First Principles

Break down complex ideas into fundamental concepts that stand alone, then build them back up again.

First Principles are atomic, universally true statements that don’t need to be broken down any further.

First Principles thinking is used to:

  • understand complex ideas at a foundational level
  • identify blind spots and incorrect assumptions
  • see connections and patterns between different ideas.

First Principles thinking was recently popularized by Elon Musk, but in truth, the technique has been around for thousands of years. It’s especially useful when trying to think creatively or innovatively.

Many mental models are First Principles. For example, Alignment is a framework of First Principles that apply to all mechanical aspects of Jiu-Jitsu.

To apply First Principles thinking in Jiu-Jitsu:

  1. Choose a technique or concept you want to critique or better understand.
  2. Break that technique down into its First Principles: the universally true statements that require no further explanation. Breaking it down into the mental models on this website is a good starting point.
  3. Identify whether this technique conflicts with any First Principles. If this happens, you have encountered an issue with the technique where the reasoning behind its execution may be faulty.
  4. Identify whether you have discovered any new First Principles that are required to explain this technique.
  5. Rebuild the technique from the ground up in your mind, understanding how it is composed of First Principles.
  6. Use your understanding of this technique’s First Principles to identify if there are any patterns between this technique and others.

Here’s an example of how an armbar can be understood using First Principles thinking:

  • Breaking Mechanics: The armbar is a linear break.
  • Isolate a Single Target: Pulling your opponent’s arm away from the rest of his body facilitates the armbar and reduces his/her ability to defend and move.
  • Overwhelming Force: Applying breaking force with your arms is not sufficient.  You need to use your entire body.
  • Anatomic Hierarchy: In particular, you need to use your core and legs, which are stronger than your arms.
  • Limb Coiling: Generate breaking power by keeping your butt and feet pinched tight against your opponent.  Break your opponent’s limb coil by pulling his arm free of the rest of his body.
  • Rotational Control: Extra torque can be added to the armbar by twisting it rather than pulling it straight back.
  • Theory of Alignment: If applied properly, the armbar breaks your opponent’s posture, structure and base, while you retain all three.

Further Study: