- Most creative people try to create by adding a twist to convention, rather than by rethinking and challenging convention (status-quo+1 thinking).
- Innovative thinkers like Elon Musk and George Saunders use first principles thinking to come up with radically new ideas. This approach relies heavily on questioning basic approaches and assumptions.
- First principles thinking isn’t just an entrepreneurial thing—it’s a usable and incredibly helpful technique for creatives.
- The technique can be boiled down to a three-step process.
- I include a link to the next article, in which I give an example of this technique at work in my own life.
The problem: thinking with the masses
Elon Musk has famously used something called first principles thinking as a basis to innovate the e-commerce, space exploration, and tunnel boring industries. The technique is an ancient form of thinking outside-the-box, at least as old as Aristotle.
First, what first principles thinking is not. Thinking from first principles is an alternative to thinking by analogy, which is the most common form of thinking.
Here’s an example of thinking by analogy I have experienced as a creative writer:
For a long time, I would sit down to write my essays and stories with some other really good essay or story in my head. So, I’d imitate. My thinking went like this: George Saunders writes really good stories. When I sit down at my computer, I want to write a good story too. Therefore, when I sit down at my computer, I want to write like George Saunders.
But I didn’t just stop at analogy on my way to writing well. If I was only imitating, where would that leave my voice?
The status-quo+1 trap
Instead of straight imitation, I imitated but then added some twist of my own. So, George Saunders if he lived in Lynchburg, Va and was an evangelical, or something like that. I figured that was how creative people operated–they took what the people that came before them accomplished and then added something.
This is what I call status-quo+1 thinking. This method of “creative” thinking takes the status quo for granted (whether it’s the literary or the broader cultural status quo or whatever) and then just adds to it. M. Night Shymalan directs sq+1 movies—genre pieces with a few little twists on convention.
But what if status quo thinking is the problem? What if the convention itself is worn out? Starting from convention severely limits your ability to change convention.
Input whatever you’d like in the sq+1 formula—it’s still average, common, banal. It’s still the status-quo.
Even creative thinking can be little more than a slightly distorted copy of the accepted norm.
Elon Musk built his own space shuttle(!)
First principles thinking is what got Elon Musk into space, despite the prohibitive price tag of space shuttles. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Reduce the problem down to its down to its fundamental parts.
Step 2: Think through the problem based on these parts.
Step 3: Revisit the problem.
The first thing to note here is that, when you think from first principles, you are way more concerned with understanding the problem than with coming up with the solution. This is hugely important. If you want to rush for answers, you will sprint down the road most traveled.
Einstein famously said that if he had an hour to come up with a solution he would spend 55 minutes understanding the problem. Usually, it’s the problem/question itself that’s flawed.
Important problems are big and complicated, which is what makes them seem so insurmountable. The temptation is to leap to ideas from analogy because it’s easier. Nasa did X and Y to get their space program going, so I’ll start with X and Y and add along the way.
When companies in the American aerospace industry told Musk that a space shuttle would cost $65 million to build (too much even for a co-founder of PayPal), he surgically dissembled his original question and created different questions.
First question: Can we afford a space shuttle?
Second question: Why is a space shuttle so expensive?
Answer: A combination of the market price of materials and the involvement of several interests in the space program (all with employees that needed to get paid).
The answer to the first question isn’t helpful, because it assumes too much. It assumes that the market always fairly and accurately establishes prices (it doesn’t). It also assumes that buying a rocket is the only route into the space exploration business.
But the answer to the second question is potentially very helpful.
It leads to a potential solution: if one could get into the space business apart from the government program part, then that’s one cost cut. After that, you were only left with the materials.
First, Elon Musk went to Russia who were trying to unload some intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for relatively cheap. That’s one way to cut out the American government, while also getting important materials on the cheap. Alas, the Russians drank too much vodka and didn’t take Elon seriously.
He reduced the problem down again, digging deeper. This is how he explained his next move to Kevin Rose, (as quoted in James Clear’s excellent article):
“So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. 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 two percent of the typical price”
Two percent of the typical price! That’s a remarkable find. How did he do it? By taking apart and radically simplifying the original problem with unorthodox questions.
Uber is another example of first principles thinking at work. Uber isn’t answering the question: how do we make taxi services better? Instead, it breaks the service itself down—how do we connect drivers who need extra cash with people who need an affordable ride?
In order to revolutionize public transport, they didn’t need a better vehicle. They needed a better network.
This is utterly creative thinking. It literally created a brand new solution to the public transport problem that did not depend on the current thinking of that industry. It created a new industry: ride-sharing.
This isn’t just an entrepreneurial thing
Let’s not let ourselves off the hook by saying “well that’s terrific for business-owners, but I just want to take beautiful pictures for a living.” Thinking from first principles originated in physics, so it’s already out-of-its-original-box. It’s an approach to problems that entrepreneurs just happen to benefit from.
The aforementioned George Saunders often tells the story of writing a hideous, 700-page tome called La Boda de Eduardo right before he had his breakthrough. He describes the novel as like James Joyce, but with less verbs. When even his loving and devoted wife couldn’t bear to read it, he fell back on the first principles of storytelling.
What is storytelling for? Entertaining, moving, or otherwise changing a reader.
What skills do I have to entertain, move, or otherwise change another human? I’m funny and I’m really sensitive to what others are feeling. Plus, I know how to communicate this in writing.
Hence he started writing in a radically different way, a way that only slightly resembles his heroes. His first story following his breakdown was a story about a working class man who was frustrated with his job at the theme park for wayward nuns. A ghost haunts the main character throughout the story. It’s absolutely different than anything that came before it.
All of the sudden, he wasn’t using sq+1 reasoning to build his creative work. He was doing something that completely shook up the conventions of modern short story writing.
Here’s a system for first principles thinking to that can be used anywhere
The best thing about this technique is that it’s not (ahem) rocket science. Here are three steps to thinking this way:
- Name a complicated decision/goal/idea (dgi). Question that dgi in order to reduce it down to its fundamentals. Do this until the problem is simple. (Even if the problem becomes several simple problems, you will be better off than if you have one gigantic, complicated problem).
- Once you have things broken down, reconsider the problem based on its parts.
- Take these parts and play with them: consider them on their own, or recombine them.
Practice these things, and you’ll see results.