Thinking Like a Physicist

When I think of smart people, I tend to think of physicists. Between the Einsteins, Feynemens, and Degrasse-Tysons of the world, the ranks of incredibly smart people is filled with physicists. So can thinking like a physicist teach you anything about entrepreneurship? It can; a lot, actually.

For those of you tensing up at the thought of the complicated mathematics involved with being a physicist, don’t worry. We aren’t going to be talking about using string theory to predict new markets, I’m just going to tell you about how the underlying method of thinking in physics can help you to better understand challenges facing your startup.

Because physics is about understanding the nature of the universe and the universe is filled with billions upon trillions of different variables, the secret to thinking like a physicist is to learn how to peel away the trivial little details of a situation until you arrive at the atomic core of the problem; the part of a problem that you cannot change or remove without the situation itself disappearing. This type of thinking is about determining the basic premises of a concept, the First Principles if you will and so, intuitively enough, it’s called First Principles thinking.

The opposite of first principles thinking is thinking from analogy. When you think from analogy, you look at how things have been done and are done right now and find very small tweaks to make a slightly new model work. While this type of thinking can sometimes work out alright, it relies on you having faith that the existing assumptions about how things are done are correct; they seldom if ever are.

That’s where the really useful part of First Principles Thinking comes in; when you and your company look for the core of your particular business problem, you can start to build solutions from scratch and can sometimes apply new ideas and technology to create solutions that are novel, clever, or even revolutionary. When you find those new and innovative solutions to problems as an entrepreneur, that is where you find your competitive advantage. Larger firms can easily provide variations on an existing product, but entrepreneurs are the ones that can come up with an entirely new product.

Elon Musk is one entrepreneur to find tremendous success with First Principles Thinking describes the dangers of thinking from analogy like this.

“Nobody would wants a car because horses are great and we’re used to them and there’s grass all of the place that they can eat and there’s no gasoline.”

What Musk points out is how, sometimes, being an entrepreneur requires figuring out what additional infrastructure needs to come up to support your product whether it be as big as infrastructure to supply it fuel or a program to support your service. If you just think of the world as it is and how it has always been, if you rely on common knowledge, then you will find it very difficult to make innovative products.

Musk demonstrated this dramatically when he and his team at SpaceX utilized First Principles thinking to break from the NASA derived model for rocket production in favor of a new one that they set the rules for. It required them going back to the ground floor to look at new ways to source rocket parts but they discovered that they could build rockets for 2% of what common knowledge said they should cost; that, my friends, is what the makings of a revolution looks like.

Finding the First Principles for your business’s situation can be extremely challenging. As useful as First Principle Thinking is, it is something you have to discipline your brain to do. As smart as we are, humans still learn naturally from imitation; monkey see, monkey do sets us up to think from from analogy and that is the bane of novelty.

There’s a philosophical purity to first principles thinking that carries over into your business. When you and your team work to find the underlying truths of your particular situation, you’re tearing away the mistakes that you never knew everybody else made and replacing them with your own cleverness. Take some time to sit down with your team and ask yourself what the First Principles of your product is; you may be surprised what you find.