Pay Attention: Ontological Design & First Principles

When I look out into the world today I see so much that I can’t believe

When I look out into the world today I see so much that I can’t believe. Every day there are more stories that make my heartache for humanity. I ask myself “how did we get here?”

Through this attention series, I zoomed in on the subject of attention to discuss its value and the deeper level of intentional attention. Now, I’d like to zoom out in an effort to shift our attention to the larger picture. When I reflect and try to intentionally zoom out to a macro point of view, I am brought to the concepts of ontological design and first principles.

My hope is that these concepts will open awareness and provide tools to step back, look at the big picture, find a fundamental truth, and take it to heart. As in all of my content, I am a champion for change from the inside-out. I believe we can better tackle systemic issues on an individual level when we can understand them on a macro level as well as an internal micro level. Once we are conscious of how systems are operating around us, we must do the hard work to analyze what systems are also operating in us. Understanding from the heart begins by unraveling value systems that exist inside. Then, we can work on solutions from our hearts to our homes to our communities to the world.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.” Albert Einstein

Ontological Design

What we design, in turn, designs us.

Anne-Marie Willis writes, Ontological Design postulates:

  1. “That design is something far more pervasive and profound than is generally recognized by designers, cultural theorists, philosophers or laypersons
  2. That designing is fundamental to being human — we design, that is to say, we deliberate, plan and scheme in ways which prefigure our actions and makings — in turn, we are designed by our designing and by that which we have designed (i.e., through our interactions with the structural and material specificities of our environments);
  3. That this adds up to a double movement — we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us “

I believe we’re unraveling an example of ontological design in the systemic racism in this country. What was designed when this country was founded has, in turn, designed how we operate centuries later. Non-racist intentions don’t matter when operating blindly in a system that maintains oppression and inequality among races, especially when the oppressive tactics are designed to remain out of sight and hidden through the guise of alternate influences that circle a direct target on the oppressed. These designs have upheld and even increased white privilege whether the white majority has been aware or not.

Peggy McIntosh describes the advantages that whites in Western societies enjoy and non-whites do not experience as “an invisible package of unearned assets”.

We’ve come to a point where the effects of this system are being filmed and shared digitally for the world to see. No longer are the realities for minority races hidden and out of sight. All citizens need to awake to the delusional design that we’re operating in and be a part of major intentional change. This is a fight for humanity to be aware and honest about the systems that we are all maintaining in our actions as well as in our non-actions.

In other words, we need to learn how to PAY ATTENTION to the designs that are shaping us without our knowledge.

If you recall the Personal Funnel of Resources that I shared in this series, you can begin to see how a system can manipulate our intentions, attention, connections, actions, and results to operate in a design that we didn’t design ourselves. Ontological design is the explanation behind entire worlds of thought and ways of being that can act as a veil that blinds our conscious use of our resources. This separates systemic issues from overt bias or prejudice, but it doesn’t change the result that was designed into the system.

I am hopeful that in unveiling the existence of ontological design, we can consciously zoom out and educate ourselves on the systems that we are operating in and begin to take back ownership of our resources. This is where I see the macro view acting as a door toward growth and mindfulness in our individual journeys. By seeing the system as a delusion, we can intentionally change our resources to be used toward systemic change.

This is something to consider across all areas of life. What designs are we operating in that have been designed for us? Ontological design is like a fractal that repeats itself over and over again in the human experience as people build upon others’ designs. Once aware, you can see designs everywhere that were created by someone else that has, in turn, shaped how we live.

Until we have the ability to be conscious of and understand what has designed us, we aren’t fully educated on the problems we’re experiencing on systemic levels. Without understanding problems from the source, we can’t change anything. Ontological design is the first step to understand the macro view, which empowers us as we move toward change in our personal journey.

“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.” Harrington Emerson

Once we’ve observed the ontological designs all around us and become conscious of the sources of these systems that we’re operating in, there is a way of reasoning that can open our minds to foundational truths. It’s called first principles.

first prin·ci·ples 1.the fundamental concepts or assumptions on which a theory, system, or method is based.

