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."
First principles thinking, which is sometimes called reasoning from first principles, is one of the most effective strategies you can employ for breaking down complicated problems and generating original solutions. It also might be the single best approach to learn how to think for yourself.
Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.
Different solutions present themselves at different layers of abstraction. Depending on how deep and thorough is your breakdown of the situation, putting them all back together may yield different solutions.
First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibility. Sometimes called "reasoning from first principles," the idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up.