Lessons from First Principles of Engineering

By Paul Yung

First principles thinking, is one of the most effective strategies you can employ for breaking down complicated problems and generating original solutions. It also might be the single best approach to learn how to think for yourself.

In 2002, Musk began his quest to send the first rocket to Mars—an idea that would eventually become the aerospace company SpaceX. He broke down the astronomical price of space travel to its fundamentals, what makes space travel so expensive? Well, Rockets were not reusable. That became the foundation of SpaceX and today we can watch in marvel at SpaceX’s reusable rockets that have brought down the cost of launching payloads to space by as much as 700 times compared to NASA’s first family of rockets.

Musk used first principles thinking to break the situation down to the fundamentals, bypass the high prices of the aerospace industry, and create a more effective solution.

First principles thinking is the act of boiling a process down to the fundamental parts that you know are true and building up from there.

Before you start a project, event, or pivot to a new business arm, apply first principles thinking. I would do rigorous research on who the people that are dominating that sector of the industry are, or ask myself, what is the objective of doing this event or what are we hoping to achieve with this project.

Aristotle defined a first principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”

First principles thinking is a fancy way of saying “think like a scientist.” Scientists don’t assume anything. They start with questions like, What are we absolutely sure is true?

In theory, first principles thinking requires you to dig deeper and deeper until you are left with only the foundational truths of a situation. Rene Descartes’ approach with a method now called Cartesian Doubt in which he would “systematically doubt everything he could possibly doubt until he was left with what he saw as purely indubitable truths.”

In practice, you don’t have to simplify every problem down to the atomic level to get the benefits of first principles thinking. You just need to go one or two levels deeper than most people.

I constantly live with this simple assumption; I cannot be the only person who can see this solution or opportunity. Someone else must have thought of and tried this before. Did she or he succeed? Why or why not?

Continue to dig deep into your initial discovery until you discover what was good, not good, risky and rewarding.

Once you have deconstructed the complex or trivial problem to its fundamental truths, then ask yourself whether the event, project or venture is the best solution for the first principle problems at hand.

Is participating a physical event the best way to raise brand awareness or should you work with influencers instead?

Do you need to create an app for your new business or can you embed it with Meta’s suite of apps first?

This doesn’t mean you should imitate what others have done well strictly.

What it does mean is you don’t have to make the mistakes that others have already done and instead focus on combining several successful strategies from different industries or practices and find a solution that is unique.

Johannes Gutenberg combined the technology of a screw press—a device used for making wine—with movable type, paper, and ink to create the printing press.

Movable type had been used for centuries, but Gutenberg was the first person to consider the constituent parts of the process and adapt technology from an entirely different field to make printing far more efficient. The result was a world-changing innovation and the widespread distribution of information for the first time in history, the invention of the first mechanized printing press.

The best solution is not where everyone is already looking.

First principles thinking helps you to cobble together information from different disciplines to create new ideas and innovations. You start by getting to the facts. Once you have a foundation of facts, you can plan to improve each piece with purpose.

Remember, in both engineering and business, it’s the relentless pursuit of the main problem that leads to true success.

Armed with these principles, I wish you, Happy Merdeka! And may your entrepreneurial journey be filled with laughter and achievement!