The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking - by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird

Five elements of thinking and learning

  1. Understand deeply: Don't face complex issues head-on; first understand simple ideas deeply. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be brutally honest about what you know and don't know. Then see what's missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in. Let go of bias, prejudice, and preconceived notions. There are degrees to understanding (it's not just a yes-or-no proposition) and you can always heighten yours. Rock-solid understanding is the foundation for success.

  2. Make mistakes: Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers--they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.

  3. Raise questions: Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding. What's the real question? Working on the wrong questions can waste a lifetime. Ideas are in the air--the right questions will bring them out and help you see connections that otherwise would have been invisible.

  4. Follow the flow of ideas: Look back to see where ideas came from and then look ahead to discover where those ideas may lead. A new idea is a beginning, not an end. Ideas are rare--milk them. Following the consequences of small ideas can result in big payoffs.

  5. Change: The unchanging element is change--by mastering the first four elements, you can change the way you think and learn. You can always improve, grow, and extract more out of your education, yourself, and the way you live your life. Change is the universal constant that allows you to get the most out of living and learning.

Whenever you "see" an issue or "understand" a concept, be conscious of the lens through which you're viewing the subject. You should assume you're introducing bias. The challenge remains to identify and let go of that bias or the assumptions you bring, and actively work to see and understand the subject anew. Whether it be physical characteristics of what you see, emotional aspects of what you feel, or conceptual underpinnings of what you understand, acknowledging and then letting go of bias and prejudice can lead you to see what's truly there and (often more importantly) to discover what's missing.

To better understand your world, consciously acknowledge what you actually see--no matter how mundane or obvious--rather than guess at what you think you are supposed to see. Saying what you actually see forces you to become conscious of what is there and also what is missing. If you see it, then say it; if you don't see it, then don't claim to see it. Being honest and accurate about what you actually know and don't know forces you to identify and fill gaps in your understanding. It is at the interface between what you actually know and what you don't yet know that true learning and growth occur.

How do you know? Becoming aware of the basis of your opinions or beliefs is an important step toward a better understanding of yourself and your world. Regularly consider your opinions, beliefs, and knowledge, and subject them to the "How do I know?" test. What is the evidence that your understanding is based upon? Become aware of the sources of your opinions. If your sources are shaky, then you might want to be more open-minded to the possibility that your opinion or knowledge might be incorrect. Regularly find cases in which you need to rethink your views.

Every scenario and circumstance can provoke an endless list of valuable questions. Asking questions should not be reserved for moments when you don't know an answer. Even when you do know the answer, asking, "What if … ?" is a great way to see more and delve deeper. If you gained nothing else from your formal education but the mind-set of always asking, "What if … ?" then you would have benefited tremendously from your schooling. "What if … ?" questions invite you to see the world differently because those questions force you to challenge the status quo and to explore the limits of your understanding. The habit of framing questions helps you see what's missing and thus see what needs creating.

A transformative but challenging personal policy is to never pretend to know more than you do. Don't build on ambiguity and ignorance. When you don't know something, admit it as quickly as possible and immediately take action--ask a question. If you want to get more out of what you hear or see, force yourself to ask questions--in a lecture, at a meeting, while listening to music, watching TV, or viewing art. People who ask lots of probing questions outperform those who don't engage with the ideas. Constantly generate questions and then ask them--that mind-set will lead to a richer appreciation of the issues.

To become more skillful and successful, you might think in terms of altering what you do, rather than thinking in terms of how well you do it. Instead of thinking, "Do it better," think, "Do it differently." If you want to learn a subject, instead of memorizing rules and facts, concentrate on truly understanding the fundamentals deeply. If you want to think of new ideas, don't sit and wait for inspiration. Instead, apply strategies of transformative thinking such as making mistakes, asking questions, and following the flow of ideas.


Master the basics

Consider a skill you want to improve or a subject area that you wish to understand better. Spend five minutes writing down specific components of the skill or subject area that are basic to that theme. Your list will be a free-flowing stream of consciousness. Now pick one of the items on your list, and spend thirty minutes actively improving your mastery of it. See how working deeply on the basics makes it possible for you to hone your skill or deepen your knowledge at the higher levels you are trying to attain. Apply this exercise to other things you think you know or would like to know.

Ask: What do you know?

