“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way... by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!” _Sir Richard Feynman

Ever since school, especially in India, we are programmed to not ask questions.

"Do as the teacher tells you"

You never dared to ask the teacher why she's correct, or why things are the way they are.

Heck, I even got thrown out of the class in 10th grade because I pointed out to my geometry teacher that the two base angles of a triangle cannot be 90° each.

Such incidences are widespread. First, you are not encouraged to question authority. Second, people who question authority are dealt with harshly in order to discourage others from doing so.

It's fucked up, and most people never grow out of this mindset.

In school, you obey your teacher. In college, you obey your professor. In office, you obey your boss. It's a vicious cycle. And it never ends for most people.

This is a problem, and at the root of it lies the inability to question authority, and an inability to reason.

This is the problem we called "rote learning" or "ratta maarna" in school. Let's admit it, rote learning is what is rewarded in schools and even in colleges. So how can we expect people to become intelligent adults?

This is a problem, your ability to properly think is damaged.

Here's a solution. It's what is called First Principles Thinking, or reasoning from first principles.

My older brother just naturally sets himself into the most awesome poses. This picture was taken in my dining room, as the evening sun came in through the back door. It is one of my favorites.
Photo by Simeon Jacobson / Unsplash

What are First Principles?

First principles are the basic building blocks of knowledge.

Think of them like atoms of the knowledge molecules you want to understand.

Before you understand the basic structure of the atom- protons, neutrons, electrons, how different numbers of these affects the properties of the atom... you won't be able to understand chemical reactions of organic chemistry.

An atom is also indivisible (except in nuclear fission)

First principles are similar. Knowledge does not get any basic than a fp.

When you understand first principles, you are ready to build on top of them to understand the complicated theory of a subject.

“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. 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
Short video of Elon explaining how he re-imagined batteries with FPs

Socratic questioning

One way to implement a First Principles understanding approach is to employ socratic questioning. It is a method developed by Socrates as a way to discover knowledge by asking questions.

"The disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning enables the scholar/student to examine ideas and be able to determine the validity of those ideas" _Socrates

These are the kind of questions Socrates would ask...

Clarification questions

"What do you really mean by that?"
"Can you elaborate further?"
"Can you give an example of that?

Questions about the issue

"Why is this important?"
"What does this solve?"
"How does this impact xyz?"

Assumption questions

"What are we assuming here?"
"Is this assumption correct?"
"What else can we assume?"

Evidence questions

"What is the source backing this argument?"
"What is your reasoning behind this argument?"

Counter questions

"What is the argument against this?"
"What if the opposite were true?"

This way, you dissect the argument better and try to understand the core issue well.

Balls in the sky
Photo by Raphaël Biscaldi / Unsplash

How FP thinking can help

Let's say you want to build a company. Every startup solves a problem. It also makes the current solutions better.

And if you want to do that, questioning everything is a good way to see ideas and opportunities everywhere.

Zomato asked, "Why can't I have the menu of all restaurants on my phone?"

Uber asked, "Why do people have to wait for a cab every time they want to go out?"

OYO asked, "Why is it so difficult to book a hotel room?"

Tesla asked, "Why do electric cars have to be ugly and slow?"

You get the point. When you question WHY something is done a certain way, you take the first step towards a solution.

First principles thinking can help you understand and reason through concepts and recall them better when needed.

Boil everything down to the first principles. That way, you don't have to remember anything. You just reason up from the first principles.

FP is the difference between knowing and understanding. Knowledge may disappear over time, understanding does not.

Analogies can be great tools to explain something to someone quickly, but they should not be the basis of understanding something.

When you reason from analogies, you are using someone else's worldview to form yours. You are not being original. Stop reasoning from analogies, like Elon says. And start reasoning from first principles.


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