On first principles
A first principle is a basic proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced further . Or as Aristotle put it, “the first basis from which a thing is known.”
First principles are the fundamental primitives of a problem space that are generally accepted as “truth.” Sometimes these are also referred to as assumptions. They are granular enough that they cannot be reduced further, yet confine the problem space with some constraint. They are the atomic units that help us to delineate a problem space.
By breaking large complex situations down into first principles, we are empowered to:
- Take inventory of current primitives and/or assumptions.
- Introduce new, remove existing, or replace existing primitives, with new primitives.
This process of deconstruction, introduction, and reassembly of primitives, is the core of design.
For example: Imagine you have a motorcycle.
If we deconstruct a motorcycle into its individual components or parts, we end up with: a motor, handlebars, mirrors, chain, gas tank, suspension, fenders, ignition, exhaust, wheels, lights, battery, etc.
Now, what might we be able to recreate from these individual components, simply by removing and reassembling the primitives?
- One option might be to remove the motor and gas tank, reduce the overall weight, and build an electric bicycle.
- Another might be to only employ the engine, gas tank, and chain to create a miniature generator to charge the battery.
- Another might be to remove everything but the battery and lights and create a high powered flashlight.
By deconstructing an existing solution into core primitives, and by thoughtfully removing and recombining what’s left we begin to see new possibilities and new potential.
Through the exploration and visualization of new combinations of primitives, we begin to realize new benefits, of new models, and also identify potential new challenges. The goal is to find new combinations where the newly realized benefits outweigh the previous or newly discovered hindrances. This is the fundamental basis for human progress.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ―Buckminster Fuller
Through the rapid creation of new models, we visualize new possibilities. This is how humans have always advanced beyond the conventional limitations of the day. We are fully capable of change.
But humanitarian evolution enmasse will require new models. New solutions will require so much upside that these models have their own gravitational pull. This magnetic draw is what leads to adoption of change at scale.
Overcoming the old world
Without practice with first principles our outlook can be very dry, brittle, linear, rational, predictable sure, but also quite limited. Our tendency can be to approach a problem space with a predefined fixed mindset. Propped by a set of assumptions, biases, and beliefs —an old worldview.
Our outlook from this vantage is really only seeking to confirm what we already know.
When we look through our old world lens we are seeking validation, single-minded confirmation that we are right, more than we are seeking to understand. Within this frame all we are really capable of seeing, is what is right in front of us. It’s just a motorcycle. Because when all we expect is to be right, we forget to look beyond the obvious.
First principle worldview
First principle thinking is as much a new worldview as it is a simple thought exercise for problem solving. As we begin to see the motorcycle, as a collection of primitives, components, connected subroutines, and complex systems, we begin to see these mysterious patterns elsewhere in the world. When we begin to see the world as a complex multi-layered assemblage of systems and primitives it reignites our childlike curiosity. We begin to see differently.
As we see the present differently. Because we start to pick at the seams, we notice the quality of the stitching, and the color of the thread. We start to care more about how things are constructed and why they were produced. We begin to intuitively understand how ideas, events, and excuses have been sewn together from one generation to the next, for centuries.
We see history differently. Because we can internalize how the narrative was conjured to rationalize the faults, flaws, and mistakes. The litany of human tragedy. We begin to care less about being wrong and more about doing right.
“To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” —Joseph Chilton Pearce
As we look toward the future we begin to see a new possible reality. A new virtualized alternate future, full of infinite untapped potential. We begin to seek the untapped potential implicit within ourselves, others, and the world around us. And often as we begin looking for ways to share this new worldview with others, we are also often misunderstood.
For many of us, first principles and this new worldview is more about remembering, than it is about learning. Almost every child I have ever seen with a new Lego set knows exactly what i’m talking about.
Unfortunately for many of us as we grow up, shed our childhood, and sheath ourselves as adults, we lose sight of the joy of the infinite creations that might be constructed from that bin full of magical brightly colored pieces. The pure unbridled joy of creative potential is what we all need to recall, reconnect with, and reclaim, to start.
If we begin with first principles and a new worldview, we can see that the Lego bin just got a whole lot bigger.