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Use First Principles Thinking to Solve Impossible Problems

The gist: If you want to solve hard problems in unique ways, “first principles thinking” is the strategy that works for the world’s most creative people.


“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” – Albert Einstein

How long does it take to get from Portland to Seattle? I make the trip several times each year, so it’s a question I ask myself often. The answer? About three hours in a car.  Four and a half on a train. 45 minutes on a plane.

But what if we were asking this question in 1899? I don’t know the answer, but it would take at least a day, and you’d have to feed your horse a lot.

Cars were around back then, of course, but they weren’t practical. They weren’t durable and they cost a fortune.

Then, in 1908, the first Model Ts rolled off the assembly line and, suddenly, travel became impossibly easier. Impossible because, until Henry Ford invented the assembly line, there was no cost efficient way to build a quality vehicle.

While others were happy to build cars for only the rich or content to write it off as an impractical technology Ford asked, “What would it cost to build this thing if I broke it down to its most basic materials and found a better way to put it together?” Look around outside and you’ll see the answer changed personal mobility forever.

To find that answer, Ford had to engage in a type of critical inquiry called “first principles thinking.” And he was hardly the first or only one to do it. Every great inventor has used it to solve problems that seemed impossible.

Putting this concept to work in your own life will make you fantastically more creative and capable of solving difficult problems.

How First Principles Thinking Makes You More Creative

When you don’t know how to do something, where’s the first place you turn? The Internet, right? Maybe you read a few tutorials or watch some YouTube videos. This works sometimes but, other times not; you’re left thinking, “That’s too much work” or “That’s not the solution I want.”

What’s happened is you’ve been defeated by thinking via analogy—you see how something is done and how you can replicate it, but decide not to.

Thinking by analogy is a useful shortcut, but it’s just that—a shortcut.1 It doesn’t help you truly understand what you’re trying to learn. Instead, you learn what someone else has already done, and that may come with flaws, problems, and other shortcuts that technically work, but make the task too expensive, difficult, time-consuming, or something else unsatisfactory.

But when you engage in first principles thinking, you discard existing knowledge and explore it on your own. You question everything you think you know until you reach a “first principle”—an absolute truth that doesn’t have to be explained by another.

Do this over and over and you reach the foundational pieces of the problem free of all the errors in judgement and shortcuts taken that led to the easy solution. When you understand the core of the problem, you can build solutions that are truly unique—just like how Henry Ford invented the assembly line to make cars a practical mode of transportation.

Practical Ways To Use First Principles Thinking In Everyday Life

If you want to solve a difficult problem or create something better than what exists now, you have to do it from first principles. Shortcuts won’t get you there.

What are some practical ways first principles thinking could make you a smarter, more effective person?

  • If you’re starting a business, you’ll need to use first principles to build a product or service that’s fundamentally better than the competition.
  • If your day is too busy, first principles thinking could help you get everything done in less time and with less stress.
  • If you’re trying to get healthier, building from the first principles will help you build a routine that works for you rather than struggling with diets and exercises you hate.

Any problem you’re struggling with will benefit from this thinking strategy because it clears away potential for misunderstanding; it’s impossible to move forward until you understand the principles. It’s a more difficult way to think, but it’s also better.

The process of actually doing first principles thinking is easy, though. Each time you think you know something, just ask yourself, “How do I know that’s true?” If the answer depends on an opinion or assumed knowledge, you have to keep asking. Once you reach a certain truth, that’s when you know you’re in the right place to start looking for a solution.

Case Study: First Principles Thinking Built Riskology

When I started this website, I was unhappy with how fast the email list was growing. So, I did a lot of research into how others solved this problem. I knew that, no matter what solution I landed on, I wanted two outcomes:

  1. I wanted a lot more people on my list
  2. I wanted everyone to be highly engaged—quality readers.

When I went looking for solutions, I found myself in a predicament. The experts in building big lists all say, “You have to do single opt-in to get more people on your list.”

Single opt-in is a marketing term to describe how someone joins an email list by “opting in” with their email address just one time. It’s proven to increase the sign-up rate substantially but is criticized for resulting in low quality subscribers.

And the experts in building high quality lists all say, “You have to do double opt-in to make sure you get the best people.”

Double opt-in—like single opt-in—refers to how someone joins an email list. Double opt-in requires the person “confirm” their email address so that it’s guaranteed to be real. It’s the industry standard for building a high-quality list.

I wanted both, so which advice should I have followed?

I decided neither was best, so I went a different route. I asked myself, “What is the fastest possible way to build an email list?” I ignored anything that sounded like an opinion and only latched onto solid research until I reached an answer.

That answer, unsurprisingly, led to using single opt-in.

Then, I asked myself, “What is a foolproof way to know my subscribers are active and engaged?” Again, repeatable and verified research lead to a few conclusions I could count on. I needed to look at each subscribers activity on my list.

Are they opening my messages? Do they click on links and read articles? If so they’re engaged. If not, they aren’t.

At this point, I had a fundamental understanding of the two things I wanted. From there, I was able to ask myself the critical question I would not have been able to ask unless I’d done the earlier work: “How can I take what I know and combine them to get exactly what I want?”

Armed with that question, I came up with a creative and unique way to manage the email list that allows the it to grow unimpeded without sacrificing any quality.

Basically, it’s very easy to get onto the list, but you have to be active to stay on the list. If you don’t engage for a long time, the system removes your email so I don’t bug you again.

The results have been incredible. The Riskology list has grown more than three times faster than before I implemented that system, and engagement remains high.

If I hadn’t done that work, I would have had to accept one of the shortcuts offered by the experts that wouldn’t actually solve my problem.

First principles thinking helped me solve a real world problem in my business, and I’m certain it will help you, too.

Careful, though. Once you unleash the creative potential of this process, you may become addicted to doing things the hard right way.

Do This in the Next 10 Minutes

Take a moment to think of a problem you’ve been struggling with lately. Write down all the reasons you think the problem is difficult, and then—for each one of those reasons you identified—ask yourself how you know that it’s true.

And keep asking that question until you get to a base of knowledge that is indisputable—a fundamental truth.

You probably won’t solve the problem on your first try, but if you keep doing this as you test different solutions, you’ll find much better answers. And you’ll find them faster.

Footnotes

  1. The term “thinking by analogy” came from this interview between Kevin Rose and Elon Musk.