Problem Solving from First Principle!

Skanda Shastry
11 min readJun 22, 2019

On one side tech entrepreneur like Jack Ma advocating for 9-9-6 work culture & other side people fight for 40 hours equality!
But, there are some global leaders like Narendra Modi, Warren Buffett, Marissa Mayer, Elon Musk who work more than 100+ hours to accomplish their goals.

In this diverse argument, At the age of 46, Elon Musk has innovated and built four revolutionary multi billion-dollar companies in completely different fields — Paypal (Financial Services), Tesla Motors (Automotive) and SpaceX (Aerospace), Boring (Transportation).

How these people achieve so much within a short span of time??

How did he able to manage all these things ??

What is the secret behind there success??




The answer is simple:

Read, Read & More Read!!!

No doubt Reading plays an important role in unlocking your inner creative genius and becoming the best at what you do — but there’s more to this —

Reading new things continuously over a period of time. (power of compounding) will change the way you think!!

Learning is the single best investment of our time that we can make. Or as Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

Thinking from the First Principle gives many Out of box & innovative solutions to hard problems.

Your brain encourages you to think in analogies, as this is the most efficient and safest way of thinking. So how do you break this programming, take a step back and start thinking in basic principles?

First Principle: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge!!

First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems. the idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up.
It’s one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself, unlock your creative potential, and move from linear to non-linear results.

When Elon Musk’s started development of the TESLA electric car, many experts felt that electric vehicles could not be popular because of battery costs.
The $600/kW is the market price, The battery has always been so expensive. Which increased in 2/3rd of production cost.

Why it's $600/kW ??

“That’s just the way they will always be because that’s the way they have been in the past”.

However, Elon Musk does not agree!! He needs to understand the root cause of the Problem, He applied First-principles methodology!!

What are the material constituents of the batteries?

What is the spot market value of the material constituents?

When he dig dipper into the ground, basic things like cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, and some polymers for separation, and steel can enough to produce a battery pack;

Next, If we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost?
Oh, god, it’s … $80 per kilowatt-hour.
So, clearly, you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.

First Principle method from Elon Musk

Through these “basic facts”, Elon Musk and the team will further analyze and experiment each part of the raw materials and re-engineer each work process.

Finally, he and the team will optimize the original parts and add a comprehensive improvement of the production method, which significantly reduces the Cost-of electric vehicles.

Musk used first principles thinking not only for making inexpensive battery packs for his Tesla cars but also for building cheaper rockets for his other space exploration company SpaceX.

The result of such thinking was astonishing!!

The Basic: Analogy vs Axioms

“I think it is important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy.” — Elon Musk

Your brain encourages you to think in analogies, as this is the most efficient and safest way of thinking. So how do you break this programming, take a step back and start thinking in first principles?

In our day to day life, we tend to use what is known as Comparison Thinking, this is when we do what comes naturally and normally to us and reason through analogy.
What this means is that we make decisions and judgment calls based on what we’ve seen, heard or done from our experiences or from others.
Knowing the outcome due to past experiences, we either repeat or iterate slightly to suit the current situation.
This is an easy mode of thinking, and for the most part effective, but also offers no innovation or large changes.

Thinking from First Principles.
In this, you take a problem and break it down into its fundamental parts and truths, until you get to the bare bones as it were. Once you’ve eliminated everything down to its constituent parts then you start reasoning up from there.
This is a harder mode of thinking, but does offer better results, is far more effective and creates recognizable change.

Every One Doing!! So I Do??

Analogy thinking: Cook vs Chef ??
He compares people and how they behave to cooks and chefs. With a chef, he means a person who invents their own recipe, while a cook is someone who follows an already existing recipe.

Some people usually behave like cooks and follow recipes from a cookbook, while others prefer to come up with their own.
A cook takes some ingredients and goes through a series of steps to come up with a standard dish. On the other hand, a chef might use those same ingredients, but mix them up in new and original ways and come up with a new dish. For both of these guys, the ingredients were the first principles, but the way they used them was different.

🔸Iteration: doing the same things again.

🔸Innovation: doing new things.

🔸Disruption: doing new things that make old things obsolete.

Examples of First Principles in Action


Problem: Elon musk childhood dream is to send the First Rocket to Mars.🚀

Reasoning from analogy: Build Vs Hire? As a startup, It's difficult to understand the new rocket technology & build from scratch. so purchase the unused rocket from existing companies/Govt agencies like NASA/ISRO but the cost of purchasing a rocket was astronomical — up to $65 million.

Reasoning from first principles: let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of?
Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, carbon fiber.
Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market?
It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.

Within a few years, SpaceX had cut the price of launching a rocket by nearly
10x while still making a profit. Musk used first principles thinking to break the situation down to the fundamentals, bypass the high prices of the aerospace industry, and create a more effective solution.


Minimal Product Design:

Problem: Create a login system for a web/mobile app.

Reasoning from analogy: Most apps require a user to provide a username, email address and password, with the password confirmed twice!!
That seems to be the best practice, so I’ll do the same.

Reasoning from first principles: What’s the least information I need to collect from the user to make the app functional?
The app creates a page for each user that is their online identity hub.
I want their full name to be displayed at the top of the page, so I need to collect that. I won’t display a username anywhere in the app, so Do I really need that?

But if two users have the same name, how will I create a unique URL slug for each?
I guess I could add a randomized number to the slug, and do a check before saving that ensures the number is unique.
I’ll then need to collect the user’s email in-case they forget their password.
I probably don’t need to verify their password twice, since the app will allow them to easily reset it as long as they have access to their email account.

