As anyone who floats, meditates, or practices yoga knows, our perception apparatus is imperfect. While it seems like we directly perceive reality, the truth is that we have second-hand perception (at best). This allows room for much error.
There is objective truth. But we only see tiny slices of it. Then we layer on complexities like our personal story and our emotions. Our initial limitations combined with the complexity we add means that our sense-making systems often fail to provide accurate pictures of reality.
This is a problem, because the more accurately we perceive reality the more likely we are to find success in whatever endeavor we pursue. More importantly, we'll just be happier. For example, can you imagine how hard it would be to have a healthy romantic relationship if you believed you were unloveable?
But how do we get better at perceiving reality itself? Well, there are several approaches. In fact, it could be argued that any personal development, self-care, or therapeutic program should help us do this. No doubt, you've had direct perceptions of reality while 'in the tank.'
So, to perceive reality more accurately, continue to float and/or do whatever other modality you're already doing.
But in this article, we'll discuss some ways to clean up our thinking, focusing on an approach made popular by one of the most legendary inventors and entrepreneur's of all time -- Elon Musk.
It's called 'first principles thinking.' But before we can dive into Elon's approach, we must first consider the normal mode of thinking, perception, and sense-making that we use.
What Do We Usually Do?
Most of us reason by analogy most of the time. This is a mental shortcut that saves us energy and works most of the time. But relying too much on analogous thinking can also lead to trouble.
Perhaps the best way to describe this typical approach is through an example:
Imagine an 8-year-old girl who loves to sing. After singing along with every song from the moment she could talk, this little girl eventually asks her parents if she can take singing lessons. Her parents are thrilled and oblige her, of course.
She starts lessons and excels. Near the end of her first semester, her teacher informs her of an upcoming recital. The little girl doesn't really know what that means. She's small and hasn't experienced it before. But the teacher and her parents tell her that it means she's going to sing her song in front of an audience.
She's excited, because she loves singing and wants to show everyone her lovely voice. She starts practicing for her performance and as she practices makes mistakes. But she still enjoys the process because she loves to sing.
One night while laying in her bed, she starts thinking about her upcoming performance. She then remembers the mistakes she made during practice. For the first time it dawns on her that she might make a mistake during her recital.
She gets nervous and comes to her parents' room distraught. They let her know that yes it's possible, but that it wouldn't be the end of the world if it happened. They also tell her that the best way to make sure it doesn't happen is to practice.
She practices diligently and when the big moment comes, she does very well. She feels a sense of relief and happiness. The next semester rolls around and she goes through the same roller coaster of emotions. She continues to sing. But as each recital approaches she feels anxiety about the performance.
In her third year (6th semester) of singing she takes her parents aside one day and says: "Mom, Dad, I don't want to do singing lessons anymore."
They are puzzled. They know how much she loves singing and they are so proud about how far her voice has developed. They tell her they love her and that they support her no matter what.
Then the parents go away, have a private conversation, and try to understand. They're genuinely puzzled, so they start asking each other questions. They soon piece together a pattern and realize that it's not the singing but the performance anxiety that the little girl wants to avoid.
So they have a talk with their daughter and ask her: "Are you sure you want to quit singing. Or, are you just nervous about the recital?"
She smiles sheepishly, realizing that her parents saw the truth directly, and she answers, "Yes."
The parents reassure the little girl of two things, a) that she can continue singing lessons without performing if it causes too much stress, and that b) the fear of performance is temporary but that she'll feel better by overcoming it and doing her best.
The little girl feels enormous relief and starts asking her parents how to overcome the fear. They work on some strategies. She realizes that the performance isn't so bad. And that if she's going to learn to sing so beautifully she should share it with the world.
The little girl was about to make a life-altering decision based on an inaccurate picture of reality. She took it as fact that she'd necessarily feel discomfort and pain from singing. She had a false belief based on an analogy that said, "Singing is painful, so I want to stop."
An Iconic Example of Analogy vs. First Principles
Reasoning by analogy works in general, which is why it persists. For the little girl, her false belief would have created temporary relief from pain. But seeing the truth more accurately helped her progress as a strong, independent person.
