As I continue to engage in self-experiments, I’ve been keen in conducting them in a way that produces more accurate results. Gaining timeless and actionable insight wouldn’t hurt either, that is after all, the purpose of these experiments. To do this, I looked to Elon Musk and his method for deriving truth and wisdom. His approach, which he refers to as‘First Principles’ thinking, has proven to be effective as he continues to make clear leaps with his projects.

“With first principles, you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.”


Here’s the gist:

  1. Define the assumed belief or opinion.
  2. Distill the fundamental truths that formed those beliefs.
  3. Reason up from there using other undeniable fundamental truths.

Brilliant! Though how does one go about distilling fundamental truths?

Elon, meet Aristotle.

Aristotle agrees with Elon in that ‘belief’ and ‘opinion’ are weak cognitive states to base any important actions from. Something ought to be “demonstrated that it is incapable of being otherwise”, Aristotle.

So by pairing Elon’s ‘First Principles’ approach with Aristotle’s method for deriving true understanding (wisdom), we have a bulletproof method for conducting action-based experiments.

To do this, he gives us 3-steps for uncovering fundamental truths behind a belief or opinion:

  1. Empirical investigation – what is it?

    Build a list of similarities on that topic that are found to be correlated. These preliminary claims are not necessary evidence of a genuine kind. This is what people assume to be true.

  2. Determine if claims are genuine – why is it?

    There must be an underlying cause that explains why those similarities are correlated. If this is the case, the topic at hand is genuine and we can continue to determine why something is what it is (step 3).

  3. Investigate the underlying cause – why it is.

    Discover the cause of those shared similarities grasped in step 1.

Hold up Aristotle, there’s one small caveat.

As it goes, most experiments in health, wealth and wisdom can never resolve to a definitive answer. Consequently, ‘truths’ derived from experiments like these should be understood to be true ‘for the most part’ rather than true in every case without exception. Each person should consider their own circumstance, understanding it’s different from anyone else. It is a matter of trained judgement and your own experience to determine what the right thing is for you to do.

Though in the process of experiments like these, one would hope to discover and deliver relevant bits of wisdom that anyone could use to lead more informed lives.

The takeaway: With first-principles thinking, we solve problems from a position of truth as well as an embodied understanding through experience.

3 thoughts on “A ‘First Principles’ Approach to Understanding

  1. I’ll add that Elon’s “first principles” approach is fundamentally a quantization of elements within a production. Elon is talking about physics’ First Principles. But he repackages it in a way meant for project management—decision making based on math (for raw materials, their cost, and the labor cost to produce a design from material) rather than on rhetoric or granting past examples as authoritative standards. His example, with Space X, was [1] do we have the technology and the materials (yes, NASA as evidence); [2] what is the cost of the raw materials ($X); can we arrange the raw materials in a way to produce rockets at $n. This idea does not look at NASA’s cost structure to produce rockets, but presumes there might be a better way base on the math of raw materials and the projection of costs based on product design—which encompassed reusable rockets—now making them some of the most economical rockets on the market.
    First principles is: do the math, and know that established organizations might be stuck in einstellung.
    First principles is important to understand! Good content

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