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First Principles Thinking: A Simple Explanation

First principles thinking has a reputation for being way too complex.

Will Bowles
2 min readMar 13, 2021


First principles thinking is a philosophy for solving problems that is used by the world’s top scientists. It’s also something that Elon Musk says he uses in his everyday life.

First principles thinking has a reputation for being way too complex. But it’s a lot simpler than it sounds. First principles thinking is the process of reducing a problem to its core ideas or components. You remove everything you know is false about the idea and only think about what is true.

The goal is to break a problem down into its fundamental elements and then think of a solution from the ground up.

For example, if you want to figure out how a car engine works, the first principles approach would be to ask what makes an engine work. You would then look at the individual parts of the engine and ask how they work together.

The first principles approach can be applied to many different areas, including business and relationships. Elon Musk is famous for applying this type of thinking to his companies, including Tesla Motors and Space X.

First principles thinking is a powerful mental model that can be used to solve any problem.

First principles thinkers have a natural tendency to look at the world with a sense of curiosity and wonder. They’re less likely to be closed to the possibilities, open to what hasn’t been tried before and what hasn’t been proved.

People who think using first principles always ask questions and want to know why something the way is the way it is by attempting to construct a list of underlying assumptions. They do this by asking why until they can’t ask why anymore.

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Will Bowles

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