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Education Lifestyle Productivity

First Principles Thinking

“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.”

Elon Musk (1971 – )

First Principles Thinking is a powerful mental model for creating non-linear outcomes.

Big thanks to @SahilBloom for sharing these ideas on Twitter.

First Principles Thinking is how people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates make good, long-term decisions without needing to know everything about a complex situation.

It requires a willingness to ask hard questions.

It also requires a willingness to answer hard questions.

First Principles Questions

If you’ve read my post on The Importance of Questions, then you’ll know that I believe questions are the keys to unlocking the knowledge to get whatever we want. Access to everything we want is locked up in someone else’s head, and questions are our keys.

If we can ask the right questions, we can get anything we want.

That being said there are some questions that we can ask to get us primed for First Principles Thinking.

Here are a few of those questions:

What is the problem I am trying to solve?

We waste a lot of time and energy trying to solve the “wrong” problem. If we can identify exactly what it is we need to do, then we can eliminate a lot of that waste.

Focus is powerful when applied correctly.

Identify the right problem, before trying to solve it.

What do I know to be true about this problem?

Write down everything you know to be true about the problem. (Don’t just run through them in your head.) Writing them down allows us the judge the ideas accurately.

It wouldn’t help to include things about previously attempted solutions too.

Why do I believe these “truths” to be true? How do I know they are true?

Clearly identifying the source of our beliefs is key to understanding the beliefs. It also allows us to analyze our thought habits on a deeper level.

It’s crucial to be ruthless in their validity and integrity. If we lie to ourselves here, we won’t be able to make sound decisions later on.

How can I support these beliefs? Is there real evidence to support them?

Find hard, tangible evidence that proves these beliefs to be true. If you can’t find it, or the sources aren’t reliable, then you’ve learned something about those beliefs – they’re shoddy.

Are my emotions clouding my judgement and reasoning?

Emotional decisions typically produce bad (and expensive) outcomes. Remove the emotions from the process. Emotions have a place, but not when making long-term, complex, and important choices. Intentional and planned decisions are what’s needed to push things beyond what they currently are.

What alternative beliefs or view points might exist?

Acknowledging and understanding other viewpoints is a skill that cannot be cultivated enough.

So much lies beyond what we understand. Everything has something to teach us.

Seek out other beliefs. Embrace them. Let them enrich you.

But also, evaluate them on their merits. Ask the same fundamental questions about them.

What are the consequences of being wrong in my original beliefs?

There’s risk in everything, even what we already know. It’s important to understand the stakes and manage risk. Otherwise, the downsides can wipe us out unexpectedly.

We have to know what will happen if we’re wrong.

First Principles 101

First principles starts with questioning our beliefs.

Asking the above questions will us help drill down to the fundamental truths of a problem and ultimately identify a better solution. (Assuming there is one.)

If this starts to seem like we’re thinking like insatiably curious children, then we’re on the right track.

Let’s start with some definitions:

First Principle – a foundational assumption or proposition. It’s foundational in that it cannot be deduced from other assumptions or prepositions.

First principles are like elements. They can’t be broken down any further.

First Principles Thinking – a problem-solving technique that requires breaking down complex problems into their most basic, foundational elements.

The main idea is to take a bottom-up approach; ground ourselves in foundational truths and build up from there.

Typically, when we encounter difficult problems, our inclination is to rely on base-level assumptions that we’ve been told are true, or believe to be true.

We do this because it’s quick and easy, but also because those ideas have probably been true in the past.

This leads to unimaginative, linear solutions that just mimic what has been done before.

This is known as “Reasoning by Analogy“. It leads to solutions that are the same as something else. It has its place, but it’s not great for solving complex problems in need of imaginative solutions.

“Reasoning by Analogy” is a great rule for dealing with problems in which speed is paramount and novel solutions aren’t the goal.

Solutions are to problems like foundations are to houses.

If the foundation is unstable, the house will collapse. If the foundation is sturdy, the house will stay up.

First principles help create a sturdy foundation.

Elon Musk & Space X

Let’s check out the case of Elon Musk and Space X to see First Principles Thinking in action.

Complex problem: how to send a rocket to Mars.

First logical step: obtain rocket.

Musk, as rich as he is, discovered that buying rockets wasn’t a feasible plan. He found that they go for a whopping $65 million each.

Now now the complex problem is getting more complex and we’re further from the solution.

It’s time to apply First Principles thinking – let’s start with asking why do rockets cost $65 million?

