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Thoughts on First Principles

Core assumptions serve as a foundation for more ideas

“Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from” (Walt Whitman)

In any field of endeavor, there are core assumptions that serve as a foundation for more complex and ornate ideas: The laws of thermodynamics, the hierarchy of needs and the intractable rules of etiquette like never wear white after Labor Day and other fashion felonies. We build our beliefs and preferences based on these first principles. For example, the Constitution of the United States spells out a series of operating principles based on the fundamental belief in the inalienable rights of Man. The totality of laws over the course of American history can be seen as the interpretation, extension and ultimately the growth of this first principle. This doesn’t mean that the principle is always implemented flawlessly, but rather it is an ideal state that pulls us forward.

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These first principles guide us towards a specific course of thought and action when confronted with complex and ambiguous situations such as everything in life that hasn’t happened to us yet. Disconfirming feedback and even personal discomfort are often not enough to dissuade us of our belief in these principles because our entire world view is build upon them. While we may experience these basic principles as limiting our range of options, inevitably all decision making requires us to make distinctions. Whether these principles are obscure or can be easily traced, they still inform and even drive what we think and what we do.

Both Plato and Freud saw Man as tripartite with each of his three natures pointing in a different direction. The Greater Man looks upward to the heavens and aspires to raise the rabble of humanity up. The Lesser Man looks downward to our baser appetites and desires and fuels our actions with passion. The Centered Man harnesses and balances the two others to advance in a rational middle-way.  Our creative abilities are the children of both our best and worst self for we all walk between heaven and hell and bare the resemblance of our heredity. We cannot deny the Lesser or begrudge the Greater for they are the source of our transformative power. Instead, it is far wiser to embrace the Centered Man who systematically integrates them both into something more complete – whole.  We make sense of our world by Looking Out, Looking Around, and Looking Inside.

It is through these first principles that we recognize our opportunities and develop our pathways for growth. They hold true for our both organizations and ourselves differing only in scope and scale but not in the nature of the process. While these principles help us understand the underlying causes of growth we still need an operational framework to put them to work for us and some functional methodologies to harness their generative force in our life. We will build upon these principles and expand them as we go along.

Jeff DeGraff

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Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D., is a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

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