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First Principles of Thinking: The 11 Best Books

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This article will discuss the best books on first principles thinking, and how genius minds like Elon Musk have used this approach. Such thinking is often called first-principles thinking, which are effective strategies that can be employed to solve complicated issues and create original solutions.

It may be the best approach to start learning to think for yourself. In this sense, first principles thinking is like saying, “think like a scientist” this principle requires one to go deeper and deeper into a given subject so that there are no more doubts, only fundamental truths.

Unlock your full potential with our curated list of the best books - gain valuable insights and take your personal and professional life to the next level.

Elon Musk's "3 Step" First Principle Thinking

At 46 years old, Elon Musk has managed to innovate and create three multibillion-dollar companies in different fields. The first is PayPal, the second is Tesla Motors, and the last is SpaceX. Visibly, it is easy to associate his rapid success, problem-solving skills, genius creativity, and work ethic.

And then, Elon Musk reports that he has worked around 100 hours a week for 15 years and has now reduced this to 85 hours to achieve success in his career. And rumor has it, he only takes an hour for lunch, multitasking at the same time.

In this sense, there is no doubt that the work ethic is essential to unleash the creative genius within and thus become the best at what you do. In our world, many individuals work hard and make little progress and often die before they can even show their creations, their work, to the world.

In this sense, a question arises: What are the missing link to accelerated success and innovative creativity?

Very brilliant minds like Euclid, Aristotle, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and Elon Musk himself have used this missing link to accelerate their learning, solve problems, and create great things during their lives.

This missing link has little to do with how hard all these geniuses worked. It has everything to do with how they thought.

First principles thinking, at its core, is the practice of actively questioning the assumptions you may think you know about a particular scenario or problem and, from there, being able to create solutions and knowledge from scratch. As if we were newborn babies. 

As Elon Musk himself says in an interview, “For a good part of our lives, most of the time, we reason by analogy, which means copying what other individuals do or making small changes.

And looking at it from another perspective, reasoning by analogy would be building knowledge and solving specific problems based on beliefs, previous assumptions, and best practices approved by many people. Many people need to realize that reasoning by analogy can cause people to make bad decisions, even if they are intelligent.

So thinking from first principles can help you develop a new worldview to innovate and solve complex problems in ways no one else can imagine. Let’s look at the following three steps that can be used according to Elon Musk.

Step 1: Identify and Define Current Assumptions.

Let’s look at some examples from everyday life in business and health.

– “I can’t find time to train and reach weight loss goals.”

– “Growing my business could cost a lot of money.”

From this perspective, when you encounter a new family challenge or problem, write down your current assumptions about these problems.

Step 2: Break Down Your Problems Into Core Principles.

“It’s important to view knowledge as if it were a semantic tree. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, like the trunk, the big branches, before you get to the leaves or else you’re not going to have anything for them to hang on to.” – Elon Musk, See More.

These essential principles are basically the most fundamental truths or elements of anything.

The best way to discover such truths is to ask powerful questions so that you can find ingenious gems.

In an interview with Kevin Rose, Elon Musk gives a quick example of how this works.

Someone might say, “Batteries are costly and always will be. Historically, it comes out to an average of $600 per kilowatt-hour. Probably in the future, it won’t be less than that.” The way to think about these first principles should be: “What are the materials that makeup batteries? 

What is the market value of the battery materials? Does it have nickel, cobalt, carbon, aluminum, polymers for separation, and sealing can?”. Divide this up based on each material and say, “if we were to buy all these materials from the London Metal Exchange, the value of each of these elements would cost how much?”.

With the calculations done, the value would be around $80 per kilowatt-hour. So all you have to do is think intelligently about how to take these materials and combine them into the form of a battery cell. Then you can have batteries much cheaper than previously thought.

This is considered the classic thinking of first principles when put into action. Many only accepted the idea that batteries were expensive. Still, Musk challenged everything and asked powerful questions that revealed the fundamental truths or elements, for example, carbon, aluminum, and nickel. And after that, he could create ingenious and innovative solutions from scratch.

