When you’re building something, it’s helpful to use first principles. Start with the constraining facts and work towards what you need. If you’re building a house, first you’re going to design a blueprint. The blueprint will have certain limitations — the lot size, budget, HOA codes, and the list goes on. Once you have the blueprint, then you’re going to break dirt and lay the foundation, then put up the frame, and so on.

When pitching, most engineers (my younger self included!) feel most comfortable using first principles because they’re telling the truth — retelling exactly what they did. But the problem with this approach is it’s really easy to lose interest. If you just finished building your house and I ask you what you did, you can’t start with, “I designed a blueprint and then I broke dirt and then I laid a foundation…,” because I’ll have fallen asleep by the time you get to the end of the story.

Instead, try leveraging what the listener already knows and use an analogy. So when I ask you what you did, you can say, “You know those huge mansions up in Fairbanks Ranch? I built a house like that.” Or, “those starter homes off Mira Mesa”, or whatever works for your situation.

It’s helpful to use first principles when you’re building and analogies when you’re pitching. And there are some compelling reasons why you really don’t want to break that guideline.

If you use analogy when you’re building, you’ll terrify yourself out of doing anything at all. I’ve seen this time and time again. If you set out to build a house like the ones in Fairbanks Ranch, then you’ll think of all the workforce and problems that the people who built those houses encountered, and you’ll scare yourself out of doing anything at all. It’s not that you can’t learn from other people’s mistakes; it’s that you need to recognize which of their constraints apply to you and which don’t.

So instead of saying “That company has 300 engineers! I can’t apply their approach to my situation!”, look at the strategy they used and prioritize your work. You’ll be amazed by how far first principles will take you when you stop using other people as a measuring stick.