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Use First Principles Thinking to Solve Impossible Problems

Solving Difficult Problems

  1. Take moment and think of a problem bugging you and write all the reasons you think the problem is difficult to solve.
  2. With each of the reasons, self-verify by questioning yourself to see if it is valid or not.
  3. Keep asking yourself till you get to the root, the fundamental truth which cannot be denied.
  4. With a few runs, you will be able to test different solutions and find effective answers quickly.


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Use First Principles Thinking to Solve Impossible Problems

Use First Principles Thinking to Solve Impossible Problems


Key Ideas

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

"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

We normally use existing methodologies and analogies to solve problems, which is essentially short-cut thinking.
Engaging in 'First Principles Thinking' makes us discard existing knowledge, and get down to the essentials, exploring on our own and questioning everything. This uncharted terrain takes us to the absolute truth which we call the First Principle. When we understand the core of the problem, we can build creative and unique solutions.

    Using The First Principles Thinking

    The First Principles Thinking can be applied in our daily life:

    • Starting a business requires first principles thinking to build a fundamentally better product or service.
    • On a busy day, first principles thinking makes us do what's essential while not being bogged down with time constraints.
    • Applying the first principles toward good health will make us feel considerably better than obeying some diet or exercise routine that we hate.

    Solving Difficult Problems

    1. Take moment and think of a problem bugging you and write all the reasons you think the problem is difficult to solve.
    2. With each of the reasons, self-verify by questioning yourself to see if it is valid or not.
    3. Keep asking yourself till you get to the root, the fundamental truth which cannot be denied.
    4. With a few runs, you will be able to test different solutions and find effective answers quickly.


    Practical ways to use First Principles Thinking
    • If you’re starting a business, use first principles to build a product or service that’s fundamentally better than the competition.
    • If your day is too busy, first princip...
    First Principles Thinking
    First Principles Thinking

    Is the act of deconstructing something to the fundamental parts that you know are true and building up from there.

    Also called reasoning from first principles, it effectively he...

    Elon Musk
    Elon Musk

    “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.”

    First Principle

    A first principle is a basic assumption that cannot be deduced any further. 

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    First-principles thinking

    Breaking down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up.

    It’s one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself, unlock your creative poten...

    A first principle a foundational proposition or assumption that stands alone. We cannot deduce first principles from any other proposition or assumption.

    Reasoning by first principles removes the impurity of assumptions and conventions. What remains is the essentials. 

    Cutting through the dogma

    If we never learn to take something apart, test the assumptions, and reconstruct it, we end up trapped in what other people tell us.

    We remain trapped in the way things have always been done. When the environment changes, we just continue as if things were the same.

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    Elon Musk

    "Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles ..."

    Elon Musk
    First principle vs. analog thinking
    • First principles thinking: actively questioning every assumption you think you know about a given problem or scenario  and then creating new knowledge and solutions from scratch. 
    • Reasoning by analogy: building knowledge and solving problems based on prior assumptions, beliefs and widely held ‘best practices’ approved by majority of people.
    Elon Musk's 3 steps Principle Thinking
    1. Identify and define your current assumptions;
    2. Breakdown the problem into its fundamental principles;
    3. Create new solutions from scratch.

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    Comparison vs. First Principles Thinking

    Comparison Thinking (reason through analogy)

    When you make decisions and judgement calls based on what you or others have experienced. An easy mode of thinking but also

    Advantages of First Principles Thinking
    • Allows for a more personal, customized mode of thinking and application.
    • A key to doing any sort of systemic inquiry.
    • Even though it does take far more mental energy to work in this mode, the results can be quite staggering.
    • A new and innovative way of thinking.
    Applying the First Principles Thinking

    Identify the Problem

    What is something that I want to change in my life?

    Deconstruct the Problem

    What are the causes of my problems? How does it affect my life?

    Solve the Problem

    Start creating your new framework. You could think of multiple ways to achieve your goals easily.

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    Deduction and Mindfulness Go Together

    Sherlock Holmes observed facts without being judgmental. He would construct a hypothesis about what he believed happened. He would then search for more evidence to logically validate his ini...

    All Stories Are Possible — Until They Are Not

    Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot encourages everybody to tell their story.  Stories help Poirot comprehend what kind of person the victim was. And to uncover the murderer’ motive.

    Storytelling is powerful to uncover insights, not just the truth. Design Thinking — a process for creative problem solving — leverages the power of stories to detect human desires and needs.

    Be Relentless

    Sarah Linden is the least self-aware television detective.

    Her dedication to her work and stubbornness are unbeatable. She never gives up. Even though she fails in many aspects of her life — like being a mother. But, she keeps showing up and trying to do better. She tries again, fails again, and fails better.

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    It encourages people to come up with thoughts and ideas that can, at first, seem a bit crazy. Some of these ideas can be crafted into original, creative solutions to a problem, while others can ...

    Brainstorming for problem solving
    • It brings team members' diverse experience into play. It increases the richness of ideas explored, which means that you can often find better solutions.
    • It can help you get buy-in from team members for the solution chosen – after all, they're likely to be more committed to an approach if they were involved in developing it. 
    • It helps team members bond, as they solve problems in a positive, rewarding environment.
    Why individual brainstorming might bring better results
    • groups aren't always strict in following the rules of brainstorming, and bad behaviors creep in
    • people pay so much attention to other people that they don't generate ideas of their own – or they forget these ideas while they wait for their turn to speak. 

    On your own, you don't have to worry about other people's egos or opinions, and you can be freer and more creative.

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    Systematic approach
    Most people jump straight from finding a problem to attempting to solve it.

    Having a systematic approach to how you deal with problems, as opposed to just going by gut and feelings, ca...

    Study the problem first

    Detectives and investigators use the process. They ask both obvious and unthinkable questions.

    Get close and collect information about how the problem is manifesting.  Understand where the problem does and doesn’t happen, when the problem started, and how often the problem occurs to generate critical insight for the problem-solving effort.

    Question for great answers
    • Don’t look for solutions immediately; Keep redefining the problem until you arrive at the root cause.
    • Don’t try to guess the solution; try to understand how the obstacles, or challenges manifest first.
    • Gather data to analyze all potential root causes.
    • Consider all options, regardless of how irrelevant they currently appear.
    • Find a way to connect the dots. Make better analogies. One good analogy is worth three hours of discussion.

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    Brace Yourself For The Sequel

    Every good story deserves a sequel. Keep swimming!

    What this means for you: You’ve learned from your failures, now learn from your successes — and build off them. Get ready for ...


    After conquering their challenges characters are “reborn” with greater knowledge and power than before. They teamed up with friends to save others, and in the process saved themselves.

    What this means for you: Take stock of what you accomplished. Enjoy it.

    Save The Day With Friends

    After all the lessons learned in the journey, characters can finally face their challenges. But sometimes even all the preparations aren’t enough and someone they help earlier in their journey unexpectedly comes to save the day.

    What it means for you: Never pass up an opportunity to help someone else. You never know when they will return the favor.

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    Not reaching your goals

    Take the goal you didn’t achieve and try a different approach. Doing the same thing over and over to achieve your goal is the definition of insanity.

    Your heroes miss their goals too. ...

    Being criticized

    You can’t please everybody that you meet in life.

    Critics are not all bad. You can learn things about yourself from them too. The solution is to learn from criticism, not be afraid of it.

    Messing up your career

    See career challenges for what they are: an opportunity to try something different

    If your career never got messed up, then you’d probably stay in your comfort-zone for your entire life and never try something different.

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