First Principles Thinking

Often, we jump on to a task without really understanding why it is to be done or the job’s importance. We focus on solving the problem rather than thinking about it and understanding it.

First principals thinking is nothing but breaking the problems down to their fundamental truths and reasoning. First principles thinking means breaking down a complicated problem into many essential parts and then reassembling them from the ground up. It is one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself, unlock your creative potential, and move from linear to non-linear results.

Reasoning by first principles removes the impurity of assumptions and conventions. What remains is the essentials. It is one of the best mental models you can use to improve your thinking because the essentials allow you to see where analogy reasoning might lead you astray.

Examples of First Principles Thinking

  1. Elon Musk and SpaceX
  2. BuzzFeed
  3. Derek Sivers and CD Baby

Techniques for Establishing First Principles

Socratic Questioning: Rigorous analysis helps in establishing first principles using Socratic questioning. This is a disciplined questioning process used to show truths, reveal underlying assumptions, and separate knowledge from ignorance.

I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think. -Socrates

The critical distinction between Socratic questioning and regular discussions is that Socratic questioning generally follows this process:

  1. Clarifying your thinking and explaining your ideas’ origins (Why am I thinking this? What exactly do I think?)
  2. Challenging assumptions (How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?)
  3. Looking for evidence (How can I back this up? What are the sources?)
  4. Considering alternative perspectives (What might others think? How do I know I am correct?)
  5. Examining consequences and implications (What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?)
  6. Questioning the original questions (Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?)

Setting up the right problems to solve: The way you set up your problem will significantly influence what answers you will arrive at. Each way of framing the problem can imply a different set of assumptions and first principles.

Divide your problem into many small parts: If a problem is given to you, do not focus on solving it. First, divide or break down the problem into tiny parts, ask questions, and reassemble the entire problem right from the ground level.


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