Before he was a world-changing entrepreneur at Paypal, Tesla, and SpaceX, Elon Musk studied physics at Stanford University. When he switched from physics to tech startups, he brought along a conviction that “First Principles” thinking—drilling down to the foundations of a problem to view it in an entirely new way—should guide business decisions as well as physics research.
In conventional thinking, we look to ‘common knowledge’ or prevailing paradigms for answers to problems. But Musk believes fundamental change requires a different way of thinking:
“I think it’s important to reason from first principles. We normally reason by analogy . . . [guided by] what other people are doing. With first principles you boil things down to fundamental truths . . . and then reason up from there.”
First Principles thinking has deep roots. Two-thousand years ago, Aristotle said that a first principle is the “first basis from which a thing is known” and that understanding first principles is required in any sort of systematic inquiry—whether in philosophy as he did, or in high-tech, as Musk did in these examples.
• With PayPal, the founding team created a fundamentally new way to process payments—via email—in an industry where most had thought change was impossible.
• At Tesla, Musk introduced world-changing technology in materials, computing, and batteries. His team asked, “What’s the best way to solve this design problem?” rather than, “How can we adapt existing automotive technology?” By doing so, they reduced the cost of batteries from $600/kwh to $80/kwh for just one example.
• When estimating the cost of building the first SpaceX rockets, Musk’s team analyzed the components of a rocket then researched the prices of raw materials, instead of using existing rockets as a benchmark. They discovered they could build a rocket for just 2% of the typical cost, making privately-financed space ventures viable for the first time.
First Principles Thinking: Essential to Swimming Better
First principles thinking offers swimmers greater benefits than any other physical activity. Because we are land-adapted beings, moving through an aquatic medium is an alien and counter-intuitive activity. Consider that:
• Fewer than 30% of adults can swim even 25 meters; less than 2% can swim 400 meters continuously.
• For those who take traditional lessons—at any age—a good outcome is a lower risk of drowning. A truly efficient stroke virtually never results.
• Despite highly-visible-but-rare examples of brilliance like Katie Ledecky, the majority of competitive swimmers wash out, burn out, or experience chronic injuries by their teens.
• Lap and fitness swimmers swim for years without improving basic skills. Indeed, it never even occurs to most that they can improve!
The prevailing way of thinking, learning, and training work so poorly for so many that it was clear, when we started TI in 1989, that swimming was crying out for change. The innovative thinking for which Total Immersion has become known resulted from challenging assumptions that others had accepted for, well . . . ever. As we did, we saw countless opportunities for new ways of thinking and doing.
What guides your swimming?
I’ll share my list of First Principles for swimming below. Before I do, I’ll ask you, dear reader, to do an exercise in meta-consciousness, which I suggest to all my students when they begin thinking about swimming the TI way. I.E. Bring your mental model for how swimming ‘works’ to a conscious level, and think critically about it.
Few swimmers ever think of performing this exercise, but doing so is invaluable to ensuring you’re following the right path. Answer four questions:
- What are the two or three fundamental ideas that guide your swimming?
- Where or how did you learn or acquire these ideas?
- From these ideas, can you derive a set of principles sufficiently robust to apply to any situation? Do they seem logical and sensible? Do you have a way to confirm their truth?
- Have your choices and actions—as guided by those ideas—led to positive outcomes and experiences?
Five First Principles of Improvement-Minded Swimming
When swimming the Total Immersion way, the guiding goal is always to improve your swimming. In fact, your primary objective for every swim session should be to be a better swimmer when you finish than when you started.
Every other swimming goal—whether it be more efficiency, endurance, speed , or enjoyment—proceeds from the fundamental goal of swimming for improvement.
These are the five First Principles we believe every improvement-minded swimmer should understand. Each principle is a reliable truth–derived from a universal law of nature, authoritative studies of swimming, or experience with tens of thousands of swimmers like you.
Principle #1 Human swimmers are energy-wasting machines. Thus, our focus should always be on saving energy, before increasing fitness.
Principle #2 Most of what we ‘know’ about swimming is wrong! Thus we must exercise great discernment and critical thinking in evaluating what our own instincts tell us and what we hear from ‘authoritative sources.’
Principle #3 Efficiency isn’t natural—but it is learnable. Anyone can learn to swim with great efficiency—and improve on it steadily, if incrementally.
Principle #4 Strive for a sleeker ‘vessel’ . . . rather than a bigger engine. This is a universally-accepted truth among naval architects and scientists who study fish. Why should it be otherwise for swimmers?
Principle #5 Learn and practice technique as a holistic system in which every body part, and part of the stroke, affects every other part. Strive constantly for greater integration. Avoid training as a collection of dis-integrated and independently-acting parts.
In my next five weekly posts, I’ll delve deeply into each of these principles and give examples of how to apply them.