A couple of years ago I heard Elon Must describing First Principles thinking. Turns out most of us reason by analogy and we must in order to get through life. When you pick up a taco, you must trust that every other taco you have eaten in that place has been good and you haven’t gotten sick, so you are very likely to have a good taco. But if you want to invent a new taco, you have to ask the question, What are the components that make a taco, how do they work together to make a “great” taco?
For the last year I have been applying this way of thinking to my health and fitness. In the past, I would read a book about a particular fad diet or workout that worked for someone I know, and my monkey mind would say “I can do that, seems to work, I will try it out.” That is reasoning by analogy. It worked for X, therefore, it should work for Y. In health, most of my friends just live how they want and trust that the doctor will fix them when they break. This is reason by analogy. Turns out a flawed analogy when you dive into medical error rates and start to question your doctor about stuff he doesn’t know about (which is alot – anything outside his/her specialty). So I started to ask myself a couple questions:
- Do I like to work out? or do I want the results of working out?
- Do I like to meditate? or do I want the results of lots of meditation?
- If I want to build Muscle, is workout X the best way to do that? Or are there faster, better ways? If the first principle is “build muscle”, is the solution being sold by the “fitness guru” the BEST way? or Their way?
- Does my doctor decide on diagnosis by first principles or by analogy? Does he have time to get to first principles?
- Is the “cure” being sold for anything, actually getting at the first principle cause of the problem? or symptoms?
Turns out I got many bad answers. First principle thinking is hard and causes lots of brain activity. An analogy is much easier.
Here are a couple of stories where thinking about first principles has changed my decisions on a couple of vectors:
I used to have serious chronic sinus infections. I went to a lot of doctors. Most prescribed antibiotics or surgery. One of my friends is a John Hopkin’s trained ENT surgeon. When I asked him he said (surprise!) “Surgery.” Hammer, meet nail. So I asked him how the surgery to make my sinuses larger would fix the root cause which was infection/inflammation. He said it wouldn’t, there would just be more room for the inflammation and it shouldn’t be a problem. So I kept looking for something which would fix the underlying problem: Infection and Inflammation. I ended up with a sinus rinse which killed it and it has never come back with regular use. Why treat symptoms if you can figure out the cause?
Fitness: working out
I like to ride by bike and surf. But are those “fitness strategies”? Not really. They are activities. They do some muscle building and cardiovascular strengthening, but only for those activities. If I like to surf and bike and want to be fit enough to do those activities, do I just do more of those activities or are there other things that can be done to keep me in top shape for those activities. The “weekend warrior” problem is real. Doing an activity you like on a weak base is not a good strategy. So how to stay fit for the activities I want to do without being a professional at them and taking all my time on them. I added the Vasper machine twice a week for 20 minutes. Doing that I am able to surf and bike longer and stronger when I can fit in the time for those. The First Principal is Stay fit with minimum time so when I need fitness, I have it. I want to be fit, I don’t want to be a professional athlete. I want to be able to do activities I love, AND have time for work and family and all the rest.
I used to suffer from bouts of clinical depression. Is depression caused by a lack of Prozac? Then why do doctors prescribe Prozac for depression? Is depression caused by not enough one-hour sessions talking with someone on a couch? What is the root cause (first principal) of depression? Depression is a lack of happiness. Maybe creating more happiness would reverse the happiness/depression balance and tip over. So I added a gratitude practice, meditation, neuro feedback, and some other things which got to the root cause of the negative emotions and substituted positive emotions. Depression gone. This one was one of the most powerful times when I realized that the “CURE” which was being described was NOT getting at the ROOT CAUSE of the issue. Depression is not a lack of Prozac or talk therapy. 95% of our emotional reactions are triggered by the subconscious which is not the part talking on the couch. You have to get to the root causes.
Next time you are looking for a solution to any health and