First principles thinking is a way of reasoning by breaking down the subject matter into its fundamental elements and building from there. Thinking from first principles involves stripping away any assumptions society may have about something until you’re left with the bare bones knowledge about it. For this reason, thinking from first principles is the most foundational type of reasoning possible.

First principles thinking is useful not only as a way of reasoning but as a way of solving problems. While it’s more famously applied in the domains of science and engineering, first principles thinking has wider application—we can use it as an approach to lifestyle design when travelling or living abroad.

Let’s begin by examining how you can access first principles thinking for yourself and why it’s more powerful than many other types of reasoning. Then we’ll look at specific applications of first principles thinking to travel and living abroad.

Thinking from first principles

So many aspects of life that we take for granted aren’t actual laws of nature but mere shared beliefs. Gravity is a law of physics, your local council’s policies aren’t. That absolute zero is −273.15 °C is an objective fact, the latest cryptocurrency’s value isn’t.

If we want to know what to hold true versus what is dogma, we have to remove all societal assumptions until we’re left with the essential facts.

One way we can do this is through root cause analysis techniques such as Socratic Questioning.

The aim of Socratic questioning is to examine the logic and validity of ideas through disciplined questioning. When done well, Socratic questioning provides an analysis that generates first principles. There are many types of Socratic questions we can use to discover the intellectual basis of our thoughts:

– Clarification (Why do I think this? What exactly do I mean?)

– Challenging assumptions (How do I know this is true? Why do I assume this? What could we assume instead?)

– Reason and evidence (What are the sources of my beliefs? Can I explain my reasoning? What other information do I need?)

– Alternative perspectives and viewpoints (How would others think about this? What might someone who believed _ think? What is an alternative?)

– Consequences and implications (What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am _? If _ happened, what else would happen as a result?)

– Questioning the original questions or issues (Why did I think that? What conclusions can I derive? Why is this question important? Does the question lead to other questions or issues?)

– Origin or source questions (Where did you get that idea? Have you always felt this way? Has your opinion been influenced by something or someone?)

The above example questions aren’t an exhaustive list and reaching first principles does not require asking all of them. Rather, they can be used when necessary to break down a problem or way of thinking into its most basic components.

For example, let’s imagine you’re self-reflecting on environmentally sustainable travel and you pose yourself the question: “Is the way I travel sustainable?”. You can use Socratic questioning to cross-examine your reasoning (introspective answers in italics) and discover what is true from first principles:

“Is the way I travel sustainable?”

I’ve done many trips in two weeks or less and visited multiple destinations within a country during that period. So far, moving to and from places frequently hasn’t posed the local economy or environment a problem.

Challenging assumptions: “Why do I assume this?”

I haven’t seen any negative impact I’ve created by staying in multiple hotels every few days.

“Is every negative impact visible?”

No, but I’m just one person.

Consequences and implications: “If everyone travelled in a way that ignored net negative impact on sustainability, would would happen as a result?”

Well I guess we all have a role to play and any one traveller could be the straw that breaks the camels back if we’re not careful… However, I’m not sure how I can avoid staying in hotels when I travel.

Alternative perspectives and viewpoints: “What is an alternative?”

There are online platforms that connect customers with local accommodation suppliers such as Airbnb or homestay options such as Couchsurfing. If I stay using these, I contribute more to the local economy and longer stays are more eco-friendly since less resources and waste are used towards cleaning…

We see here that we’ve managed to reformulate an assumption based on lack of impact around sustainable travel and reach a better thought process using a few Socratic questions.

Thinking from first principles provides a powerful antidote to reasoning by analogy. Reasoning by analogy refers to a form of inductive logic whereby we believe that since two things have similar properties, they’re similar in another respect as well.

For instance, if we experience a language barrier when travelling overseas, we might believe that specific hand gestures we used when travelling in another country convey the same meaning in this particular country. However, hand gestures and body language more widely are not universally shared or even the same on particular continents. If we’re not careful, reasoning by analogy this way could result in us insulting people in a different country rather than clarifying our intent.

There are several ways we can think from first principles to enhance the ways we travel and live abroad and avoid misguided instances of reasoning by analogy.

Thinking From First Principles Questioning

Thinking from first principles when abroad

Language learning

One way we can apply first principles thinking is to language learning. Rather than attempting to memorise a bunch of stock phrases or compare the target language’s grammar to our own, we can break a language down into its fundamental components and build from there.

For instance, a language can be broken down into vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure. Each one of these can be further reduced into a more fundamental component. Using vocabulary as an example, a language’s vocabulary will contain common cognate patterns with certain prefixes or suffixes depending on the type of word (noun, adjective etc.) or conjugation. By examining and recognising these fundamental patterns early on, you’ll develop a rapid awareness of the target language which will expedite your learning via an ability to recognise word types compared to a learner who doesn’t notice patterns and learns each word in isolation.

Thinking from first principles isn’t just useful with breaking down the subject matter but also with how to engage with it. For example we can use questioning to compare different learning approaches and see which one would bring us the best results. Reasoning from first principles allows us to see that learning a target language even for a short amount of time everyday is better than batching that entire block of time across one or two days a week. The human mind accumulates learning gains better if the skill is habitualised.

