First Principles Lifestyle

In philosophy, “first principles” refer to something like foundational truths. They are assumptions we can safely make about the way of things, with all of the secondary suppositions and postulations stripped away.

The term is similar when applied to the world of formal logic.

There are a lot of arguments you could make that rely on piles of debatable claims, but something simple like “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal,” is far more difficult to argue with, because the two premise statements are predicated on fundamental data. This is a first principles-derived argument.

First principles in physics are likewise representative of un-messed-with, foundational information.

When applying this concept to new research, scientists focus their observations exclusively on what seems to be happening according to established laws, rather than empirical models. Meaning, they document pure facts—numbers and calculations—rather than filtering those data points through some assumption about how the universe was formed or what dark matter is; things that are built atop first principles, but which are not, themselves, first principles.

This concept has popped up in the world of business, as well.

Elon Musk has spoken about how he’s trying to apply first principles thinking to the development of electric cars and reusable rockets, so that he and his people can push limits based on reality, rather than on the assumptions we tend to make about these industries, predicated on “truths” that are many layers up from fundamental principles.

It’s long been true that making practical electric car batteries is not financially viable. It’s long been true that reusable rocket parts are too complex and expensive to develop if you want to compete in the aerospace industry. These are both supportable arguments that are, nonetheless, based on suppositions several layers up from measurable realities.

First principles thinking allows us to work from actual raw numbers and facts. Everything is impossible until it’s achieved, and this way of seeing things encourages shrugging off common knowledge in favor of fundamental assessment. It’s asking what we might do if we were ignorant of how things have always been done, but had access to all the data we might want about how to make a battery or build a rocket.

For years now, I’ve been using a variant of this same concept to determine my next steps; to figure out what I want my life to look like.

Just as first principles means something practically different in the world of philosophy compared to the world of physics, here, too, the specifics are different. But the core concept of getting back to the fundamentals and focusing on the truly important information rather than derivative suppositions—that’s what I’ve been utilizing.

And although it may seem like a strange way to self-analyze, it makes sense if you think about the way we perceive ourselves and our goals.

Most of us have a vague but describable notion of what “the good life” looks like. And in most cases, that perception isn’t based on our actual priorities, our actual internally held ideals, but rather the easily conveyed, contagious definitions of luxury and success and happiness and satisfaction that have been handed to us by our parents, educators, religious leaders, political parties, branders and marketers, and countless other influences throughout our lives.

We inhale these ideas like they’re oxygen; they’re just as pervasive and invisible as the air we breathe. And they’re consequently easy to overlook, just as the atmosphere is easy to overlook.

These concepts aren’t necessarily negative. In some cases, they may provide us with prototypical starting points: rough drafts of lifestyles that we may be able to adopt and then carve into something more suitable.

But most of us never make it past the stage of lifestyle-adoption, and these lifestyles are largely predicated on someone else’s needs, someone else’s priorities, someone else’s ideas about what’s good and virtuous and what makes a person happy and fulfilled.

Pulling away that veil, that shiny, lacquered coat of “making it” and “living well” and “successful,” can leave a person feeling rudderless and hollow. I know this firsthand, as it’s what I experienced nearly a decade ago, when I shrugged off my old life and started building something non-standard and me-shaped.

I had spent my whole life up until that point working toward ideals that were many layers separated from the fundamental truths about what I wanted out of life, what made me happy and fulfilled, how I might best spend my time. The information was all there, if I would have taken the time to look. But the derivatives of that information are far more enticingly packaged and sold, so I ignored the essentials for a very long time. I didn’t even acknowledge their existence: I was too busy killing myself trying to live up to the dogma of culturally inherited standards.

The metrics I used then are not entirely meaningless to me, now. But they’re far less vital than the ones I’ve since identified for myself.

A first principles lifestyle is focused on those underlying concerns and ideals and goals.

It’s an attempt to sweep away the suppositions and assumptions that have built up like callouses, followed by an active unearthing of what lay underneath. It’s internal archaeology that allows us to understand and build upon what’s actually there, rather than following blueprints drawn up by entities that have never held a shovel.

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