How to Solve Impossible Problems: First Principles Thinking

No matter your field of expertise, every day you’re presented with seemingly impossible challenges. Issues that you or your company can’t seem to crack, even after weeks, months, or years of trying.

How do you approach these impossible challenges? Do you have a strategy that you follow, or do you just hold a brainstorming session and hope for the best? Do you tell yourself, “Think harder!” and pray inspiration will strike?

There’s a better way to solve problems like these — improve the quality of your thinking. Better thinking, problem-solving, and reasoning are skills. They can be developed through self-examination, learning new frameworks, and expanding our mental models.

Lucky for us, brilliant thinkers, creators, entrepreneurs, and philosophers — people like Elon Musk, Aristotle, Charlie Munger, Issac Newton, Ada Lovelace, Albert Einstein, Frederick Douglass, Maya Angelou, and Henry Ford — have left behind documentation, frameworks, and tools for considering impossible problems.

First principles thinking is one of those tools.

Photo by Med Badr Chemmaoui on Unsplash

Photo by Med Badr Chemmaoui on Unsplash

What is First Principles Thinking?

Also called “reasoning from first principles,” first principles thinking is a mental model that helps us solve problems and make decisions by breaking down a challenge, reexamining the subjects that make up this challenge, then combining ideas in new ways to find a solution.

First principles thinking helps us break down, reexamine, and recombine information in new ways.

First principles thinking is a process that can help you find innovative solutions to complex problems. Let’s walk through a hypothetical example to better understand how this approach works.

An Example of First Principles Thinking In Action

You have a problem. You work for a bike manufacturer in the Netherlands, and too many customers are calling in to complain. They’re dissatisfied with the condition of your products when delivered.

  1. First, break down your problem statement into its fundamental parts. That might include subjects like:
  • Customers: What traits do our complaining customers share?
  • Product Feedback: What products are these customers dissatisfied with and why?
  • Customer Experience: How are our products constructed, sold, and delivered to customers?

2. Start digging into each of these fundamental parts. Ask questions to break down information you assume to be true (and compared to provable facts), go a few layers deeper on these areas, and move you toward designing your first principles.

  • Customers: The customers that are complaining, who are they? Are they mainly ordering bikes or accessories? Are they all getting the same kind of bike, do they live in the same area, are they spending more than the average customer?

When you look at the data, it turns out your local customers in the Netherlands weren’t complaining at all — they love your bikes. It looks like most of the complaints are from the United States. Interesting!

Could it be that American customers tend to complain more or have higher product standards? Is our U.S. shipping partner not as careful with the products as we’d like?

  • Product Feedback: Why are customers complaining? After further investigations, it turns out that your bikes are good quality, but they keep showing up at customers’ homes broken. As many as 1 in 4 of your products are returned because they are damaged in transit — that’s way above industry standard.
  • Customer Experience: What’s happening when these bikes are packed that’s making them show up broken? After an internal investigation and consultation with your shipping supply firm, it turns out your bikes are packed better than the industry standard.

But what do the actual delivery people do? Are they mistreating your boxes and causing breakage? After observing some delivery drivers, you notice that not all boxes are treated the same — some labeled “electronics” or “TV” are handled more delicately.

Compare that to your bike boxes, which have no labels to indicate what’s inside. They’re carelessly dropped on the ground or thrown onto front porches.

When you ask the delivery drivers why they aren’t handling the bike boxes as carefully as the televisions, they say, “Because TVs are more breakable than bikes, so we have to be more careful. Plus, they’re expensive, and I don’t want to get written up for breaking one.”

3. Solve your problem by combining first principles in a new way.

Now you understand that your bikes are mostly broken in the U.S. because they aren’t handled as delicately as other items like electronics or big-screen TVs.

But what if, instead of finding new ways to pack your bikes, you took advantage of how delivery drivers already treat televisions and electronics?

Solution: You can redesign your bike delivery boxes look like television boxes.

Following a process like this could help you solve this problem like Van Moof, a Dutch bike manufacturer, did. Their products were being damaged because delivery drivers didn’t think of bikes as fragile. So, Van Moof repacked them as an item that drivers recognized as delicate and expensive — big screen TVs.

Source: Van Moof

Source: Van Moof

First Principles Thinking Examples in the Real World

1. Johannes Gutenberg: The Printing Press

One example of first principles thinking in action is the printing press. In the 1400s, craftsman Johannes Gutenberg combined the mechanics of a coin punch with a wine press to create the first printing press.

Source: Pinterest

Source: Pinterest

By rethinking each item’s components, then reimagining how they might work together, Gutenberg invented a machine that changed the world.

2. Henry Ford: The Assembly Line

Before Henry Ford invented the assembly line to build his famous (and cheap) Model T, cars were impossibly expensive for most people. Cars at that time had to be built by hand, one piece at a time.

Because hand-building cars was standard at the time, most people looked at the automobile as impractical and expensive, and they were fine with that. At the time, it was assumed that cars would only be available to the wealthy and that most people would continue to ride horses everywhere.

Then, Henry Ford questioned the assumption that cars needed to be expensive. He found that if he broke down a car into its most basic parts, then put together these parts using a moving assembly line cars were faster and cheaper to assemble.

Source: Google Images

Source: Google Images

If Henry Ford hadn’t invented the assembly line by applying first principles thinking, the car (and many other factory-made products) would be impossibly expensive for most people.

2. Elon Musk: SpaceX Rocket

When Elon Musk — the billionaire CEO of Tesla, SolarCity, and SpaceX— decided to take on crewed space flight, his first step was shopping for a rocket. Unsurprisingly, rockets are expensive. They can cost upwards of $65 million each — that’s costly, even for a billionaire.

To get his costs down to a manageable level, Musk knew he’d have to rethink buying a pre-made rocket. He’d have to build a cheaper one instead.

Musk described how his use of first principles thinking got him to this conclusion, in an interview with Wired magazine:

“…OK, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And 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...”

Using first principles thinking, Elon Musk reduced the price of a rocket and started his mission to deliver humanity to Mars.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

The Bottom Line

“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” — Carl Sagan

First principles thinking can be incredibly powerful. But one thing to keep in mind, is that you don’t have to get down to the atomic structure of every problem to solve it. Just get a few layers under the skin of your problem, break it apart, examine your assumptions, and reassemble your ideas.

It can take time and effort, but if you need an innovative solution to a complex problem, first principles thinking is the perfect place to start.

How to Make Better Decisions: 10 Cognitive Biases and How to Outsmart Them
How to Solve Impossible Problems: S.C.A.M.P.E.R. Framework
How to Solve Impossible Problems: Reframing
Decision Fatigue: How Your Brain Works Against Your Best Intentions
Thinking Traps: Don’t Let a Good Story Cause a Bad Decision
How to Make Better Decisions: The Mere Urgency Effect

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