First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems. The approach entails breaking down problems into basic elements by removing all assumptions and conventions so that only essentials remain. Then, the essentials enable the process to build solutions from the ground up. First-principles thinking cuts through dogma and removes the blinders by connecting everything back to the first principle of nature. When it comes down to it, everything that is not a law of nature is just a shared belief. Money, country borders, politics, and racism are all shared beliefs. The list goes on.

Aristotle’s “First Principle”

It is the first basis from which a thing is known. It is a basic, foundational, self-evident truth.

First-principles thinking was used by Aristotle and is used now by Elon Musk, Charlie Munger, and many others who are considered to be out of the box thinkers. It enables them to cut through the analogous reasoning of others to see opportunities that have not yet been considered but have always been there as a foundational truth.

The alternative to thinking in first principles is thinking in analogies. Tim Urban helps to explain the difference between the two thought processes by connecting it to the difference between a chef and a cook. If the cook lost a recipe, he wouldn’t know what to do, while the chef understands the flavor profiles and combinations at such a fundamental level that he doesn’t even use a recipe. He has real knowledge and understanding as opposed to building from what someone else has already laid out. First-principles thinking is building from the foundation of nature and science while analogy thinking is building from others’ designs.

So, at this point, I’ve hopefully explained how to zoom out and become conscious of the ontological designs operating all around us. This opens our minds and hearts to see delusions that we don’t need to own nor give our personal resources to perpetuate.

From there, we can begin to establish first principles thinking to get to foundational truths that we can use in our inside-out journey. Socratic questioning can be used to establish first principles. It is a disciplined and mindful questioning process, used to establish truths, reveal underlying assumptions, and separate knowledge from ignorance. Socratic questioning seeks to draw out first principles in a systematic manner and follows this process:

  1. Clarifying your thinking and explaining the origins of your ideas (Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?)
  2. Challenging assumptions (How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?)
  3. Looking for evidence (How can I back this up? What are the sources?)
  4. Considering alternative perspectives (What might others think? How do I know I am correct?)
  5. Examining consequences and implications (What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?)
  6. Questioning the original questions (Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?)

I have a three-year-old son who has entered the stage of asking “Why?” to every single statement I make. However frustrating it may be when I am simply stating what I perceive to be common-sense truths, his questioning does tend to make me wonder “why is that?” Then, when I realize I actually don’t know, I am left in a deep process of reflection on a design I may want to dig into or search for first principles.

This is because children instinctively think in first principles. They are trying to learn and actually understand the world around them. The best tool they have is to ask their parents “why?” Rather than instinctively accepting “Because I said so” or “It just is” as acceptable responses, we should also question why everything is the way it is around us. Perhaps we will surprise ourselves when we dig in and search for a foundational truth in many of the systems that exist around us.

Mark 10:13–16 “People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

As a Christian, I am constantly holding myself accountable to a truth that does not agree with the operation of this world, and this truth should dictate the use of my resources. With a humble heart, I must question the systems that have been designed and anchor myself back to the truths that Jesus revealed. When systemic racism is revealed as an ontological design, I must step back and compare what I am seeing to the character that I have accepted as my guide. Jesus’ heart for the oppressed and his standard for justice must guide my attention, connections, and actions.

When we simply accept what already exists and use that as a starting ground for improvement, our solutions are beginning from a broken place. We live in the shadows of others. It is only when we zoom out, ask ourselves “why”, and cut through the flawed analogies that we see what is possible. Building from what has always been accepted only limits our beliefs for solutions and enables arguments between us without ever truly exposing our delusional thinking.

It is a journey, and not an easy one, but I believe in hope and I have faith in a good God. I don’t anticipate ever looking out into the world and seeing perfection. But, I do believe in our ability to seek and find truth when we seek with all our hearts.

Originally published at on June 19, 2020.

Alexis is an experienced executive with 15+ years of expertise in strategy, communications, branding, marketing and wellness.