The answer to this question is pretty much – because that’s how they’ve always been built and how much they need to cost. Tradition essentially.

Not exactly an iron clad answer.

But now we know that we can think of rockets in an entirely different way.

Time to ask even more basic and fundamental questions – What is a rocket made of? What are the value of these materials on the open market?

Musk finds out that rockets are made of Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. All of which cost about 2% of a typical rocket.

Musk decides that he can build his own rockets, for much less than $65 million.

Rather than accept the truths that he’s been told about rockets, Musk grounded his problem-solving efforts in First Principles.

Today, Space X has rockets that are safely delivering humans to and from space and the dreams of colonizing Mars are closer to being realized.

Methods of First Principles

There is no set way to establish First Principles.

However, there are a few methods that work pretty well. One is known as Socratic Questioning. It’s a technique where we use systemic questioning to drill down to fundamental truths.

Some questions that can be used for Socratic Questioning are as follows:

Why do I believe this to be true?

How do I know this is true?

How can I support this belief?

What alternative viewpoints might exist?

Question everything. Never stop asking why. Become an endlessly curious child.

The world is already full of unimaginative, copycat solutions and this only leads us to predictable linear outcomes.

Using First Principles Thinking is difficult and time consuming, but it’s also a solid path to conjuring creative solutions that lead to non-linear outcomes.

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

The world’s greatest thinkers and problem solvers use the same methods when solving complex problems: grounding themselves in first principles and building a solution from there.

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Education Productivity

Algorithms for Every Class (Part 2)

“Learning is not the accumulation of scraps of knowledge. It is a growth, where every act of knowledge develops the learner, thus making him capable of constituting ever more and more complex objectivities—and the object growth in complexity parallels the subjective growth in capacity.”

Husserl (as interpreted by Quentin Lauer)

Last week, I posted Algorithms for Every Class (Part 1), which was a collection of tips and tricks that would be helpful in all, if not most, classes. This is the 2nd part of that post.

Take what you love, leave what you don’t. Hope this is useful!

On Getting Stuck

We’ve all been there and this will happen inevitably. We’re working on something, then we reach a part that we don’t understand. This is great because that means we’re at the edge of our competence and we have an opportunity to learn something. Now, what separates the excellent students from mediocre students is what they choose to do when they get stuck. Here are a few methods that can unstick us while being constructive.

The first piece of advice I want to give is probably the most overstated and corny advice for getting stuck but it’s a cliche for a reason: Apply the 15-minute rule to try to figure it out on your own. Before asking anyone for help, try to figure out the answer for 15 minutes. This increases retention and creates a healthy relationship with ourselves. Document everything you do during that 15 minutes to give yourself something to present to the professor or teacher if the problem can’t be solved. They will be able to figure out where you went wrong or what you are missing more effectively. This saves you and your professor time and you will be able to understand the information better because that 15 minutes would have given a context for all of the new information to fit into.

This advice is so cheesy, but when we keep in mind The Relationship with Ourselves and our Identity, the implications that come with giving ourselves that extra 15 minutes are so significant. How we do anything is how we do everything, and it’s critical for us to observe ourselves solving problems that we don’t understand. If we back down and ask for help immediately after encountering a solution, we are creating a relationship with ourselves which proves that we back down when challenged and need help when things get hard. If we use that extra 15 minutes, we create a relationship with ourselves as someone who rises up to the challenge and tries. We can get much further if we know ourselves as someone who tries.

Let me add that professors and teachers will give us the answers we’re looking for, but only if we can explain to them what we don’t know. When we’re stuck it’s usually a lack of specificity. Try to find out exactly what you do not know. You can use the Feynman Technique to figure out what this is. The points that are difficult to explain are the points that we don’t understand. Those little details can usually be turned into questions that can be brought to the professor or teacher.

Articulation to the highest accuracy will give us a deeper understanding of the subject and will help our instructor help us. A proper question should take less than 2 seconds to answer. The answer itself may take longer than 2 seconds to explain, but the professor or teacher should be able to answer it quickly. If you find that your instructor is having a hard time knowing the answer to the question, chances are the question you asked them isn’t specific enough and could have probably been more specific.

Additionally, we need to always ask questions if we have them. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve known (myself included) who did not ask a question during class and we’re completely screwed later. I’ve also many so much money off people (through tutoring) just because they don’t want to ask their questions in class. A majority of the time a question that a student asks me in our tutoring session could have been answered by the teacher or professor if the student were more engaged in their class. People tend to ask questions too late – ask them right when you get them or the soonest possible moment.

