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The Lever #016: First Principles

Good work requires good thinking. And good thinking requires a solid foundation of assumptions to build upon.

Build that foundation using first principles.


But first:

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First Principles

Everybody always says you should "go back to first principles".

But what does this even mean?

If you search the term on Google you'll find a page full of articles about Elon Musk and how he leverages this concept to create muti-billion dollar businesses in totally different fields. The articles all cite Elon's 2013 interview with Ted curator Chris Anderson. Because a first principle in accurate writing is going back to the original source, I encourage you to watch this 60 second clip where he talks about it:

The idea is obviously effective, but how does one begin to apply it?

Like most things, it starts with having a clear definition.

The Definition

In science and physics (as in Elon's example) it is specifically defined as a basic proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. It is the first idea upon which you base subsequent ideas.

In philosophy, Descartes used the method of doubt to systematically doubt everything he could possibly doubt until the only thing that was left was the indisputable truth. He then went on to build up his entire body of knowledge from that point. You might recognize the first principle of his philosophy:

I think, therefore I am.

A Principle therefore is a fundamental truth. It is something that is always true, in all cases.

It is a core idea that creates the foundation upon which to build a system of beliefs or ideas. You start with what is unequivocally true then work your way up from there.

Principles exist in all fields: science, philosophy, performance, business, leadership…

First Principles Applied

As a ship's Captain, MBA, and business executive, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what it is to be a good leader, and how to encourage high performance. What are the core presuppositions? What are the fundamental truths upon which to build a high performing team?

When studying human performance, the first principle upon which the field is built is this:

People make mistakes.

You read that and know it to be the truth. Nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. It is self evident.

Starting with this fundamental truth you can now begin to layer new ideas towards the goal of achieving high performance.

The next idea then is:

Blame fixes nothing.

If people are going to make mistakes (guaranteed!), then blaming them for those mistakes is a pointless exercise. The only thing is satisfies is the ego of the person laying the blame. But it does nothing to address the underlying condition that led to the mistake in the first place.

Instead, knowing the first two principles, it makes infinite more sense to use the error as a trigger to ask why, and to learn to do better. Do you want to get better? Or do you want to be right? The third principle:

Learning and improvement are vital.

Learning is hard. It takes dedication, resources, and the willingness to be wrong.

It must be approached with humility.

Remember, nobody goes to work intending to make a mistake. That's why they are called mistakes.

Knowing that, the way to learn from the mistake then is to look at the system in which the person was operating. Which leads to the fourth principle:

Context influences behavior.

Consider this: the last time you went to the grocery store for a carton of eggs, did you leave with just a carton of eggs or did you leave with a bunch of other stuff too that wasn't on your list?

Eggs are a staple item and are put as far from the door as possible. You have to walk past all the isles, through the bakery, and past the cookies to get there.

Chances are high you'll add a little something to your cart. Grocers know this and use it to their advantage.

It is the same at work. The system you work within impacts your behaviors.

Change the system and you'll get different behaviors.

Which leads to the fifth (and final) principle:

How you respond matters.

Have you ever seen someone speak up against an unsafe or unethical situation, only to be reprimanded?

Do you think someone will speak up again next time?

At the end of the day, words are cheap. It is what you do that speaks the truth of who you (and your organization) are.

If you want to go down the rabbit hole on this I highly recommend the book What You Do Is Who You Are, by Ben Horowitz. It is hands down the greatest book on culture building there is.

Finding First Principles

The path to principles is paved with questions.

Finding the destination is as simple as asking Why? Then asking it again.

And again.

Children know this intuitively. And any parent who has been on the hook trying to explain why the sky is blue knows this for a fact (a principle?).

You must challenge assumptions, look for evidence to prove or disprove the theory, and consider the idea from other perspectives.

It takes time and effort but you'll be rewarded with the truth.

Think For Yourself

Modeling behaviors of people who have done what you want to do is a great first step down that path.

But eventually you need to blaze your own trail.

Start asking Why you are doing the things you do. Adjust your system to adjust your behaviors.

Build a foundation of basic truths and build from there.


Your next steps:

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