Ponder this quote.
“I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. … The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth.”
These words were spoken by Jiddu Krishnamurti in the 1930’s as he turned his back on religion and set out to commit to the quest for truth through self-inquiry.
He decided the best place to base himself was Ojai, a quaint town surrounded by orange groves a couple hours out of Los Angeles.
And that’s where I’ve just returned from, after facilitating a leadership retreat for purpose-driven tech founders, with my wonderful colleague, Steffen Stauber, the founder of Create Meaning.
Fittingly, the unspoken theme of the retreat was “Thinking from First Principles”, which I think would have pleased Krishnamurti.
The stated aim of the retreat was to set the foundation for what will become a billion dollar, purpose-driven company that fundamentally disrupts the way humans are educated, by optimising for engagement and flow, rather than test-scores and other mechanistic measures.
What is first principles thinking?
Elon Musk has done much to highlight this style of inquiry. In an interview he said:
“Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning… Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy.”
In basic terms, first principles thinking is the practice of actively questioning every assumption you think you ‘know’ about a given problem or scenario — and then creating new knowledge and solutions from scratch.
It’s the idea of wiping our minds clean of conditioned assumptions and limits and then perceiving a situation with a new purity of awareness.
The Kogi tribe in Columbia takes this concept to the nth degree by raising certain chosen ones in a cave, in total darkness, cut off from the outside world until they are 18 years old. Then they emerge, to perceive the world with pure awareness, and create solutions from that space. (To learn more search for the documentary Aluna).
First principles thinking contrasts with the usual approach of solving problems based on prior assumptions, beliefs and widely held ‘best practices’ approved by the majority of people.
To disrupt and truly innovate, it is essential to approach the problem from first principles.
In Ojai, on this private retreat. we set out the foundations for first principles thinking very carefully.
Here are 10 things we did to generate First principles thinking
3. We opened (and closed) with ceremony, where we dropped into the space, set out our intentions, laid down some guiding principles, expressed gratitude for self, others, nature and began the process of arriving here and now.
4. We began and ended each day with movement, breathing, meditating, sharing in the Yurt, and had frequent meditations during the day to re-centre
5. We ran workshops that encouraged creative expression, and challenge to assumptions and limits
6. We became sensitive to ego, limited thinking, fear-driven thinking and held non-judgemental space for the emergence and dissolving of these thought-streams.
7. We allowed plenty of time for free-flow dialogue around the guided workshops. Usually, the best ideas come in the space in-between. Personally, I revel in asking questions that simply can not be answered in a shallow way. The more I do this work, the more I discover the power of pure dialogue. Without agenda or direction, this form of communication can reveal deep truth and rawness that otherwise remains buried under ego, confusion or simple unawareness.
8. We played and had fun. You just can’t be your most expressive self in a serious environment. We had a lot of laughs, and the energy felt playful the whole time.
9. We bounced between deep theory (Complexity Theory for example), and applied action/ real life examples.
10. We always honoured the BEING before we got onto the DOING.
Of course there are changes to be made: next time we will allow more space for nature immersion or the sort of challenge (rite of passage) that requires facing fears. Next time we will get a caterer and massage therapist. 🙂
It’s a learning process for me, but this deep work on the company level is work I find highly nourishing. It’s my belief that the leaders we require to lead us into an uncertain future must be supported to develop the “inner engineering” skills: the ability to self-reflect, go deep within and perceive the world with fresh eyes and an open heart.
I’ll leave you with one idea to ponder: What if all companies/ organisations were turned into organisms which dissolve ego-boundaries and catalysed the flow of trust, self-awareness and limitless potential?
Yep… the world would change very quickly.