Second Principles: Things That Used to be True

There’s a lot of focus on “first principles”, another way of saying things that will always be true. For good reason. When you understand and can live in accordance to first principles, you will do better than if you’re unmoored to anything beyond trends and tactics.

But there might be some missing value in not spending a bit more time trying to tease out the things that aren’t first principles, but seemed unshakable for a time. (Second principles?) Things that were so true for some period that you could bank on them, but they are no longer.

These often get swept in the dustbin of history, because they reversed usefulness so spectacularly, and now suffer only ridicule. Yet there are lessons in them, and often they come back around to being true again, or at least being similar to things that will be true again. They can point to and reveal first principles.

I was talking with a friend yesterday about how through most of the 2010s in marketing, Facebook and other digital ads were so ridiculously efficient that you could build entire business models around their low cost customer acquisition. Marketers learned totally different tactics and skills in that world, and it all made sense. Then it didn’t, and now marketers are scratching their heads.

Rather than just mock those heady days or throw the old playbooks out the window, it’s instructive to study what used to be fact and is now myth: just buy more leads on Facebook. What always-true first principles can this temporarily-true second principle point us to?

There’s a lot to work with and unpack. New models emerge and the gains go to the first movers. All games get gamed. Markets tend toward equilibrium. Arbitrage isn’t indefinite. Easy money makes weak workers. Whatever you tease out, it’s worth digging in to and hanging on to the memory of this discarded principle of marketing.

Plus, you know another wave of easy wins will come back dressed in different clothes. You want to see the similarity so you can take advantage of it, and so you can be prepared for its short lifespan.