Power and Simplicity of First Principles

“First Basis from which a thing is known” – Aristotle on First Principles

Cognitive abilities like thinking, reasoning and problem solving are the characteristics which separate humans from other species. What do successful people do to leverage it? What ideas can we borrow which can be of practical use to us?

Let’s understand how conventional thinking goes, for simplicity lets call it baseline thinking.

 What’s it?

Approach to solving a problem based on assumptions, existing best practices, rely on existing research etc.

Baseline thinking (ie relying on existing Baseline of ideas and leverage on the same).

While Baseline thinking has its advantages in certain situations, cannot be a game-changer to come with breakthrough innovations or for that matter even finding simplified and efficient solutions to our regular projects.

This is where First Principles comes to Play

What’s First Principles Thinking?

It’s a mental ability to logically deduce the problem to the starting point of the equation and then rationally build up from there.

Any output is a consolidation of various building blocks of inputs. It’s questioning every single layer of input and go down to a point which has no further input, i.e. In a hierarchy go down precisely till the last layer.

We will understand with inspiring instances from diverse fields which will help us to correlate

  • SpaceX Elon Musk

Elon Musk began his quest to send rockets to Mar’s and was looking at retooling by purchasing second-hand rockets from Russians for the experiment. He ran into a significant problem and realised it was way too expensive and he believed that the costs should be a fraction of what’s available in the market.

Instead of going by analogy, he went by first principles to solve the problem of expensive rockets.

Elon started with basics ,  what is a rocket made of?

Aerospace-grade aluminium alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fibre, arrived at the cost of materials on the commodity market.

It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two per cent of the typical price.

End outcome he was able to build rockets at a fraction of the cost.

Watch out the clarity of Musk on First Principles


  • Jaipur Foot – Ram Charan Sharma and Pramod Karan Sethi

Unlike most prosthetics at the time, which were made of carbon fibre, the ‘Jaipur Foot’ was created using rubber, plastic and wood. This meant that the manufacturing costs were significantly lower, costing a fraction of imported prosthetics, making it affordable to millions of people.

Jaipur foot not only did it cost less than their western equivalent, was significantly more flexible as well, was vindicated by millions who benefited by it.

Simple thought of going by the basics identifying the critical inputs led Pramod Karan Sethi(Orthopedician) and Ram Charan Sharma(Craftsman) to pioneer this innovation way back In 1968

  • Artificial Glaciers of Ladakh – Story of Sonam Wangchuk

Ladakh is a cold desert with sub zero temperatures and scanty annual rainfall. There is a severe water shortage  during spring (in April and May) to water the crops. These glaciers start melting naturally during Jun-Jul. If the villagers of Ladakh had to wait until then, crops will not survive.

Sonam Wangchuk and team designed  Ice Stupa (we can call it as frozen water reservoirs) to solve the problem of Apr and May.

What is Ice Stupa?

 Frozen artificial glaciers created to sustain watering requirements of Apr and May for the region.

 How did he go about it?

Using water from glaciers in winters  when nobody needs,  applying simple principles and sticking to basics is how he went about it.

a) Taking advantage of slope (to get water from glaciers to downstream),

b) Geometry (Ie conical Shape vs horizontal surface for structure as it takes longer time for heat to melt conical surface)

c) underground piping to prevent water from freezing to get to the place of requirement and refreeze it for future use.

This explains the evolution of Ice Stupa’s; this started serving the needs of watering the crops in Apr and May.

Sonam Wangchuk explains it in simple words. the concept of Ice Stupa’s

If we observe it closely its  basics and starting from fundamental inputs is what led to the innovation of Ice-Stupa’s acting as reservoirs of water to solve some part of water scarcity in Apr and May.


Framework for first Principles

Basis the understanding of examples we can layout the following simple steps

  1. Define the Problem – Eg(Expensive Rockets, Expensive artificial limbs, water scarcity in Spring)
  2. Set the outcome – Eg(Cheaper rockets, artificial limbs, solving water scarcity in Apr and May)
  3. Identify logical building blocks – e.g. (Drill down to the basic most unit of information or physical input which goes to making the same)
  4. Question every single assumption, every input should have a basis.
  5. Configure – Then gradually build-up to the outcome from basic input level. When we mean basic input level, it’s the level to which It cannot be broken further to a subcomponent or information

The singular act of questioning the assumptions (i.e. Rockets will be expensive, Prosthetic limbs are expensive, there will always be a scarcity of water in Apr and May) is what led to the breakthrough innovation’s, and this is the essence of moving from Baseline thinking to First Principles thinking


It’s a very simple yet powerful tool for us to ignore, its basics and simple basics. Just evaluate any of your regular projects and activities and try this out we will see many examples, its all about figuring out an individualised framework which works for us and drive it as a rigor in our day to day projects.


Picture of Murali Sunderraghavan

Murali Sunderraghavan

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5 Responses

  1. For every 1000 problems there are 1001 solutions, it is only the way we think needs to be changed. I strongly believe that if one tries to achieve for common good of team and society even the nature supports and it would happen. How soon it happens depends on the focus of the person.

    1. Dreams are common for everyone but who works on his dreams and achieves is successful in life and others talk of him.

  2. Nice article Murali. This is definitely a powerful way of thinking .. But not a panacea for all issues and problems. It has its time and place and also needs a leader with good clarity of mind and an appetite for taking risks. This in fact is an apt example in current times for a country like India which wants to be self sufficient. While we are right there in terms of what we want to achieve – when it comes to real problem solving and innovation we go back to the “jugaadu” way which has led to us to the current state where we don’t not figure in the list of countries that matter in patent filings. Let’s hope the powes that be read your article, get inspired and lead us to a new self sufficient, resurgent and innovative India.

    1. Thanks Prasad for sharing your thoughts. Looking for unsustainable shortcuts causes more problems that it solves.

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