First Principles vs Magical Thinking

This is a concept I’ve been mulling around for a while and want to dive deeper on. I’ve been trying to get myself into more of a beginners mindset, start thinking more from first principles, and examining how I learn in all aspects of my life. After an exploration into how I learn, I don’t start from first principles, I don’t start at the beginning. I’ve been able to mimic others and skip a lot of of the early steps when it comes to learning because I can grasp the higher level concepts really quick. It sounds great on the surface, but those gaps in understanding prove to pull the rug from under me if I’m challenged or if I’m trying to push myself.

In this post I’m going to explain flaws in my learning, a better way to think about learning, what I’ve done to remedy these flaws, and the benefits I’ve received.

I’m going to call it the trap of the, “if they can do it, so can I,” mental model. I find this type of thinking in almost every aspect of my life, and have been trying to rectify it, because it leaves me with an incomplete knowledge base on a lot of different topics. A house of cards of knowledge that’s not built from the foundation up. Here’s the best explanation I can find by this, Elon Musk get’s interviewed by Kevin Rose and it’s worth every second of the two minutes and 48 seconds.

First should out to Kevin Rose, he has a fantastic podcast that be checked out HERE. He’s great and I like him because he talks a lot like one of my friends and he seems like a more relatable version of Tim Ferriss. But anyways, it’s great interview, you can probably find a longer version of it as well, also nice that they are wearing matching outfits.

But Elon goes into how he was able to be a specialist in so many different areas by starting at the first principles, and getting a solid base of information to build up from there. This way you have a deeper and wider knowledge base of a concept, rather than just understanding the higher concepts.

I’m no rocket scientist and this is a weird concept for me to try to connect to my life, but here we are.

Magical Thinking – I don’t know where I’m getting this term from, but it’s what comes to mind when I just get a concept, but don’t really understand it fully. It’s remembering one time you did something amazing and assuming that it can be done consistently. It’s an irrational voice in the back of my head that tells me I can drive an additional 30 miles when my gas tank is on E, because one time I drove 30 miles on E. It’s assuming that because something happened one time, no matter the probabilities, it will happen again.

I fight this every day at the gym. COVID made me weak. I don’t have a baseline of strength anymore to know where my limits are, I just know what my old limits were. If we’re doing a technical lift like a power clean, I have in my mind that I can do up to 245 lbs. In reality it’s probably closer to 185 or 205 maybe. I need to build up my base strength in order to get to those higher numbers, but the magical thinking in my head will be there saying what if you just put more on the bar and were able to lift it? No. There are certain areas where there is not a shortcut. I push myself hard, but this type of mindset could get me hurt. I’ve got to build up my strength in order to get to the higher levels, this connects to the concept of magical thinking because in order to get to the higher levels of knowledge, we have to have the fundamental knowledgebase to rely upon. Your foundation of knowledge is exactly like the base strength necessary to move up weight. It needs to be built up, there isn’t a way to get lucky one time.

Another area I find this is in my golf game. Golf is hard, every shot counts, and not all of them are easy. The goal is to shoot as few shots as possible during your round. This involves consistency, you hit the shot you have, you hit the shot you know you can hit. For me this is hard. I’ve transitioned from a go for it every shot on every hole and hit a second ball if I lose it, to tracking every shot on every hole and playing by the rules. Sounds like an easy transition, but I find myself looking up rules to even abide by them. But playing my old style has messed up my mindset because I’ve succeeded on taking huge chances before, I know I have a better a shot in my bag, but its not the right shot. The right shot is the shot I can hit 90% of the time. It’s the shot that sets up the next shot for success. It’s a constant mental battle to become better. It’s having the introspection of my own game to realize that hitting a crazy shot and going for it on a 10-20% success rate shot is a bad play. I’ve improved my game significantly on this one mental change. Not that much has changed in my swing and I’ve gotten down to a 3 handicap by making that change. I’ve found that the confidence I maintain throughout a round is significantly higher because I’m no longer playing every hole on the edge of a disaster. It’s weird to say this, but good golf is boring. Good golf is more mental than physical, it’s taking the right shots at the right times. By figuring this out, I’m constantly mitigating the downside risk of a bad shot. I’m hitting the shots that I’ve hit before and that I’ve put the reps in for. I’ve built a solid base on first principles for those shots, and while I understand some of the more technical shots, I would need to practice and master them before they become routine.

Starting with first principles and mastering those to move up is something we can apply directly in our lives. This is where we continue our growth, this is where we continue to evolve and find purpose and meaning in life. It’s up to us to take a look at our lives and figure this out, and that, my friends, is where we take the first step.