First Principles Thinking: How To Solve Difficult Problems

In 2002, technology entrepreneur Elon Musk began his mission to send the first rocket to Mars. And right away, he ran into a major problem.

After visiting several aerospace manufacturers around the world, he found that the cost of a rocket was enormous—as much as $65 million.

But he didn’t let that faze him. Instead, he started to rethink his approach. In an interview with Wired,1 he said:

I tend to approach things from a physics framework. And physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, OK, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And 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 2 percent of the typical price.

First Principles Thinking

Instead of getting a ready-made rocket, Musk decided to create his own company, buy the cheap raw materials, and build it himself. And within just a few years, his company SpaceX had cut the cost of launching a rocket by almost ten times while still making a profit.

First principles thinking means breaking down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassembling them from the ground up. It’s one of the most powerful ways to learn how to think for yourself, unlock your creativity, and come up with innovative ideas.

Few of us approach our problems that way. Instead, we reason by analogy, relying on prior assumptions, beliefs, and widely held “best practices” to build knowledge and solve problems. And while that requires less mental energy, it also gets us stuck in existing conventions.

Break It Down & Build It Up

How can you use first principles thinking in your life? Here is Elon Musk’s three-step process:2

  • Step 1: Identify and define your current assumptions.
  • Step 2: Break down the problem into its fundamental principles.
  • Step 3: Create new solutions from scratch.

Since most of us aren’t building space rockets anytime soon, let’s apply this process to a more relatable problem. Let’s say, for example, that you’re struggling to find the time to work out. To solve that problem, your steps might look something like this:

  • Step 1: Working out requires me to go to the gym and, with my busy schedule, there’s just no time for that.
  • Step 2: To increase my fitness, all I really have to do is work out at a level that my body isn’t used to.
  • Step 3: I could try a quick high-intensity interval training routine like the seven-minute workout.

Working out doesn’t require a lot of time at the gym. But if you rely on reasoning by analogy, it’s easy to forget about that.

And that’s why first principles thinking is so useful. It helps you shake off prior assumptions so you can find more innovative solutions.

So, whenever you face a complicated problem, try breaking it down and reassembling it. That way, you’ll step outside conventional wisdom and see what’s truly possible.

This article is an excerpt from my book The Decision-Making Blueprint.

Footnotes

  1. Elon Musk’s Mission to Mars
  2. Elon Musk says he owes his success to a 3-step problem-solving trick also used by Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla