The Mind of an Engineer: First Principles Thinking and How to Solve Big Problems

Have you ever wondered how people such as Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, think? How do they figure out a way to create a fast electric car or land a rocket the size of an apartment building on a robot ship in the middle of the ocean? How did they even managed to think that something so outlandish would work in the first place? The answer to this is a thought process known as “First Principles Thinking” and it is a powerful tool in the engineer’s toolbox to solve problems that seem far too large. This Immerse is intended for parents to read and in it I will explain the thought process of “First Principles Thinking” and how it can be used to solve big, as well as small problems and what you can do to help develop it in your children and your own life.

First Principles Thinking (FPT) is a way of reducing a problem down to the very core, taking it apart and examining those parts and then combining them in various shapes and ways to see which one might be the most effective. These parts are known as “First Principles”and form the components from which to build a solution, often these are very basic things that most people might see as easy or ignore altogether.

Let’s try reasoning from first principles in order to learn how to do it.

Say you want to get to work faster, wouldn’t it be nice if the roads were clear and that one person didn’t fall asleep behind the wheel leading to a 4 car pileup?

“Well maybe a flying car!” is what most people would answer, but that doesn’t really solve the congestion problem and then the sky will be just as congested as the roads.

So now we’ve identified the underlying problem: congestion. Congestion is what is causing people to be late for work. But congestion is a large problem that may never be adequately solved.

Well first we have to take the big impossible problem of eliminating the congestion and bring it down to something more manageable.

So let’s begin the first step of First Principles Thinking.

Step 1:  Ask why

Asking why is the most important part of FTP, like children we must constantly ask “Why?” and attempt to redefine our knowledge of the world. but above all else ask “Why does the problem happen?” in the case of traffic “why does congestion happen?”. Well from here we break it down.

Step 2: Break it down for “What”

In this step we ask “what causes congestion”. Well the answers could be anything, the moose on the road, the one bad driver who always speeds, everyone that goes 10 km/h over the speed limit, those dumb teenagers with impaired risk assessment, and maybe that you could be the bad driver.

While all of these answers may be true they all assume one thing: That the current driving system works.

Step 3: Systemic Analysis: Nothing is Sacred, Everything is Permitted

I’m fairly certain that most of you wouldn’t think that the very system of driving is flawed would you? Has it occurred to you that putting tired sleepy humans behind in control of half ton blocks of metal at speeds of 100 km/h would be a bad idea? Probably not, because you are so used to driving.

Step 4: Repeat

Repeat steps 1-3 until you have arrived at the root cause of the problem.

Step 5: break the loop

Once you have reached the base problem you can finally define it. in the case of congestion the base problem is how to move OBJECTS from point A to point B.

Step 6: Break the Boundary

Take everything you know and break it down into it’s components. What is a car? Well it’s a bunch of rubber cylinders strapped onto a metal frame with a fire-breathing engine at the front.

How about a sailboat?: It’s a sail, a mast, and a boat

A catapult? : A projectile, a launching arm, and a giant spring.

Now start mentally putting these components together.

Step 7: Invention, sort of.

Put the sail on the car and you have an car that doesn’t require any gas, only wind, to drive. Maybe we can launch a boat with a giant spring  so that it sails through the air and lands at the front door of the office!

All of these sound ridiculous but First Principles thinking isn’t meant to replace the traditional design process, instead it’s there to guide that process in a new direction. There’s no point in looking for oil where everyone else has setup wells you have to go and find your own deposit. But you’ll still need a drill if you want to drill for oil (or maybe you can find a way to teleport it to the surface)

Children are very good at coming up with solutions to problems and very often grow this way. Kids grown when facing problems they have never seen before and continually being given chances to try and solve said problem. If you want you child to develop first principles thinking then let them solve problems and step in when they ask you to. A great example of FTP is when I challenged the children in my Phase 1 class to lift a water bottle with fishing rods, I offered a few hints and helped out with their builds but that was it. What they did surprised me, instead of making stronger hooks they use more hooks! The children knew that one fishing rod could lift a certain amount of weight so they simply threw more rods at the problem and agreed to share the reward. Instead of approaching the problem from a technical point of view they came at it from a social point of view! It was amazing and incredible to watch! And the other important part of teaching is to make sure the children feel rewarded. As such I let them off easy and gave them all treats. When your child manages to solve a problem in a way you would never think of, no matter how outrageous it might be reward them a little bit for solving the problem before getting to criticism or scolding.

So now you know a little bit more about First Principles Thinking.
Have fun exploring!

Il Ho Cho