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First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge

by
Shane Parrish
fs
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First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibility. A first principle is a foundational proposition or assumption that stands alone and can’t be broken down any further.

Cooking as an example

The difference between the cook and the chef: terms often used interchangeably yet have an important nuance. - The chef is a trailblazer, the person who invents recipes. - Understands the flavor profiles and combinations at a fundamental level that doesn’t require a recipe - He has real knowledge vs know-how - The cook, who reasons by analogy, uses a recipe - He creates something, perhaps with slight variations, that’s already been created. - If the cook lost the recipe, he’d be screwed First-principles reasoning cuts through dogma and removes the blinders. We can see the world as it is and see what is possible.

Techniques for Establishing First Principles

  • Socratic Questioning
    • A disciplined questioning process, used to establish truths, reveal underlying assumptions, and separate knowledge from ignorance
  • The Five Whys
    • Often employed by children to understand what’s happening in the world
    • An interrogative technique exploring the cause-and-effect relationship of problems

Employing First Principles in Your Daily Life

  • Move away from incremental improvement and into possibility
  • Letting others think for us means that we’re using their analogies, their conventions, and their possibilities. It means we’ve inherited a world that conforms to what they think.
  • When we step back and cut through the flawed analogies, we see what is possible.
  • First-principles thinking clears the clutter of what we’ve told ourselves and allows us to rebuild from the ground up.
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