Initial Thoughts on Problem Solving Activity for Adults: Use First Principles to Problem Solve the Elon Musk Way
One of the services I used to offer is ghost blogging, so to start 2015 the right way, I decided to write a blog post about the books that influenced some of the most successful leaders. Elon Musk was among them. I had also written a post on leadership lessons from the billionaire serial entrepreneur. Fast forward two years to January 2017, since complex problem solving is the first of 10 key skills the World Economic Forum says you need to thrive in 2020, I decided to revisit the topic of First Principles. Within two years of initially learning about First Principles, my understanding has shifted from understanding less to understanding more about the problem solving method. I consider First Principles a problem solving activity for adults.
UPDATE: First Published January 2015
Problem Solving Activity for Adults: What is First Principles?
While conducting this research on Elon Musk, I watched an interview that Kevin Rose conducted with him. I wanted to fully understand this problem solving activity for adults. I have read many problem solving books, and have been exposed to a variety of problem solving models. But First Principles was a problem solving technique that was new to me.
Musk talks about using The First Principles Method for problem-solving – he gave an example of what he means by First Principles. It’s a concept from physics, but I have forgotten most of what I learned in my high school physics classes.
After watching the video interview twice, I understood what Musk was saying, but I didn’t know where to go from there. With that cursory understanding of first principles, I didn’t know how to use the idea to problem solve. This problem solving activity for adults stumped me.
Foundation 20 // Elon Musk: Kevin Rose Interview with Elon Musk
If you cannot view the video, watch it here.
“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. First Principles is physics’ way of looking at the world. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths, what we are sure is true, and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy,” says Musk.
I have read several blog posts that explain First Principles, using the Kevin Rose interview with Elon Musk as a springboard. Many of them are good posts, but I still cannot get a handle on how to use the concept of first principles. I think the concept is an important one, because it forces you to look at things differently, opening the doors to innovation.
The problem solving models that I have looked at, and presented here, uses what Musk calls analogy. That is, you look at what’s been done before, and yes, it is possible to innovate using those models, especially if you combine ideas in ways they have not been combined before. But it’s important to have many tools in your toolbox. And that’s why I am so persistent learning about First Principles.
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Let’s take a step back for a minute, according to Wikipedia:
“A first principle is a basic, foundational proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. In physics and other sciences, theoretical work is said to be from first principles, or ab initio, if it starts directly at the level of established science and does not make assumptions such as empirical model and fitting parameters.”
I am thinking that what all of this means is that you have to figure out what the real problem is, so that you discover the right solution. If this is the case, and I believe it is, then it is worth my time to understand the concept of first principles.
Since first publishing this post, I found an article by James Clear that does an outstanding job of explaining First Principles.
Reasoning by first principles is one of the best ways to develop mental models that are rare and useful. Put another way, forcing yourself to look at the fundamental facts of a situation can help you develop your own perspective on how to solve problems rather than defaulting to way the rest of the world thinks. Elon Musk and Bill Thurston on the Power of Thinking for Yourself
In his post, Elon Musk and Bill Thurston on the Power of Thinking for Yourself, James Clear includes some examples of how to use First Principles in real life. After reading James Clear’s post, I have come up with an example of using First Principles that I would like to share.
Jenny is upset that she is making under $100 in Amazon Affiliate income each month, while her friends, Andrea and Cindi, are making $7,000 and $10,000 respectively. Jenny thinks she is doomed for failure, and ready to quit trying. The first thing people would think about is traffic and conversion, and those two things are very important, but other things are taking place. Yes, Jenny has been blogging for under a year, while Andrea and Cindi have been blogging for four and five years.
The fact is that Jenny has a book review blog, and she links to Amazon for books that she recommends. Say for instance that the average print book costs $15 and the e-book $3 (some of the e-books are free), her earnings from Amazon shows that most people are buying e-books. Getting a commission of 4% from Amazon will not get her the big bucks, she will have to get a lot of converted traffic to make serious money like her friends.
Andrea and Cindi have a food and technology blog respectively, so the products they recommend are a lot more expensive than a book review blog. Their affiliate income are a lot more. Additionally, both these bloggers have invested in courses and books to create blog posts that readers will like. From an aesthetics perspectives, you can see the difference between Jenny’s blog and the blogs of her two friends.
Now that you understand the causes of Jenny’s problems, what should she do?
First Principles is about getting to the root cause of the problem. You have to break down the problem to its basic elements. Since I updated this post, I read Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success, and if offers information on First Principles. In the book, the author, Shane Snow quotes Astro Teller, who works at Google[x]
“”Our belief is that if you can get people to let go of their fear, and to be more intellectually open, more dispassionate about being creative, trying new things, and then being honest about what the results are instead of having all these other issues cloud their judgment, you can get to radically better solutions in honestly about the same amount of time, about the same amount of resources, as making the 10-percent improvement.” Elon Musk calls this “getting to first principles.””
As I am updating this post once again, I realize that The MacGyver Secret, will also help you to use First Principles to solve problems.
As an aside, if you’re like Jenny, and looking for book recommendations and courses to take to improve your blog posts, I have a couple of recommendations for you. In the last few months, I have read Curate This, Content that Converts and Hook: Why Websites Fail to Make Money, Websites That Convert. A year ago, I read Creating Fat Content, which I have to review my notes again. All these books have some very good advice for you.
I have been blogging for several years now, and I learned a lot from these books. To increase your affiliate income, I am taking a few courses offered by Pajama Affiliates (affiliate link). By the way, I’m Jenny in the scenario. I blamed myself for a long time because I wasn’t making much affiliate income. I thought I wasn’t absorbing the information in the courses. But it has nothing to do with me, it’s the affiliate niche that I am in. At the end of the day, I’m doing what I love, and I am not going to stop blogging about books because it’s not profitable. I’m working my way through the courses, and my affiliate income has increased.
I have created a list of ideas for blog posts based on my new knowledge, and I am doing the research now, so I can start writing. Understanding First Principles was very instructive for me.
Curate This: The Hands-On, How-To Guide To Content CurationContent That Converts: How To Build A Profitable and Predictable B2B Content Marketing StrategyCreating Fat Content: Boost Website Traffic with Visitor-Grabbing, Google-Loving Web Content
Back to First Principles and problem solving, one of the objectives of the Strategic Reading Challenge, is for readers to learn the 10 key skills needed for future jobs. It’s also about reading to find solutions to problems that are impacting us, as well as connecting the ideas from the books that we read, hopefully to generate breakthrough ideas. This year, I’ll be reading some books that I normally wouldn’t read. I recently read Start With Why, but haven’t gotten around to reading the other books yet. I own all the books, in print form. I don’t think these are the kinds of books that you want to read in e-book format.
Final Thoughts on Problem Solving Activity for Adults: Use First Principles to Problem Solve the Elon Musk Way
Problem solving is a skills that you have to use every day. Therefore, it makes sense to have more than one problem solving model at your finger tips. If you are looking for a problem solving activity for adults, First Principles seems like a good mental model to have in your problem solving toolkit.
If you feel like it, grab a copy of the following books. Why? They are books that you normally wouldn’t read, and they may give you information that you can use in your work. At the very least, you will have unique perspectives of different topics.
- How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method (Princeton Science Library)
- Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
- Physics for Rock Stars: Making the Laws of the Universe Work for You
- Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100
- Physics: An Illustrated History of the Foundations of Science (Ponderables 100 Breakthroughs That Changed History Who Did What When)
How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method (Princeton Science Library)Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100Physics for Rock Stars: Making the Laws of the Universe Work for YouAn Illustrated History of the Foundations of Science