Analogous reasoning generally allows us to build a workable business or maintain a good job through incremental growth. Anyone old enough will remember that Nokia and Motorola were once the world's top cell phone manufacturers. Reasoning by analogy allowed them to compete with each other and earn increasing market share. They made phones sleeker, sexier, or smaller and we all loved them.
Then along came a series of people and companies, most notably Steve Jobs and Apple. Instead of reasoning by analogy to make a slightly better cell phone, they went back to first principles.
And, in doing so, these new innovators invented a new type of device, the smartphone. They didn't ask themselves how they could make a better cell phone. Instead, they asked what was possible in place of a cell phone. Yes, making phone calls and beautiful design were both included. But those old functions and goals were a mere component of this altogether new device.
This is exponential growth. And it never could have happened by reasoning from analogy.
Understanding First Principles' Thinking
Switching from reasoning by analogy to reasoning from first principles changes what's possible. The lens of possibility for analogous thinking is what's been done before but better. But the lens of possibility for first principles thinking is what's physically possible.
Reality itself is the only limitation.
The man who brought this term to popular attention is none other than the 'real life Tony Stark.'
At age 46, Musk has done, invented, innovated, and created more incredible things than practically anyone in history. He's right up there with Thomas Edison and the other greats. Calling him 'the real life Tony Stark' seems fitting. His abilities are almost fictional, beyond the abilities of normal people.
Stories have emerged about just how he does it, too. As mentioned in a previous FloatHouse article, Elon has incredible ability to think deeply about problems.
But the best description of his success comes from his own words. In an interview with Kevin Rose, Musk said:
"I think it's important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So 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 slight iterations on a theme. And it's … mentally easier to reason by analogy rather than from first principles. First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, and what that really means is, you … boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “okay, what are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy."
In the example of the little girl above, she started with an assumption that singing was the cause of her emotional suffering. Of course, first principles' thinking is difficult. We wouldn't expect a small child to understand this.
But, with the help of her parents, she was able to break it down to what she knew to be true. And what she knew was that she loved singing. She learned that her anxiety was coming from the recital, not from singing. This empowered her to make a different decision about her life.
Now imagine solving an Elon Musk level problem using the same first principles mechanism.
A Real Life Example of Elon Musk's First Principles' Thinking
One of the reasons we all know Elon is because of his work trying to make humans an interplanetary species. His vision is to build a one million person strong colony on Mars that will become self-sustaining.
He didn't ask himself what was possible based on what already exists. Instead he asked himself what he wanted to accomplish then sought to understand what was possible based on reality itself.
Please understand how different this is than starting from an existing belief or assumption.
Starting from his goal, Elon then sought to identify the roadblocks to achieving that goal. So, he began to research the cost of rocket flights and dove headfirst into the study of rocketry.
The first thing that became obvious to him was that it was expensive -- way too expensive. At the existing cost of space flight, he'd never reach his goal. To get a million people on Mars, he'd have to create a path for Mars colonists to self-fund their trip, which would be impossible with the existing cost of space travel.
The current cost of a single trip to space was in the range of $100 million dollars.
So Elon went all the way back to first principles and broke down the very components of rockets. He asked himself how these things are actually made. And he discovered that the cost was nowhere near $100 million dollars.
As it turns out, what cost so much money was the fact that rockets were single use. Before him, rockets were never reused! Imagine if Boeing 747s were thrown away after every flight. Not many people could afford to fly.
Elon soon realized that he'd have to build reusable rockets. So, he returned to first principles. Is there anything in physics that would make it impossible to reuse rockets? No. If the laws of physics don't prevent it, then the technology can either be found, innovated, or invented.
Today, SpaceX is consistently reusing rockets. No doubt the technology still has a long way to go, but he's already brought down the cost of space travel significantly and you have to believe he will soon reach his goal of a 10x reduction in the cost of space travel.
When Should We Use First Principles Thinking
Is there anywhere you could reason from first principles instead of analogy?
Your own life might not be as dramatic as that of Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. But might it not be as dramatic as the little singing girl?
Where do perceive reality through a cloudy lens? And what analogies are you using that aren't serving you or are keeping you stuck in an incremental growth pattern? Ask yourself these difficult questions and you will be on your way to a more accurate picture of reality.