Success depends on understanding basic principles as well as on developing and practicing workable methods.
- Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, recently advised in his Reddit AMA, “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree—make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
- Harrington Emerson, a prominent management consultant and efficiency expert during the early 1900s, is understood to have said that the key to becoming a broad-thinker is to focus on the principles: “As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” (This quote is often incorrectly attributed to American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.)
Principles are the fundamental set of philosophies, propositions, assumptions, laws, and rules concerning a topic, problem, or circumstances. The principles can teach you why something works the way it does.
Methods, on the other hand, are merely devices to apply those principles in a particular circumstance.
While principles are immutable, Emerson reminds us that there can be many methods to interpret and apply those principles.
Principles and Methods
Given the time-pressure induced by the hurried world of work, we are often so tempted to implement ready-made or handed-down methods that we forgo the necessary examination of underpinning principles.
By delving directly into methods, we can find some reliable direction and save a great deal of time, but we may be neglecting many factors that can affect the outcomes of our methods. These circumferential issues, second- and higher-order effects, and peripheral relationships may not be readily apparent at the outset. They will emanate only from a knowledge of the underlying principles.
Idea for Impact: To be an effective thinker, develop a broad understanding and appreciation of the principles before you develop or deploy methods.