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Day 2 of 14 - How to build a rocket ship...

In this series of short articles I will reflect on my daily thoughts and observations, look at things that happen around me from different perspectives and add things that I find worth reading or that help me in my day-to-day life... I will try to keep it up for 14 days as a little experiment - please enjoy.

This is #2.


The opposite way of solving problems is commonly described as "reasoning by analogy". Most of the time we cope with life by copying other people's behavior and previously found solutions and adapt them to fit our current situation or to solve a problem at hand. But this method might not work if you face a problem that can not be solved by just copying and adapting previously developed solutions.

Imagine you are faced with the problem of sending a rocket ship to Mars... well, rocket ships have been built before and sent to space, but first of all they might not meet the requirements and secondly they are way too expensive to just buy and rebuild to fit your requirements.

Since this problem has been solved - at least partially, the sending-it-to-Mars part still has to happen - it provides us with a great example of how first principles thinking works. So let's get into the three major steps:

STEP 1: Identify and define your current assumptions.

First we need to figure out and ideally write down all the assumptions we have regarding our problem at hand. Writing them down will help us to understand what we think we "know" about a problem or situation.

Let's take the rocket ship example again and write down some of the assumptions one might have:

- we need a rocket ship to get to Mars

- some companies have already built rocket ships

- to buy one of those rocket ship is probably quite expensive

- we could build a rocket ship ourselves but it is probably very difficult to manufacture

- ...

STEP 2: Breakdown the problem into its fundamental principles.

The second step - and probably the most important one - is to break down the problem and figure out what the first principles are. This requires actively questioning every assumption that you've made before and everything you think you "know" about the problem or scenario. Break them down as far as you can to get to the root of the problem. The 5W or "5-Times-Why?" questioning method might help as well as other methods from the Lean- or Kaizen-Philosophy like "Ishikawa", also know as the "Fishbone Diagram".

But when do you know that you've arrived at the true core of the problem? And what the heck is a first principle? A first principle is a basic assumption that cannot be broken down any further. Aristotle defined it as "the first basis from which a thing is known" (Aristotle, "The Metaphysics").

Here's an example I've found on

Imagine you have three things:

  • A motorboat with a skier behind it

  • A military tank

  • A bicycle

Your task is to create a new/different type of vehicle from what you have...

So, let's break these items down into their constituent parts:

  • Motorboat: motor, the hull of a boat, and a pair of skis.

  • Tank: metal treads, steel armor plates, and a gun.

  • Bicycle: handlebars, wheels, gears, and a seat.

What can you create from these individual parts? One option is to make a snowmobile by combining the handlebars and seat from the bike, the metal treads from the tank, and the motor and skis from the boat.

This is the process of first principles thinking in a nutshell. It is a cycle of breaking a situation down into the core pieces and then putting them all back together in a more effective way. Deconstruct then reconstruct."

Regarding the assumption that a rocket ship is extremely expensive we can break down the parts of a rocket ship to figure out how much it would cost to source it bit by bit. So: what is a rocket made of? Well, to keep it simple, there is aerospace grade aluminum alloys, some titanium, copper, carbon fiber, and some other things... If you go ahead and source these on the commodity market you might end up with around 2% of the cost of a pre-built rocket ship. (“Elon Musk's Mission to Mars,” Chris Anderson, Wired)

STEP 3: Create new solutions from scratch.

The third and final step is to create the solution based on what we know after completing Step 2. Opposed to a "reusable solution" or any plug-and-play way of doing things, this requires some iterative loops to ultimately provide a good outcome.

The company that I have been referring to throughout this article - you might have guessed that it's SpaceX with it's founder Elon Musk - most probably ran hundreds or thousands of simulations and iterations to find the right way of putting together the rocket ship and then it most probably required another hundred or thousand little tweaks and readjustments as well as many trial runs to make it fly and to even make it come back to earth safely.

If you have a clear goal in mind and if you want to find a solution that is better than most of what has already been done, this won't put you off. However, while following these three steps it is crucial don't default back to what we already "know".

Just keep in mind: the best solution might not be where everyone else is already looking.


Here are some links and books that I have used and quoted to complete this article.

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