Innovation Series 4 minutes reading Mar 2023 Adam Craven

First principles thinking - A visual guide to understanding first principles (Part 2)

First-principles thinking is great for problem-solving and innovation, but I've found many people struggle to reason from first principles. Today, I will show you how reasoning from first principles works after a little background knowledge you'll need.


First-principles thinking is clear, effective thinking, and it is one of the best ways to solve problems and innovate. First-principles thinking combines principles to create something greater than the sum of its parts. When we combine principles, we can invent new ways of doing things. Inventions created from principles connect you to "the why" in a way that enables you to understand, spread knowledge, optimise and improve.

To understand first principles we must also understand emergence. Emergence is the observation that an entity or system has properties or behaviours that the parts alone do not have. Emerging behaviours are a natural consequence of first-principles thinking. The resulting behaviours are often unpredictable, but in that unpredictability innovation is created. A human alone could never go to the moon, but spaceships created by humans can.

A great example of emergence in software is a framework. Redux is one such framework, which is popular in JavaScript UI engineering. The framework emerges from the combination of just three principles:

  1. Single source of truth
  2. State is read-only
  3. Changes are made with pure functions

Knowing these principles and combining them, allows you to create a framework that behaves like Redux without any knowledge of Redux.


Now that we've covered the basics, let's take a look at visually understanding first principles. We'll use the Redux example to help you map it to the real-world. Prior knowledge of Redux isn't required.

A principle is the foundation of first principles thinking.

A spotlight is a good analogy for a principle as it shares similar properties.

Switching on a spotlight makes things visible within its radius. When a principle is used, it sheds light on potential behaviours.

The light and its beam represents the principle and the behaviours.

The principle tells you what you should do and why you should do it, which creates new behaviours. In this example, the light represents the principle single source of truth.

The light beam represents the possible behaviours or actions that are created from using the principle.

A principle is just an algorithm for your mind.

You input your thoughts, problems and goals into the principle (the light) which modifies your thought process to output behaviours (the light beam).

Now we have 3 principles. First principles thinking often requires other principles to reason from in order to create more interesting, innovative, behaviours.

Each of the 3 principles have their own distinct behaviours

The three principles represent the Redux principles:

  • 1. Single source of truth
  • 2. State is read-only
  • 3. Changes are made with pure functions.

Where the principles combine, new behaviours emerge.

This emergence is the goal of first principles thinking.

New behaviours such as a new process, architecture or framework, are found at the center of the overlapping behaviours.

In our example, we can say the Redux framework is discovered at the center of the overlapping behaviours. Behaviours created from our three principles: Single source of truth, state is read-only, and changes are made with pure functions.

This is the essence of first principles thinking: combined reasoning from one or more principles to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

Now you have a good understanding of first-principles thinking, which can help you to come up with new ideas. It will give you confidence when convincing others to adopt your new architecture, processes, or framework, as you know those behaviours are based upon solid foundations. Not only will it give you confidence, but your understanding of the foundational components of your idea, make it easier to transfer that idea to another person.

In Part 3 we take the knowledge we've gained here to come up with a solution to t he problem in Part 1.

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