Minimal Design!!

Artists thinking:

Problem: Even after 500 years, we are unable to produce one more world-class painting like Mona-lisa??

Reasoning from analogy: This generation artist learns drawing & painting. Mostly they expertise in one specific area. they unable to visualize depth & authenticity of the image. (not a polymath).

Reasoning from first principles:
It’s hard to talk about the First principle thinking without mentioning the impressive genius of Leonardo da Vinci.
Before writes in the world famous Mona Lisa, he knows the art, anatomy, engineer, science, biology, optics & experimenter which makes him a renaissance!! With all these basics principle, da Vinci will draw the picture of the millennium.

Mona Lisa

Neem Coated Urea

Problem: Urea fertilizer is main source of the raw material used by farmer to there crops. & Govt give subsidy with less price inorder to help the formers. But instead this subsidized urea to the agriculture purpose, it was being diverted to non-agricultural purposes such as chemical factories, pharmaceutical etc... This lead to a shortage of urea to the farmer.

How to solve this ??

How it reaches to the Farmers or beneficiaries??

Reasoning from analogy: Think to avoid the middlemen & directly distribute to the farmers. But It's a challenging job to distribute proper fertilizers, seeds to the 110 million farmers across India. Either we need to
* Produce excess adequate amount of the Urea.
* Create a task force which monitors the distributions on various level.

Reasoning from first principles:
The GoI has mandated Neem coating of urea while producing it in the Factories!! Expect Agriculture, coated urea is not good for any other commercial usage.

Impact of Neem Coated Urea

Why ??

🔸Urea is highly subsidized in India for agricultural usage.
However, people were using the subsidized urea for other industrial applications due to its high nitrogen content.
Hence Neem coating was adopted to prevent usage of Urea for any other application than farming as Neem coating doesn’t affect agriculture but does so for industrial usage.

🔸Urea is very volatile in nature. If it is applied directly on the crops,
it is released very rapidly. This results in high usage of urea by farmers on the crop thereby hampering the quality crop and soil.
Neem coating slow downs the release of urea to crops. Also, Neem is an excellent ingredient for farming which improves plant and soil quality.

What Are You?

Who we are ??

How This Universe Created??

How can something appear without nothing??

The best way to understand the Universe, Physics laws, Human evolution, Culture, Consumer behavior or predict the future is to deduce that from the First Principle.

Reasoning from the first principle allows gives a structured framework for thinking & gives a solution to the above-mentioned complex problem!

Timeline: Big Bang Theory: (13.5 Billion years ago)

Big Bang Theory A starting point for all the above Questions!! It gives an explanation about how the universe began.

At its simplest, it says the universe as we know it started with a small singularity. Physicist define Bigbang as Singularity! Its a point at which all known laws of nature id not exists, even time too did not exist.

Once all the matter, energy & space in the universe were once squeezed into an infinitesimally small volume, which erupted in a cataclysmic “explosion” which has become known as the Big Bang. Thus, space, time, energy and matter all came into being at an infinitely dense, infinitely hot gravitational singularity, and began expanding everywhere at once.

Element of Universe

String Theory :(4.5 Billion years ago)

String theory helps us to group all Physics laws into the theoretical framework. which helps to understand the substance, matters & species formation of the Planet Earth leads to the Evolution of Biology & leaving organisms over a period of time to evolve the Homo Sapiens

String Theory

Homo Sapiens : (2.5 million years ago)

The story of humanity is a story of adaptation. Over the past 200,000 years, ever since the first modern humans (Homo sapiens) appeared in Africa, people have been spreading outward from that continent in every possible direction. As they encountered new environments and challenges, our ancestors had to change in many ways to survive.

Discovered how to make fire. (300000 years ago) This small event transformed the way we ate, the way we grew to live on heated food, it changed our digestive system, it transformed our groups and societies as we literally came to gather around the fire and told each other stories. (Cognitive Revolution)

Evolution Theory

Above timeline from Bigbang exploration, String theory, Homo sapiens to the build a culture & creating a History.
we come in a long way.
This will give an answer to all the fundamental questions in the discipline of science, technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM)

How to cultivate the First Principle Thinking :

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution,
I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask,
for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes. — Albert Einstein

✨ Most don’t know where to begin or how to attack the problem?
✨ Most lack a structured approach and don’t have the patience or time to dig deep enough?
✨ How you frame the problem is important??

How to think in a First Principles way:
🔸Keep asking “WHY” to get into the deeper layers of understanding
🔸Read more classics in the field
🔸 Learn the subjects that form the foundation of the field you are exploring. (math, physics, biology, etc)

✔️Want to learn marketing? Read Psychology.

✔️Want to learn Health and Fitness? Read Biology.

✔️Want to learn Economy ?? Read supply and demand.

✔️Want to learn Data Analyst/Science ?? Understand Excel, statistics.

✔️Want to understand relationships and trust work ?? Read Game theory.

✔️Want to understand Blockchain ?? Read Edge computing, attack vector, Encryption.

Moreover, try to study the fundamentals of *different* fields.

“The secret to a great life is to nail the basics.” — @

Bottom line: The Future
Now, We are in the exact middle in the spectrum of the transformation of the Biological evolution to the Technological transform.
Globalization effect & rapid change in the competitive environment it's difficult to understand/learn everything!
learn from basic principle help to sustain in future!!

Understand the concept from First principles. First, deconstructs knowledge into fundamental principles Next, reconstructs the fundamental principles in new fields to become world-class Modern Polymath!

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Skanda Shastry

Left & Right brain thinker!!! "WHAT is written is more important than WHO writes it"