There are times when reasoning by analogy has utility in language learning such as when observing linguistic similarities between two languages belonging to the same language family. However if we’re not careful this can provide interference in our language learning process such as a learner who oversimplifies the grammar of a target language as identical to their native one or mixes up the pronunciation of target language words due to their similar ‘look’.

Thinking from first principles treats the language as its own entity and lets us understand and assemble the language components flawlessly from the ground up.

Cultural understanding and adaptation

Being able to understand and adapt to another culture is a critical skill when travelling and especially when living in another country. Cultural understanding is a hallmark of social and interpersonal dynamics when abroad and those with a high ‘cultural IQ’ are best placed to integrate and foster relationships of all kinds with locals.

Thinking from first principles helps us gain perspective on cultural differences we encounter instead of becoming overwhelmed or confused by them.

For example, if you’re a non-Arab doing business with clientele from a Gulf state such as Saudi Arabia, you may wonder why there’s a lot of time spent chit-chatting before talking business and whether you should indulge in it or not. Reasoning about their culture would provide clarity in this situation—you would see that Saudi Arabia is a high context culture (more intuitive and concerned about the collective) where business is oriented towards trust based on relationships rather than tasks. Understanding this context from first principles would allow you to adapt your negotiation style to align with your clientele without compromising your own workflow.

Again, thinking from first principles trumps reasoning by analogy here. The latter would have you believe that countries close to each other are basically the same in terms of culture but first principles thinking is a useful tool for enhancing perspective and engaging in empathetic consideration of the nuances of another culture.

Thinking From First Principles Cultural Understanding


The expenses from travelling or living abroad can put off many from making their journeys before they’ve even started. But you can also use first principles thinking to save you money when abroad.

Instead of trying to save money at random, break down your expenses systematically into component sections. You can use an expense tracking app such as TravelSpend to do this. By separating costs into their fundamental components, it’ll help you conceptualise every area of spending and allow you to save towards each of them. 

For instance, having isolated flights, you’ll see that this is a major expense when travelling which will likely compel you to research on how to save money on flights. You might do the same for accommodation and want to consider alternatives to hotels.

By focusing on the building blocks of spending, you can see where you can best save money or invest in resources.


Related to budgeting, thinking from first principles can be applied to overall travel or relocation planning to aid with having a more efficient, effective and enjoyable trip.

Instead of reasoning by analogy which would have you follow someone else’s itinerary or a predetermined route, reducing your journey into fundamental components lets you organise it in the way you best see fit.

For travelling, you can break up your own itinerary into individual parts such as sightseeing, cultural experiences, eating out and more. For relocating, you could separate the move into logistics, home search, job search etc. This breakdown of the trip into component parts lends you more control and reduces overwhelm from feeling there’s too much going on. It also lets you create rough timings of when and where you’ll do things during your trip.

It’s important not to over-plan a trip, particularly when travelling—you don’t want to suffocate what should be an enjoyable time abroad with a rigid schedule. Leave yourself some extra slack time and even consider vagabonding. But thinking from first principles provides a valuable approach to any plan you might have.

Thinking From First Principles Planning

Sustainable travel and living

We’ve already seen one example of how thinking from first principles can be applied to environmental sustainability when travelling or living overseas. You can also apply Socratic questioning to other aspects of journeying abroad to examine whether you can do so more sustainably.

For example, using first principles reasoning you might conclude that ‘slow travel’ (choosing to stay in locations for longer periods of time) is less taxing on the environment compared to fast-paced city breaks. By examining each part of your travels further, you might consider other eco-friendly ways of undertaking your trips and giving back to local communities. For instance, you might break down your carbon footprint and decide to offset that before you leave the place you’re visiting.

There are many ways that thinking from first principles can be used in creating effective strategies for minimising your impact on the environment when abroad for travellers, digital nomads and expats.

Thinking From First Principles Sustainable

Food and cuisine

One of the most fascinating applications of first principles thinking is how you can use it to understand and appreciate another country’s cuisine.

If you break down the dishes of a cuisine into individual components, you’re left with the essential elements that make that country’s cuisine distinct from others.

For example, if you break down the flavour profile of Thai cuisine over a range of dishes, you’ll see that much of the country’s food contains a combination of sweet, sour and salty in one dish. However, a breakdown of another Asian country’s food would reveal a different flavour profile, perhaps one without the sourness of Thai cuisine.

Thinking from first principles can be used in a similar way to learn about different ingredients, cooking techniques and cultural influences behind national cuisines. It allows you to truly understand a country’s food on a deep level and at best, even leads you to cook dishes with skill due to your knowledge of it from the ground up.


Thinking from first principles is one of the ultimate ways to reason. Thinking from what is fundamentally true instead of going off of analogies or even succumbing to dogma helps us better navigate challenges and opportunities.

One of the ways to get to first principles is through Socratic Questioning. This type of cross-examination on our own reflections leaves us with the root cause of propositions and assumptions that we hold to be true.

Thinking from first principles is not exclusive to science or engineering—it’s also useful for lifestyle design when travelling or living abroad. We can apply thinking from first principles to learning languages, understanding new cultures, managing money overseas, planning trips, travelling and living sustainably and appreciating and savouring foreign cuisines.

First principles thinking has wide applications. Use it as a powerful tool to enhance different areas of your life.