Step 3: Create Solutions From Scratch.

“Many people say they know what they think, yet they cannot express it, such people usually do not know what they think. – Mortimer Adler.

In this sense, you can start creating new solutions from scratch after identifying and dividing your assumptions or problems into their most fundamental truths.

The best books on first principles thinking.

What is the Challenge of Reasoning from First Principles?

It may seem easy to describe first principles thinking, but putting it into practice can be tricky. And one of the main obstacles is the tendency to optimize a particular formula rather than the function. The story of the suitcase may be a good example.

In ancient Rome, all the soldiers needed backpacks and leather bags to carry food and their belongings as they rode through the countryside. On the other hand, the Romans had wheeled vehicles, such as chariots and carriages. 

And even over the years, no one had thought to combine the bag and the wheel. In this sense, the first wheeled bag was not created until 1970, when Bernard Sadow was transporting his luggage at an airport and noticed a worker rolling a heavy machine on a skid.

Between the 1800s and 1900s, leather bags were made for specific uses, such as backpacks for hiking, backpacks for school, and travel bags. It was not until 1938 that zippers were incorporated into the bags. 

Nylon backpacks started to be marketed in 1967. Even with all the improvements, the bag’s shape remained the same. The innovative people spent their time making only slight modifications on the same theme.

What appears to be something innovative are modifications of interior shapes rather than genuine improvements of the primary function. While many focused on how they should build a better bag model (form), Sadow innovated and thought about how he could store and move things in a more efficient way (function).

Ways of Thinking for Yourself

Unleash your inner innovator with first principles thinking - break down complex problems and unlock creative solutions like never before.

The human tendency to imitate is a pervasive obstacle to thinking about these first principles. When people visualize the future, they project the current form forward rather than casting the function successively and abandoning the state.

As an example, many people criticize technological progress, and ask, “Where are the flying cars?”

And if you think about it, we already have flying cars. They are called airplanes. From this perspective, the people asking these questions are focused only on a flying object that looks like a car and ends up neglecting the function of transportation by airplanes. These are the references Elon Musk uses when he says that people live life by analogy.

So don’t accept everything, be suspicious of the ideas you inherit. Old conventions, as well as previous forms, are often accepted without question. When they are taken, they can limit creativity.

This difference is one of the main distinctions between the first principles of thinking and continuous improvement. First-principles review will require you to abandon fidelity to previous forms and start putting function front and center. Continuous improvement, on the other hand, will occur within a boundary defined by the original vision. So ignore form and optimize function. That is the way you will learn to think for yourself.

First Principles - The Power

The best way to develop ideas is to break things down into fundamentals. Even if you are not looking to create innovative ideas, understanding the principles of your field is using your time wisely. Because if you don’t understand the basics, it will be even harder to master the essential details, the ones that will make the difference when it comes to elite competition.

Because every innovation needs a long period of improvement and iteration. SpaceX, the company we mentioned at the beginning of this article, did many simulations and made endless tweaks and tests before they understood the right way to build a more affordable rocket that could be reusable.

First, principles thinking will only consider the need for continuous improvements. Still, it will change the direction of those improvements. If you don’t use first principles, you might spend time making improvements on a bicycle instead of a snowmobile. These first principles and thoughts lead you down a different path.

A continuous improvement is a good option if you want to improve a belief or an existing process. If you learn to think for yourself, starting to believe with the first principles will be the best way to make it all happen.

Although it is difficult to find books that talk exclusively about first principles thinking, let’s now look at some great books that can develop your skills when it comes to critical thinking.

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1. First Principles Thinking - Ajeitesh Shukla

This book, with its main objective to help you learn and implement first principles thinking, if you use it, you can build innovative products and solutions for complex problems. This book represents the concepts of Nyaya/Vaisheshika philosophy and Aristotle’s Metaphysics. 

It will also provide you with step-by-step guides so that you can adopt the reasoning techniques in your daily work routine. You will be able to learn the appropriate questioning techniques, such as the Cartesian method of doubt, the five whys, and the Socratic method, to understand problems holistically and find different solutions. You can use reasoning methods in various areas of your life.

