“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
First principles thinking is one of the best ways to ensure your understanding is as close to objective reality as possible. By separating the underlying facts from the assumptions based upon them you take off the “blinders” and you start to see that more is actually possible.
Two Techniques for Establishing First Principles
#1 – Socratic Questioning
When presented a challenge you are unsure about, one of the best ways to analyze and systematically get to the root of an issue on a deep level is to use socratic questioning. Often used in psychotherapy and education, its methods are employed to understand why someone has come to the conclusion that they have. Not only can you begin to understand others better, but others may begin better understanding themselves. Furthermore, I believe another positive outcome is the development of intellectual humility. One will begin to grasp the fallibility of initial assumptions and adopt a more critical perspective of even ones own views.
This approach includes the following steps:
- Clarifying your thought process – “Why do I think the way I do?”
- Challenge assumptions – “How do I know this is true?” “Could the opposite be true?”
- Searching for evidence – “What data or information supports my thoughts?” “What is the source of this data or information?”
- Considering different perspectives – “What do others think?” “How am I sure this is correct or incorrect?”
- Examining consequences and implications – “What if I am wrong?” “What are the consequences?”
- Questioning the original questions – “Why did I think that?” “Was I correct?”
#2 – The Five Whys Method
In contrast to the more introspective socratic questioning approach of looking at “Why do I feel this way?”, the five whys is about systematically getting to the root of “what” and “how”. Every parent of an inquisitive five year old knows how this game goes. A child, in their effort to grasp the reality of what is happening around them, will constantly ask “why”. We can learn a lot from kids in this respect because asking why until we land on a falsifiable fact is the best way to know you have identified a first principle. If you end up with a “because I said so” or “that is just the way it is” you know you have landed on an assumption that may be based on dogma or popular opinion.
In these days of information overload it is essential to be able to stop and consider whether you are thinking with first principles or just accepting things for face value. Knowing how to construct and ask deep questions can help you cut through the noise and ensure you are receiving the clearest signal. In the short term this can delay your decision making process but in the long term it will ensure that you have made the best effort to base decisions on objective fact and not opinion.