On top of that, everyone has always heard the “someone else may have your question” phrase. You don’t need to ask questions for the sake of others, but you should oo it because risking the embarassment is worth getting the knowledge. Not knowing what to do feels a lot worse than looking dumb to your classmates, trust me.

Some Ways to Lighten the Workload

We can’t really decrease how much work we have to do, but there is a lot we can do to prevent unnecessary work from accumulating.

Get to know your classmates. They might actually be cool people. Plus you can ask them for notes, explanations, assignments, favors. There are so many studies that show students learn more effectively from their peers. Connections and relationships are why the human race has moved it’s way to the top of the food chain and the foundation for all of our significant accomplishments as a species. When you connect with people, they will move mountains for you.

As much as I’d love to say everyone is worth connecting with, some people require a certain skill set to connect with in order to prevent a detrimental outcome. As a student, our primary goal is to learn as much as we can from the course and get good grades. This is more easily done by identifying people of interest. This group includes, but is not limited to, the professor/teacher, the TA, and other friendly high-performing students.

Frontload the work. Either way, we have to pay, and it’s way better to pay upfront than paying installments or paying later. Everyone knows how great review sessions are, imagine if every class was a review session and the actual review session was a 2nd review session, this is active recall and spaced repetition at the highest level. Frontloading give us more time to work on passion projects and gives us some slack when the laziness starts to kick in at the end of the term.

Types of Tests & How to Prepare for Each

Not all exams are created equal and preparation for each depends on what kind of exam we’re taking.

Multiple Choice (MC) – most of us are familiar with these tests, especially in the United States. We’re simply given an array of answers and we have to select the correct choice. Since many standardized tests are MC, we’ll be using strategies for conquering these kinds of tests often.

I say the best way to prepare for these tests is to do practice problems that ask questions in a similar style as the exam we will be taking. This not only helps with active recall but also gets us used to how the questions will be asked. Since MC tests give us multiple options with one of them being correct, recognition plays a bigger role than usual. Now if we study while implementing active recall and spaced repetition, we will be training our recognition skills but with higher retention rates.

If you don’t have access to practice problems, look over the concepts that are going to be covered on the exam, and identify the main ideas of each. Once those main ideas are identified, we can turn those into practice questions. The questions can look something like “What is this main idea?”, “How can this idea not work?”, “What changes can be made to affect this idea?”, “Are there any special scenarios to keep in mind with this idea?”.

Case-Based/ Problem Solving – these types of exams are slightly more involved. Usually, we will be presented a case or a problem and we will either have to come up with a solution or proper course of action. These are usually presented in the form of a scenario. I had a bunch of these exams when I was studying engineering, and again in EMT school.

The best way to prepare for these exams is to practice each scenario that we are going to encounter. I imagine them in my mind. Visualization helped a lot for me. For example, if I had a patient with a heart attack, I would run through the situation in my mind as if I were actually there. I would write down each of the steps I would do to see if they are correct or if I’m missing something.

Essay-Based – these are similar to the case-based exams in that we need to provide a well thought out answer, but we need to communicate it in writing.

Sometimes professors will provide a series of possible prompts, and if that’s the case then create outlines for each prompt and be prepared to write any and all of them.

If the professor doesn’t give a selection of questions, then we can prepare by creating possible prompts for ourselves and creating outlines for those, but while paying particular attention to the kinds of arguments we can make and the relevant research and references used. Having a list of evidence or references to make and knowing how to use them in other contexts is an excellent way of preparing for essay-based exams.

These kinds of exams take significant amounts of preparation, so don’t underestimate the time needed to prepare for these.

Verbal/Oral Exams – most common in language classes. In these tests, we have to communicate or present something to our examiner.

Working in pairs would best for these types of exams. Taking turns leading the conversation will give you both a chance to practice pronunciation and answers. If you don’t have access to another person, you can record yourself and take notes on the necessary improvements. Remember, these tests are mostly subjective and we are examed through our examiner’s perspective so it’s imperative that we practice what we look and sound like objectively, hence the recording. It’s much harder to improve an accent or answer when we have to think about what it sounded like, it’s much easier to see it.

