When I worked in manufacturing, we worked tirelessly to reduce job changeover time.
Then, one day an operator said, "Instead of trying to find ways to shave off a minute...what if we pretend we can't shut down at all between jobs, and work from there?"
That simple perspective shift completely changed our approach to solving the problem--and while we never got to zero, we got really close, really fast.
Without realizing it, we had stumbled on what people like Elon Musk (and Aristotle before him) call a first principle: a basic proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. In simple terms, it means establishing a fundamental fact or conclusion that you know is true, deconstructing it down to its core elements, and working up from there.
In even simpler terms, it's a fact or premise or conclusion that is the only conclusion, regardless of your perspective.
First Principles: Elon Musk
Or then there's Musk's definition of first principles in this 2013 TED Talk: "Boiling things down to their fundamental truths, and reasoning up from there."
In our case, the first principle wasn't that job changeovers should be quicker in order to reduce machine downtime. The first principle was that the most productive machine--assuming you cannot increase its speed--is a machine that never shuts down. (Can't argue with that.)
That approach instantly shifted our mental framework from incremental gain to zero downtime. We didn't need to become a lightning-fast Nascar pit crew.
We needed to eliminate the need for a pit crew altogether.
For Musk, first principle thinking led to purchasing the raw materials--which cost two percent of a typical rocket's price--and building instead of buying rockets for SpaceX missions.
First principle thinking also led to designing lightweight, aerodynamically-efficient, electric cars in order to offset heavy batteries--and to building those batteries in-house, too.
Since the cost of materials was traditionally a fraction of a battery's price--and materials are, barring future design advancements, a first principle--Musk decided that finding "clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell," could lead to "batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes."
Which is how SpaceX cut the price of launching a rocket by a factor of 10.
And is one reason why Tesla currently has a market cap of over $220 billion, making it the most valuable automaker in the world. If you believe electric will become the standard sooner rather than later, Tesla has the pole position in the electric vehicle marketplace.
Which leads us to Amazon.
First Principles: Jeff Bezos
Amazon clearly has the pole position in e-commerce. an achievement founder Jeff Bezos credits in part to focusing on things that, much like first principles, won't change.
Bezos built Amazon around things he knew would be stable over time, investing heavily in ensuring that Amazon would provide those things--and improve its delivery of them.
As Bezos is quoted in the book Bold:
In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that's going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection.
It's impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, "Jeff, I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher." "I love Amazon; I just wish you'd deliver a little more slowly." Impossible.
When you have something that you know is true over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.
Focusing on delivering things that won't change--that always matter, that are always in demand, that will always fill a need or solve a problem--doesn't guarantee success...but it will provide the best foundation for success you can find.
Which makes focusing on things that won't change--things that won't go out of style--a first principle.
First Principles and You
Musk boils things down to their fundamental truths, and reasons up from there. Bezos uses fundamental truths to make long-term decisions.
And so can you.
Take nutrition and fitness: Cool new diet plans and trendy eating regimens may be helpful (although research shows many provide no benefit at all), but limiting fried and processed foods and eating lean protein, whole grains, and plenty of vegetables and fruits will make you a lot healthier.
Or exercise: You can argue the benefits of HIIT workouts versus CrossFit-style workouts versus cycling versus strength training (and I often do), but as long as you get in 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity, you'll be a lot healthier.
Or leadership: Formal programs like Six Sigma and TQM and 5S (remember any of those) can help you improve processes, but the one timeless solution is to ask the people who actually perform the job for their ideas and input. Going to the source never goes out of style.
Or new leaders: As long as you talk to your people--clearly, honestly, and often--you will quickly leapfrog people with more experience and education.
Or launching a business: Businesses solve problems customers are willing to pay to have solved. If you aren't solving a real problem, a problem people will be happy to pay to have solved...you won't have a business, at least not for long.
Or building a business: Once you've identified a problem and can solve it, the answer to most of your problems is "sales." Rarely can a new business save its way to profitability.
Just make sure, when you drill down to find first principles to apply to your professional or personal life, that you keep in mind the fact that first principles, while simple, are almost never conventional wisdom.
While it's often OK to, as Musk says, "copy other people do with slight variations," finding a fundamental truth almost always leads to embarking on a new course.
One that will probably seem obvious in retrospect...but will be "new" enough to help you do what most others can't.
No matter how audacious your goal might be.