Generally speaking, there are 2 ways to problem-solve:
Understand how someone solved the same or similar problem, learn from it, and emulate that approach
Understand the problem by digging so deep that you are left with only the foundational truths of a situation and develop your approach
The former is “problem solving using analogy” and the latter is “problem solving using first principles”. Most of us have pretty much mastered the former but we struggle with or simply choose not to use the latter. Why? You know the answer: It is hard, it is time consuming, it requires lots of patience and perseverance. Most humans (myself included) are not wired like that.
Both of the approaches have pros/cons but it is important to understand when to use which. As a simple rule of thumb :
When speed and efficiency are critical, use reasoning by analogy
When creativity and innovation are required, use first principles
Here are a few more notes on trying first principles thinking :
Ask questions like “What are we absolutely sure is true?” and “What has been proven?”
Boil the problem down to its fundamental components and then substitute a more effective solution for one of the key parts
Going down just one or two levels deeper than most people can present you with compelling insights and opportunities
Different solutions present themselves at different layers of abstraction
The best solution is not where everyone is already looking
One of the primary obstacles to first principles thinking is our tendency to optimize form rather than function. What looks like innovation is often an iteration of previous forms rather than an improvement of the core function.
Now that you have read this, will you change your approach on the next problem or opportunity you come across?
PS: I am a big fan of James Clear and a lot of my thinking is influenced by his musings.