First Things First

An Introduction to First Principles Thinking

In this day and age, when people talk about First Principles Thinking. the name the comes to mind most often is Elon Musk.  There is no better example living today of this way of thinking than the founder of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX.

What is First Principles Thinking, or reasoning from first principles, as it is also called?  It is the act of breaking down a problem to it’s most basic and fundamental questions and then building a new and innovative solution to that problem from scratch. 

As Musk explains, most people reason from analogy, meaning that they make assumptions based on what they already know about a problem, generalize those assumptions and inevitably come up with solutions that are very similar to what has already been tried before.  In other words, we don’t go far enough in breaking down the problem to reach the first principles and therefore are limited in our creativity to building on the work of others.

For example –

Reasoning from analogy would look something like this:  Given what we already know about bicycles how would we go about building a better mode of two wheeled transportation?  The end result would likely look very much like a bicycle.

Reasoning from first principles on the other hand would look more like this:  If I wanted to travel between two points and deemed it too far to walk, how would I get there?  While the end result might still look very much like a bicycle, it could also look like a skate board, a Segway or an airplane.  The first principle is not, how do I build a better bicycle but rather, how do I create a better mode of transportation?

When Elon Musk first decided he wanted to put a man on Mars he began looking for a partner to help him build a better rocket ship.  He soon realized that the thinking on rocket ships was pretty much the same and that everyone agreed that to escape earth’s atmosphere you needed a disposable (one time use only) booster rocket.  The cost of building such a rocket is astronomical and not suitable for commercial space flight.  So Musk created a new first principle, how do I break earth’s atmosphere without breaking the bank?  The result was the creation of the world’s first reusable booster rocket that is not only significantly cheaper and more efficient to operate but also significantly cheaper to build than the conventional single use models.

Reasoning from first principles in business and in life takes a bit of creativity and a bit of deep thinking.  You need to be able to look at a problem and see beyond the initial question to the fundamental core of what you are trying to accomplish.  As Musk learned – not how do I build a better rocket but how do I escape earth’s atmosphere more efficiently?  Or in my financial planning practice, not how much money do I need to save for retirement but what do I want to do with my time?

Watch here as stand up comedian Michael Jr explains his first principle.  There is a lot more here than just a story of a stand up comedian telling jokes and I might write more about the kinds of things he says some other time but for now just watch and think about your own first principles.


Do you sell cars, or give people a means to visit grandma?

Are you a Dr. or a person who helps people live a healthy life?

What are your first principles?  Tell me in the comments below.


L C Sheil writes regularly about, spirituality, life and business coaching.  He is the founder and director of The Matthew 5:5 Society (formerly The Meekonomics Project) where he coaches ministry and business leaders to Live Life to the Fullest in Complete Submission to the Will of God. 

Mr. Sheil has authored two books and is available for public speaking and one on one coaching in the areas of work life balance,  finding and living your core values  and financial literacy.  Write to The Matthew 5:5 Society here for more information or follow L C Sheil on twitter and instagram.  

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