The book shows a methodology to help you break down problems into their essential elements, or first causes, and how to combine them creatively to achieve innovation. This method benefits product managers, business analysts, and entrepreneurs who want to innovate and create new products or improve them.

The author shows in the book how it is possible to use first principles from the thought of conceiving an idea to the development and testing phase of a successful product. He also shows many ways to solve problems by exploring different situations before deciding which path to take.

If you are ready to start creating products and have solutions that can substantially impact society and end users, read this book, as it is an excellent learning opportunity.

2. Seeking Wisdom: From Darvin to Munger - Peter Bevelin

The author analyzes the mental models used by Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet. In the book, he explains various topics, ranging from evolution to cognitive biases and probability. This work is like a Swiss army knife aimed at wisdom. The author tries to clean up your thoughts so that you can make correct and rational decisions.

3. The Black Swan - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This book, by the author, deals with the notorious Black Swan. Black Swans are complicated events to predict, yet they can create significant disruption. When you encounter first principles in any system, you will need to learn how to block and avoid these noises and pay attention to what will really matters. This book can help you with that. Taleb shares a wealth of wisdom based on pure logic and reason.

4. Principles - Ray Dalio

What if a successful billionaire hedge fund manager shared all the wealth of knowledge he has gained throughout his life? Would you read it? The principle is an essential book for anyone who wants to learn how to think differently and impact the world. The author presents the principles that have guided him in his life and business.

5. Anti-Fragile - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A possible solution to the Black Swan problem is Anti-Fragility. It comes to be another work by Taleb, which will delve further into the issues discussed in The Balck Swan. The author has a mental model where you can characterize the fragility of different things in the world. This can help you in countless ways. Just read anything by the author. How he looks at problems will inspire you to be a more critical thinker.

6. Zero to One - Peter Thiel

This is another book by a great and successful entrepreneur. Peter Thiel analyzes the main differences between giant companies like Google and ordinary family business. That being that ability to think from “Zero to One.” This is a book about innovation and what kind of thinking is needed to achieve the highest success.

7. Creative Thinkering - Michael Michalko

This book discusses creative thinking techniques to help you think outside the box. The text contains thinking exercises and examples of people who succeeded when they started to think differently. The author is an expert in creative thinking and has dedicated his life to studying creativity.

8. Thinking in Systems: A Primer - Donella H. Meadows

Before looking for the first principles, it is necessary to specify the domain of investigation. This book will help you do just that by teaching you about systems and how they govern the world. Systems thinking is a rare talent, and the world needs more.

9. Psycho-Cybernetics - Maxwell Maltz

The principles of human behavior are derived from your subconscious mind and self-image. You may sabotage your efforts if your self-image is not plotted with the success you seek. This book is compelling on the hidden mechanisms of success.

10. You Are Not Just Smart - David McRaney

This book exposes many cognitive biases and heuristics that all people fall victim to. So, if you want to improve your skills and have the critical thinking, you will need to be a master of your own mind. Because to master your mind and thoughts, you need to be aware of when they can deceive you. With this book, you will be able to eliminate lazy thinking.

11. The Great Mental Models - Shane Parrish, Rhiannon Beaubien

This book contains a series of thinking principles that can help solve problems. The book has a chapter dedicated to thinking based on the first principles and many other thinking tools. Be someone other than the person who is always looking for nails. Create your own toolkit with this book.

Final Thoughts

So, first principles thinking is a method of a thought process, or reasoning, that will require understanding the fundamental truth about various aspects of a problem or a thing. It will then be broken down into its most basic elements so that future arguments can be built from there. 

It is important to remember that this kind of thinking is reserved for more than just intellectual people. It can be used by any human being to create advances in the world in which we live. We hope that this article has been helpful and clarified your mind a little more about this way of thinking. 

For the first principle, a review is about courage. The courage to search for truths and trust your creative abilities to find reasonable solutions in such a complex world.