Tyler Tervooren explains how first principles thinking can help you be smarter, more creative, and more effective.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” – Albert Einstein
How long does it take to get from Portland to Seattle? I make the trip several times each year, so it’s a question I ask myself often. The answer? About three hours in a car. Four and a half on a train. 45 minutes on a plane.
But what if we were asking this question in 1899? I don’t know the exact answer, but it would take at least a day, and you’d have to feed your horse a lot.
Cars were around back then, of course, but they weren’t practical. They weren’t durable and they cost a fortune. Then, in 1908, the first Model Ts rolled off the assembly line and, suddenly, travel became impossibly easier. Impossible because, until Henry Ford invented the assembly line, there was no cost efficient way to build a quality vehicle.
While others were happy to build cars for only the rich or content to write it off as an impractical technology Ford asked, “What would it cost to build this thing if I broke it down to its most basic materials and found a better way to put it together?” Look around outside and you’ll see the answer changed personal mobility forever.
To find that answer, Ford had to engage in a type of critical inquiry called “first principles thinking.”  And he was hardly the first or only one to do it. Every great thinker and inventor has used it to solve problems that seemed impossible.
Putting this concept to work in your life will make you fantastically more creative and capable of solving difficult problems.
How First Principles Thinking Makes You More Creative
When you don’t know how to do something, where’s the first place you turn? The Internet, right? Maybe you read a few tutorials or watch some YouTube videos. This works sometimes but, other times not; you’re left thinking, “That’s too much work” or “That’s not the solution I want.”
What’s happened is you’ve been defeated by thinking via analogy—you see how something is done and how you can replicate it, but decide not to. Understanding by analogy is a useful shortcut, but it’s just that—a shortcut.  It doesn’t help you truly understand what you’re trying to learn. Instead, you learn what someone else has already done, and that may come with a lot of flaws, problems, and other shortcuts that technically work, but make the task too expensive, difficult, time-consuming, or something unsatisfactory.
But when you engage in first principles thinking, you discard existing knowledge and explore it on your own. You question everything you think you know until you reach a “first principle”—an absolute truth that doesn’t have to be explained by another.
Do this over and over and you reach the foundational pieces of the problem free of all the errors in judgement and shortcuts taken that led to the easy solution. When you understand the core of the problem, you can build solutions that are truly unique—just like how Henry Ford invented the assembly line to make cars a practical mode of transportation.
Practical Ways To Use First Principles Thinking In Everyday Life
If you want to solve a difficult problem or create something better than what exists now, you have to do it from the first principles—shortcuts won’t get you there.
What are some practical ways first principles thinking could make you a smarter, more effective person?
- If you’re starting a business, you’ll need to use first principles thinking to build a product or service that’s fundamentally better than the competition.
- If your day is too busy, first principles thinking could help you get everything done in less time and with less stress.
- If you’re trying to get healthier, building from the first principles will help you build a routine that works for you rather than struggling with diets and exercises you hate.
Any problem you’re struggling with will benefit from this thinking strategy because it clears away potential for misunderstanding—it’s impossible to move forward until you understand the principles. It’s a more difficult way to think, but it’s also better.
The process of actually doing first principles thinking is easy, though. Each time you think you know something, just ask yourself, “How do I know that’s true?” If the answer depends on an opinion or assumed knowledge, you have to keep asking. Once you reach a certain truth, that’s when you know you’re in the right place to start looking for a solution.
Case Study: First Principles Thinking Helped Me Build My Email List
A year go, I was unhappy with how fast the email list for my business was growing. So, I did a lot of research into how others solved this problem. I knew that, no matter what solution I landed on, I wanted two outcomes:
- I wanted a lot more people on my list
- I wanted everyone to be highly engaged—quality readers.
When I went looking for solutions, I found myself in a predicament. The experts in building big lists all say, “You have to do single opt-in to get more people on your list.”  And the experts in building high quality lists all say, “You have to do double opt-in to make sure you get the best people.”  I wanted both, so which advice should I have followed?
I decided neither was best, so I went a different route. I asked myself, “What is the fastest possible way to build an email list?” I ignored anything that sounded like an opinion and only latched onto solid research until I reached an answer
Then, I asked myself, “What is a foolproof way to know my subscribers are active and engaged?” Again, repeatable and verified research lead to a few conclusions I could count on.
At this point, I had a fundamental understanding of the two things I wanted. From there, I was able to ask myself the critical question I would not have been able to ask unless I’d done the earlier work: “How can I take what I know and combine them to get exactly what I want?”
Armed with that question, I came up with a creative and unique way to manage my email list—one I’m not aware of anyone else using—that allowed me to grow it more in the last year than the entire history of the site combined and still guarantee everyone is a high-quality subscriber.
If I hadn’t done that work, I would have had to accept one of the shortcuts offered by the experts that wouldn’t actually solve my problem.
First principles thinking helped me solve a real world problem in my business, and I’m certain it will help you, too. Careful, though. Once you unleash the creative potential of this process, you may become addicted to doing things the
hard right way.
2. The term “thinking by analogy” came from this interview between Kevin Rose and Elon Musk.
3. Single opt-in is a marketing term to describe how someone joins an email list by “opting in” with their email address just one time. It’s proven to increase the sign-up rates substantially but is criticized for resulting in low quality subscribers.
4. Double opt-in—like single opt-in—refers to how someone joins an email list. Double opt-in requires the person “confirm” their email address so that it’s guaranteed to be real. It’s the industry standard for building a high-quality list.