1st Principle Thinking: Solving Problems the Wise Way

It is utterly surprising that today’s problems are not always solved from 1st principle. A problem arises. We live with it for a while. It persists and “breaks bounds”. We now sit down to solve it. When solving it, we “patch” it. Patching is a temporary solution. It’s like having coronavirus but taking medication for its sore throat symptom. Solving problem symptoms do not solve the core or root of the problem.

We don’t have good roads so we build roads with shoddy goods. That’s what I mean by Patching. The problem is not even solved. It is just covered for now so that it is solved better in future. That’s just waste of resources. We will keep Patching the roads from time to time when we could have just built it durablly in the first place. Problems may be linear but solutions are non-linear. Albert Einstein said it better, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. 

Another way we “solve” problems is by exchanging it with another problem. It’s like forgetting to install plumbing fixtures and fittings in a building so parts of the house would have to be chiselled. That’s double cost. Cost of “deconstruction” and “reconstruction”. It’s like we solve a problem by creating another problem and then solving it. With first principle thinking, our choice of solution would have questioned. “Is this the only way to go about it or I’m just not being creative at all?”.

First principle is well defined by the famous Aristotle as “the first basis from which a thing is known”. Thus, first principle thinking requires that the problem is broken down into its most foundational elements. Problems are complex in nature. They never come in one-fold and can easily be associated with other related problems. However, when we take one complex problem and break it into its simple form, our assumptions about the problem can be built on the foundational truths about the underlying problem.

Usually, our first point of call when we encounter challenges or problems is to go with surface thinking. Such base level assumptions are more often than not based on our confirmation biases. This is the quickest and easiest way to derive a solution to a problem. However, such solutions are linear and are based on reasoning by analogy. No creative solutions are made and our solutions are similar to what we would prescribe for many other problems. This is not the case if you want to tackle the issue from first principle. One solution does not solve all problems. Every problem is unique in its core and so must its solution be. 

Of course, there isn’t any one way to tackle problems but I feel permanent solutions need 1st principle thinking. Architecture prescribes permanent solutions to societal and individual needs of clients. To go by analogy is too risky and deadly, resulting in a solution that not only doesn’t solve the existing problem, but adds up as another problem of its own. 

Don’t get me wrong. For speed in thought process, reasoning by analogy is good. Design thinking, however, needs innovation and creativity encapsulated in the solution. Thus, the need for first principle thinking. First principle thinking requires that you pretend you don’t know anything about the problem so that you view the problem as it really is. To move past surface assumptions and put your curiosity at work, ask yourself questions you think you already know the answer to. Question the truth of those answers and make sure your emotions are not clouding your judgement.

See, it’s not about how fast you got the solution. That doesn’t make you a genius. It’s about the “Eureka” moment. This requires re-thinking, if there’s such a thing as that. Your solution is not absolute so identify the consequences of going with your chosen solution. The world is filled with copycat solutions. They never work too. Why? Because problems are unique at its core and first principle thinking was left out of whatever thinking process went on. It was all surface level assumptions. “There’s a lot of traffic on our streets. In USA, there are lots of interchanges with 5,6 lanes. Let’s build more interchanges. It will solve the problem.” 

Problems are everywhere. I believe what really makes a difference is the system put in place to solve problems that arise with time. Creative people who go with first principle leverage on problems and create concrete solutions that help society and create wealth for them. It’s only a bunch of losers who complain about problems, use surface assumptions and play the blame-game as the solution to the problems. 

Yes, there will always be problems. New problems, that is. Not the same old problems. New solutions ought to create new problems that will need a new level of thinking to create new solutions that will create new problems. Problems only exist to be solved.

5 thoughts on “1st Principle Thinking: Solving Problems the Wise Way”

  1. I like the fact that you give existing situations as examples but is it possible to the number of examples you give to each point?I don’t know if you’re limited to a particular number of words though

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