Do you or don't you truly know the basics? Consider a subject you think you know or a subject you are trying to master. Open up a blank document on your computer. Without referring to any outside sources, write a detailed outline of the fundamentals of the subject. Can you write a coherent, accurate, and comprehensive description of the foundations of the subject, or does your knowledge have gaps? Do you struggle to think of core examples? Do you fail to see the overall big picture that puts the pieces together? Now compare your effort to external sources (texts, Internet, experts, your boss). When you discover weaknesses in your own understanding of the basics, take action. Methodically learn the fundamentals. Thoroughly understand any gap you fill in as well as its surrounding territory. Make these new insights part of your base knowledge and connect them with the parts that you already understood. Repeat this exercise regularly as you learn more advanced aspects of the subject (and save your earlier attempts so that you can look back and see how far you've traveled). Every return to the basics will deepen your understanding of the entire subject.

Sweat the small stuff

Consider some complex issue in your studies or life. Instead of tackling it in its entirety, find one small element of it and solve that part completely. Understand the subissue and its solution backwards and forwards. Understand all its connections and implications. Consider this small piece from many points of view and in great detail. Choose a subproblem small enough that you can give it this level of attention. Only later should you consider how your efforts could help solve the larger issue.

Uncover one essential

Consider a subject you wish to understand, and clear the clutter until you have isolated one essential ingredient. Each complicated issue has several possible core ideas. You are not seeking "the" essential idea; you are seeking just one--consider a subject and pare it down to one theme. In fact, you might perform this exercise on yourself. What do you view as essential elements of you? Isolating those elements can give a great deal of focus to life decisions.

Don't stare at a blank screen

Take an issue or problem you are facing. For example, you may want to get organized or write a business plan or improve a course grade or write an essay or get more out of life. Open up a blank document on your computer. Now just quickly type any ideas--good, bad, inaccurate, or vague--that you have about the issue. Don't hesitate to record ideas or phrases that you know are not quite right--no one (except you) is going to read what you write. Your ideas will be very bad in many ways. They will be disorganized and jumbled. They will be inaccurate or simply wrong. They'll be impractical. They will be boring. They won't come close to resolving the issue. They won't be creative. Congratulations--excellent start! Now read what you wrote and focus on two features: what's right and what's wrong. When you just write down ideas without worrying about correctness, structure, or elegance, your thoughts about the subject often flow out freely and clearly. The ideas that you are trying to express are in you, so when you write without fretting about the mistakes, the surprising reality is that you will often say what you really want to say. You will include partial truths as well as some unexpected gems. Now you have something to do. You can tease out the good elements. You might find particularly nice phrases or pieces of strong ideas. You might uncover a word that is suggestive of some unstated interesting notion. You might find that you have clarified for yourself the core of the idea that you want to express. Looking for good features in your bad first attempt is a great first step toward some creative, high-quality work.

Next, see if you can recognize and exploit what's wrong. When something is bad, it's often easy to see what's wrong and identify mistakes. Now you have something to do: correct the errors you see. You are no longer staring at a blank computer screen hoping for perfection to magically materialize. You have created ideas and put them out where you can see them. You have traded in the impossible task of creating something that's perfect for the much easier task of mining gems and correcting errors. You are now doing something different--you are not creating a work on a blank canvas but instead you are responding to a work already there. Your responses, in turn, will lead to new good ideas that you could not have created before you made the requisite mistakes. In making this action item practical, you must be sure to give yourself enough time for the required iterations. Thus you must commit to starting your effort (that is, creating a crummy draft or first attempt) far enough in advance to allow the necessary gestation and iteration that leads to a polished work of which you will be proud. So start early.

Have a bad day

Bad days happen to good people. What separates the good from the great is how we react to that bad day. Bad days often include uncomfortably clear lessons about how to grow, learn, or reassess. So the next time you're having a bad day, make the conscious effort to find and extract positive lessons from those not-so-positive experiences.

Exaggerate to generate errors

Consider an issue or problem and now exaggerate some feature of it to a ridiculous extreme. The strategy of exaggeration to extremes can be applied to any issue, from writing to marketing to product development to politics. You might perform this exercise physically or metaphorically, depending on the issue.

Expert change

If you're learning something, solving a problem, or developing a skill, imagine in detail what a more skilled practitioner does, or what added knowledge, understanding, and previous experience the expert would bring to the task. In other words, describe the different task that an expert would be doing compared to what you are currently doing in undertaking your task. Instead of thinking that you are going to be doing something that is harder--requiring more concentration and more effort--think in terms of what kind of knowledge or skill or strategy would make the task an easier one.