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09 March 2022
How to go back to first principles
Account planning, strategic planning
Humans, especially professional humans in creative service industries, are given to overcomplicating matters, while still relying on assumptions and analogies – here’s a handy guide to thinking about first principles.
Why it matters
In a useful essay on Farnam Street, the thinker and coach Shane Parrish delves into the difference between working on first principles – an idea as old as Aristotle – by establishing the difference between American football coaches and play stealers.
Coaches, he writes, “reason from first principles. The rules of football are the first principles: they govern what you can and can’t do. Everything is possible as long as it’s not against the rules.”
Play stealers, meanwhile, work off “what’s already been done.”
Another analogy is between a cook and a chef. A cook follows a recipe, but a chef understands ingredients and processes well enough to create something new.
In a marketing context, authority can often preclude first principles: a boss saying ‘because I said so’ is typically enough to get a project off the ground without assumptions ever being tested, and with strategy created in a manner vulnerable to changes in context or environment.
A critical quote
“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So the normal way we conduct our lives is, we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing.
“First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, and what that really means is, you … boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “okay, what are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy” – Elon Musk, entrepreneur and business magnate.