What Do Aristotle and Elon Musk Have in Common?

Hi and welcome (back)! Today, we explore a more philosophical question about decision making. It may be a good idea to put your phone down and set to “Do Not Disturb” mode, clear your mind, and take a deep breath. I will try my very best to tie it all together so that it makes sense by the end, but I’ll need your undivided attention to get you fully there. Enjoy!

“In every systematic inquiry where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first principles, all the way to the elements. It is clear, then, that in the science of nature as elsewhere, we should try first to determine questions about the first principles. The naturally proper direction of our road is from things better known and clearer to us, to things that are clearer and better known by nature; for the things known to us are not the same as the things known unconditionally. Hence it is necessary for us to progress, following this procedure, from the things that are less clear by nature, but clearer to us, towards things that are clearer and better known by nature.” – excerpt from Physics by Aristotle circa 350 B.C.


“The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.” – Elon Musk interview January 2015


What is the common theme between those two quotes? First principles. It’s a way of reasoning that has been around for as long as humans have begun questioning and doubting the fundamental truths of the world and of what people believe in, as we can see from Aristotle’s thoughts above. The notion of first principles has been applied across a broad span of disciplines, from science to math, and from philosophy to entrepreneurship (as evidenced by Elon Musk).


Allow me to use two particular examples to illustrate why reasoning by first principles may be useful in your life.


There seems to be what I’ll call a “flight to the proven” – others have called it wisdom of crowds (which tends to have a more positive connotation). Flocks of newly bred cab-hailing startups after the rise of Uber have emerged since 2010. An influx of hotel and flight booking services has inundated the market since Expedia and Booking.com became noteworthy suppliers of affordable travel options. What are these "seconds" and followers doing? They see something that has worked tremendously well, and like flies attracted to light, do the same to try and reap economic rents for themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not discounting the hustle (read, mental fortitude) required to build, fund, and grow a company, any company. I’m merely shining on a light on the fundamental motives of the founders and investors in these types of companies. Uber can be considered an analog that many cab-hailing startups have modeled after. As an entrepreneur, your ultimate objective is to solve a problem. But, are you solving a problem that’s already being addressed and simply chasing after wealth and fame? Or do you truly have a better way of tackling the problem fundamentally, using first principles, that you don’t think existing players have adequately addressed?


The second example will be more personal and takes place in a day-to-day setting: diet fads. There’s a myriad of diets out there that are being hyped up among consumers (who tend to be new to the idea of adhering to a strict diet or workout regime). Paleo, keto, carb cycling, low-fat, low-carb, intermittent fasting, juicing (the fruit and veggie kind), and many more – it’s basically a buffet of options, you won’t even know where to start! Instead of doing meaningful research or thinking through the implications of a diet on their bodies, many people simply follow a plan because it’s the “latest and greatest” thing. Take a moment to really think about what it means to follow a diet. Your body runs on the food you decide to put into your mouth. If you exclude an entire macronutrient group, there’s zero doubt you’re going to suffer from side effects. Many of these people already know that, and frankly are okay with that. The real question is: have they really understood, by first principles, how a diet will affect their physiology, psychology, and overall health?


From a psychological standpoint, it’s unquestionably much more mentally taxing to question the foundations of someone’s words, actions, and assumptions, so I’m not suggesting you should become a Cartesian doubter of everything everyone else in the world is saying or doing. Rather, on the major life decisions you make, perhaps reasoning by first principles will ensure the logic in those decisions are more bulletproof.

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