Open-Book/Take-Home Exams – these are the most popular during COVID-19 times. Almost every exam my students take are open book and at home. Honestly, open-book tests seem like a good deal but usually have harder questions and stricter time frames. This is to prevent students from just looking up every answer. Know what the restrictions are before you start the test!! Additionally, examiners are expecting students to look up answers so be mindful of answers that don’t sound like you and your knowledge.

And as a side note for all exams:

Find ways to collect the correct information. Being in the golden age of information, this is more relevant now than it has ever been. There is a lot of information that can throw us off course, and if we’re referencing inaccurate sources then our work will suffer.

In most classes, this comes in the form of the textbook. But if you’re like me and couldn’t afford textbooks, there are so many other ways of collecting the right information. There are answer keys and moments in the lecture when the professors have practice questions up with the correct answer. It’s crucial to work on the right stuff. I can’t tell you how many tests I’ve screwed up because I was working on the wrong stuff.

KPIs for Academics

KPI stands for Key Performance Indicators and these are the things that tell us how we’re doing in a class, I talk a little about KPIs in my post Analyzing & Improving Systems. Our job as a student is to identify out KPIs and move our attention and energy to those portions.

Some classes can get overwhelming, especially when we’ve fallen behind, but we can get through that by staying focused on the KPIs.

In most classes, the most important KPI will be our grades, but that usually isn’t specific enough to help. I recommend paying attention to:

  • The make-up of what goes into our grade – exams, homework assignments, projects, presentations, etc.
  • The weight of each of those parts – are homework assignments 10% of our grade or 40% of our grade?

Additionally, I recommend finding out if there are any exam scores that will be dropped or replaced. Each class will require us to focus on a different aspect in the class to get the grade. For example, if a class puts 100% weight in the exams and 0% in homework, then it would be wise to put 100% of our time and energy into performing well on the exams as opposed to our homework assignemnts. Now, working on the homework may help us do better on the exam, but our primary goal will be to do well on the exam.

Know which metrics to focus on.

The All-Important Syllabus

The syllabus is where we get all the information we need when it comes to scheduling our terms and identifying KPIs. The syllabus, if written well, will tell us all the assignments to expect over the term as well as their due dates, points, and weight. A good syllabus will also include the professor’s contact information and office hours.

This is where the professor will lay out their policies for their class and where we’ll learn how they feel about late work, make-up assignments, homework, etc. A lot of questions that we have about a class can be answered with the syllabus.

Analyze The Resistance

“If you tyrannize people bad enough, then they will be willing to hurt themselves to hurt you. People are often willing to take a hit if it means reclaiming justice.”

Jordan Peterson (1962 – )

For students, keep this in mind when you are making choices with assignments. Hurting ourselves to get back at a teacher is one of the least productive things we can do – it only hurts us and won’t hurt the teacher at all. I’ve had so many students not turn in work as a fuck you to the teacher, and all that came from it was that they had to retake the classes (sometimes with the same teacher). Self-destruction in the name of justice is not worth it.

When therapists have patients who miss sessions, even if the patient says they have more important priorities, it’s the therapist’s job to analyze the resistance and find out why the patient doesn’t want to go to the sessions. Educators need to approach their students in the same way. I’ve seen way too many students made out to be wrong or bad because they have resistance to their assignments. If the educators took the time to analyze why this student doesn’t want to work, then they could make adjustments so the assignments have less friction.

For example, I’ve had a fair bit of students (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) who did not want to do their work because they didn’t respect their teachers nor see them as capable of teaching important topics. These students aren’t naturally defiant but have found reasons to not respect their teachers because of how the instructors carry themselves and approach the class. The students are aware that they need to learn things, but they (like any other rational human being) will only listen to people they respect and admire and I believe that it is upon the instructor to be that kind of person. Whenever I’m working with my students, I make it known that I care about the quality of what and how we are learning things – the information has to be accurate, and when we’re learning it must be interesting and engaging. This takes a lot of the resistance away, but I believe the most effective method I use to minimize resistance is carrying myself as someone who is competent enough to match my students at any level of intellectual stimulation or communication. This always wins over their respect.

I can see my students feel verified and understood when I try to discover why they are not doing something rather than just punishing them or making them wrong, which helps build meaningful connections. Meaningful connections are the easiest way to get students to work. If these students connect with us, they will move mountains on the basis of our recommendation.

A lot of students love to say “fuck it” but never ask themselves why they feel that way. Not only is this a powerful life skill that can help us understand ourselves, it can also remove barriers that prevent us from performing at our highest capacity. Noticing when we want to give up and analyzing why can take us through any challenge.