First-Order Principles

Over the arc of my career, I’ve done extensive work in professional development. This work included learning an endless list of strategies, tactics, and skills.

When I look back over that time, the parts that I have valued the most are things I call “first-order principles.”

A principle is a rule of thumb that’s timeless in nature.

For example, I took a public speaking class at Stanford when I was 19 years old. The single most important thing I remember from that class was:

Know Your Audience

That’s it.

That’s a first-order principle, as it has been true for all time and will continue to be true for all time.

Since then, a lot has changed.

At that time, public speaking involved giving lectures where your visual aids were plastic transparencies on an overhead projector.

Laptop computers were not widely used (too expensive and bulky to be practical).

Projectors for laptops weren’t used either.

Nobody had HDMI monitors in their conference rooms.

Today, public speaking can involve a YouTube channel, a podcast, Instagram, or TikTok videos.

While the tools, technologies, and tactics for public speaking have changed enormously, the first-order principle has not. Today, to be an effective public speaker, you must still:

Know Your Audience

When I speak to CEOs, I speak a certain way given what I know about them. When I used to speak to my kids’ classmates in preschool, I would speak to them differently than I did CEOs.

When politicians spoke to influence others 2,500 years ago, the effective ones knew their audience and what it took to persuade them.

When politicians 2,500 years in the future speak to influence others, the effective ones will also know their audience.

When you remember first-order principles, you can usually figure out the rest with a combination of logic and common sense.

When I teach the case interview, one of the main ideas I teach is to treat the interviewer like a client. The interview is not a torture device for candidates. It’s a simulation of a consultant-client interaction.

Many of my students forget the hundreds of little details that I and others teach about the case. Many remember the first-order principle that “case interview = client engagement simulation,” and they either remember or figure out the rest on their own.

First-order principles exist in cooking.

First-order principles exist in satisfying marriages.

First-order principles exist in raising children.

First-order principles exist in managing your career.

First-order principles exist in… everything you ever want to do effectively.

The trick is to:

1) Recognize that this is true.
2) Find a person who knows those first-order principles.
3) Learn those principles from that person.

If that’s all you ever do for the rest of your life, you will be ahead of 95% to 99% of the rest of the world.

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