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What is First Principle Thinking?

Ari Meisel
6 min readSep 18, 2019


“What Do We Know To Be Absolutely True?

Using First Principles thinking is one of the most effective ways to solve problems simply because it forces you to break down complex issues into small bite-size steps. Doing so helps you find the quickest path to a solution.

Many eminent thinkers throughout history have used the First Principles approach, but my two favorites are inventor, Johannes Gutenberg (you know the whole Printing Press thing) and most recently, entrepreneur Elon Musk (yes, that Elon Musk). It is said that the ancient philosopher Aristotle is responsible for creating this way of thinking, but there is no solid proof of that. But I’m going to go ahead and say it totally sounds like something he would have said.

First Principle Thinking in Real Life

Let’s use Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, as an example, because the Gutenberg stuff is a little too dense and weighty. In 2002, he had the idea of sending the first rocket to Mars. Immediately he faced difficulties in coming up with a plan and a strategy for tackling such a feat. The biggest one was the cost of purchasing a rocket was somewhere around $65 million.

You have a couple of options when you are faced with this situation. You could suck it up and pay the $65 million to purchase a rocket, you could give up, or you could break the situation down using First Principle thinking.

I’m sure you realize what Musk did.

He broke down the problem into a bunch of pieces, (well, maybe more than a bunch, this is a rocket we’re talking about here). Then he reassembled them, putting them together again in a completely new array.

He took the cost of the individual parts and discovered that even after labor and overhead, he would still be able to build a rocket for a fraction of the cost.

SpaceX would eventually build the rocket for 10x less than what it would have cost to buy one and…he still made a profit.

Understanding First Principle a Bit Deeper

Let’s dig a little deeper into First Principle thinking. When you are putting this into practice, you want to ask yourself:

“What do we know to be absolutely true?”

If you think beneath the surface, you find solutions that didn’t exist before.

Back to the example of Elon Musk.

He knew that the cost of the rocket was too high, but he also knew that the cost of materials was lower. So, build a rocket, don’t buy one.

Simple as that.

Now I get it, we’re not all sending rockets to space, but as entrepreneurs, we each have our own rocketship to Mars problems every day.

If you flip houses professionally, you might find that you don’t have enough staff to flip before winter; meaning you’re going to sit on that property for the whole winter.

Big problem, right? The carrying costs would make quite a dent in your profit.

So we ask ourselves, “what do we know to be completely true?”

We know that we cannot afford to keep that house over the winter and that we don’t have enough staff to finish the flip.

You can then break it down to all the reasons why you can’t finish the flip and all the reasons why you can’t afford to hold over the winter. From there, you’ll find your solution, and it might even be different than you originally thought.

How First Principle Thinking Drives Change

The first principle forces you to break things down into smaller pieces and look at each component as its own individual moving part. When you break things down in such a way, it drives innovation because it makes you look at things from a different perspective.

For example, if you have a bike, a boat, and a car, you could take those three completely different things and break them down. Find each part that makes each thing perform its duties, and in the process, you might find that you can build something completely new with parts you pulled from all three things.

First Principle thinking, this process of boiling things down to a binary level has had a tremendous effect on people’s ability to make decisions and foster change.

The reason breaking ideas down is such a revolutionary idea is because people spend most of their time looking on the surface. Most people never look where the ideas are. The ideas don’t sit on the surface because that is where everyone else is looking. It takes the visionaries and innovators to really make an impact — this process of exploring leads to incredible ideas and life-changing breakthroughs.

How To Implement First Principle

It’s easy to sit here and read about the First Principle, but it’s more difficult to practice it in your daily life. This is because we love to optimize form instead of function. When we think of breaking things down to a smaller level, we’re always thinking about changing the appearance or look of something rather than changing its function or purpose.

If we go back in time to ancient Rome, we’ll find a perfect example of changing form but not purpose. For thousands and thousands of years, people have used backpacks for a variety of purposes. During ancient times, people used leather bags to store things for school, travel, or every day.

Later, zippers were added to bags, and more recently, nylon backpacks became a thing. But even though we saw improvements and changes to the bags, nothing about the function of the backpack was changing.

We were changing the appearance and overall look of the bag without changing the function. You don’t always need to change the function; if something works the way it is it’s perfectly fine to leave it that way.

But if you are looking for a solution to a complex problem you should always break the problem down and make sure you focus on changing the function, not the form.

Now if we go back to the Rome example, for many years, people carried messenger bags and satchels of food around on their bags or in their hands. While they are doing this, carriages and wagons are rolling around transporting things from place to place. No one at the time ever thought to put wheels on a bag to make it easier to transport. It wasn’t until 1970 that Bernard Sadow invented the first rollable suitcase. Can you even imagine if we had to carry all our luggage by hand through the airports?

Making Things Simple: Four Steps to Implement First Principle Thinking

I won’t complicate things and make you feel like you can’t start using this way of thinking in your life. It’s simple and easy when you break it down into small bite-size pieces. (see what I did there? We’re breaking down the process of breaking down.)

Step 1: Identify your problem

As a business owner, you have a problem you are looking to solve. Let’s say your problem is that your employees are taking too long to complete jobs. Something is happening in your business, and everyone is moving slower now.

Step 2: Make a list of the reasons why you can’t solve the problem

We’re going to go off in a different direction and write down all the things that are preventing you from solving that problem. Maybe you can’t afford a manager, or you’re employees are too old, or perhaps morale is too low.

Step 3: Write down all apparent solutions to the problem, but they don’t solve it adequately

There are always simple solutions to a problem, but they usually come with their own issues. You could hire a manager, but then you’d have to pay them, which means less money for you and the employees. You could spend more time at work supervising, but that means less time at home with your family. This is where compromise comes in.

Step 4: Ask yourself, “if the problem didn’t exist, and I could create a solution, what would it be?”

What is your ideal solution? Your ideal solution might be to retrain your employees, hire a manager, or maybe let go of some of the employees who are causing bottlenecks in your process. You may find that cutting the slack and starting fresh actually results in a better outcome.



Ari Meisel

Founder — Less Doing /The Replaceable Founder/ Overwhelmologist/Serial Entrepreneur / Ironman / Author / Inventor