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Thinking in First Principles

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It is reasonably easy to follow a guidebook, or follow a template, or rote learn facts and figures. The average person can do this, but it is rather inflexible and uncreative. We are basically just following somebody else’s idea, or societies conventions. And while this might be fine a lot of the time, it will rarely produce anything new, or solve any real problems. Instead, if we are to do anything original, we need to have a thorough understanding of the situation or problem in front of us, and find a completely new/different way of working with it.

By analogy, many people are cooks, but few are chefs. A cook follows a recipe, or perhaps makes a packet cake. A chef creates something new because they understand very well how food, spices, cooking methods and other factors work. They might have a few failures, but they can produce a few new cakes and dishes by taking their first principle understanding and putting it to creative use.

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When we first start learning in primary school we are basically repeating what the teacher has taught us, like the times table. Hopefully our creative side is catered to with art and craft lessons. Later, we start to learn concepts rather than facts and figures. And while the concepts are not our own we hopefully learn to use them accordingly. We can be taught about paragraphs in an essay, or what sculpture is, and then write our own essay, or produce our own sculpture.

This type of learning isn’t too bad, until we get to latter high school, and find that originality and creativity are becoming more valued than memorisation of facts. If we write an essay, and expect to do well, then we must make original insights into the subject, or at least contrast other people’s opinions effectively. If we do a science project, we must do experiments and show something new. We must take the subject apart and look at different ways it can be put together.

All new inventions obey the same laws of physics and chemistry that previous inventions did. The fundamentals do not really change (though our understanding of them might). But a new invention has found a new way to put things together, still based on the same first principles. It is like taking pieces of Lego and building something new. The same lego was once used to build a different object, but there are infinite ways to combine the same pieces.

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Education is about developing as individuals, and achieving the best academic result possible, allowing more diverse career choices latter on.

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