreading the word and navigating harsh criticism etc. There would still be problems to solve and pain to endure.
I often use the categories health, money, relationships, and career/work. The first three are easier to understand but I need to clarify the last. I used to say vocation. Sometimes I would say purpose or calling. But these words seemed way too esoteric and out there. Work, however, is a simple word and I suppose the key is the definition: Activities that involve interest, mastery of skill, and a sense of contribution to others that fill us up and makes us happy. That’s work. Doesn’t matter what’s happening around you or what phase of life you’re in. You decide the specifics.
Finding a better and better fit takes time and iteration through problem solving. Simple focused behaviors, over long periods of time.
Our visions and goals for the future create problems we have to solve. As I said in this video, life requires self exploration. We are complex creatures. However, no matter how crazy life gets we know that there are certain things that are true and must always be addressed. This is your ballast in the storm. Use First Principles reasoning and look at those same goals you created from this post. Are you being honest about what’s true in the present? Are you being honest about what you want in the future? Focus on the truth. Be brutally honest about what you see in the world and be honest about what you see in yourself.