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

Read:  2018-01-29, Rating:  9/10.

This book offers thought-provoking ways to provoke thought.

I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent. Curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas.

—Albert Einstein

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Grounding Your Thinking – Understand Deeply

mastering an efficient, nuanced performance of simple pieces allows one to play spectacularly difficult pieces with greater control and artistry.

The whole of science is merely a refinement of everyday thinking.

—Albert Einstein

when preparing for your next exam, make sure you can earn a 100% on all the previous exams

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.

On May 26, the National Space Council didn’t suit up an astronaut. Instead their first goal was to hit the moon.

If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it.

—George Polya

Apply this mind-set to your work: when faced with a difficult issue or challenge, do something else. Focus entirely on solving a subproblem that you know you can successfully resolve. Be completely confident that the extraordinarily thorough work that you invest on the subproblem will later be the guide that allows you to navigate through the complexities of the larger issue. But don’t jump to that more complex step while you’re at work on the subissue. First just try to hit the moon … walking on its surface is for another day.

Children enjoy finding Waldo amid the clutter. If the non-Waldo figures were removed, locating Waldo would be trivial (and boring). The challenge comes from the clutter.

There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.

—Pablo Picasso

identify one or two essential goals and use them to guide your actions.

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.

Try not to be judgmental. Don’t resist the alternative views.

One of the most profound ways to see the world more clearly is to look deliberately for the gaps

How can you see what’s truly invisible? Add the adjective and uncover the gaps.

attach an adjective or descriptive phrase (such as “the First” before “World War”) that points out some reality of the situation, ideally some feature that is limiting or taken for granted. Then consider whether your phrase suggests new possibilities or opportunities.

Use your newfound adjectives to create interesting and provocative insights that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

we associate understanding with the element Earth because when we attain a rich understanding, we are literally standing upon rock-solid, firm ground. Earth is that which is under where we stand.


Igniting Insights through Mistakes – Fail to Succeed

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

—Winston Churchill

The next time you face a daunting challenge, think to yourself, “In order for me to resolve this issue, I will have to fail nine times, but on the tenth attempt, I will be successful.”

In making this action item practical, you must be sure to give yourself enough time for the required iterations.

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.

In business, you could ask what you would do if there were no budgetary constraints whatsoever. Maybe some aspects of those unrealistic solutions will point the way toward a practical solution that you otherwise would never have even considered.

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.

When you’re stuck, and you don’t know what to do, don’t do nothing—instead, fail. Making a specific mistake puts you in a different and better position than you were in before you started. And it’s a forward step you know you can actually take.


Creating Questions out of Thin Air – Be Your Own Socrates

The unexamined life is not worth living.


Constantly formulating and raising questions is a mind-opening habit that forces you to have a deeper engagement with the world and a different inner experience. Asking yourself challenging questions can help you reveal hidden assumptions, avoid bias, expose vagueness, identify errors, and consider alternatives. Generating questions can help direct your next steps toward deeper understanding and creative problem solving.

Even when you do know the answer, asking, “What if … ?” is a great way to see more and delve deeper.

Get in the habit of asking, “Do I really know?” and refuse to accept assertions blindly. Challenge everything and everyone

“What are the central ideas here and do I truly understand them?”

teachers could give pressure-packed sixty-second in-class exercises in which students are to work fast while the teacher yells at them to work faster. These seemingly harsh episodes actually would give students experience in focusing, not being distracted, and engaging with the material quickly and accurately.

“What can I do on a day-to-day basis to help me perform well when it counts?”

Listening is not enough. If you are constantly engaged in asking yourself questions about what you are hearing, you will find that even boring lecturers become a bit more interesting

before you succumb to the temptation to immediately spring to work on the answer, always stop and first ask, “What’s the real question here?”

The right questions clarify your understanding and focus your attention on features that matter

“How can I learn to think better and understand more deeply?” “How can I learn to communicate better?” “How can I increase my curiosity?” are far more constructive.

“What beneficial change could this assignment offer me?” “What permanent benefit am I supposed to get out of this exercise?” “Did I get it?”

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

—Peter Drucker


Seeing the Flow of Ideas – Look Back, Look Forward

To improve the golden moment of opportunity, and catch the good that is within our reach, is the great art of life.

—Samuel Johnson

Solutions to little problems generate solutions to great problems.

Unfortunately origins of ideas are often covered up, giving the impression of magic, spontaneous creation rather than of incremental evolution

All creative people, even ones who are considered geniuses, start as nongeniuses and take baby steps from there.

As you are learning a topic, ask yourself what previous knowledge and what strategy of extending previous ideas make the new idea clear, intuitive, and a natural extension.

Learning from mistaken guesses let us see differences between what we expected and what actually arose, and thus changed our view of the issues.

Effective students and creative innovators regularly strive to uncover the unintended consequences of a lesson learned or a new idea.

The time to work on a problem is after you’ve solved it.

—R. H. Bing

after you have reached one level, that is where you start. That is the platform from which you can proceed even further—whether that starting point is a high grade, a professional accomplishment, or a profound insight; go for it!

Once you have it, see if you can improve it

acknowledge that however far we do see, our vision extends merely to a horizon beyond which a far bigger world will become visible.

Ask, “What’s next?” Explore the connective, “If this, then that.” Follow the hypothetical results of the idea. And when you have arrived at the next step, let it settle as the new reality and only then think, “What now?”

In reality, the normal state is one in which some features of life and learning are problematic and need attention.

The Quintessential Element

Engaging Change – Transform Yourself

In ancient Greek philosophy, the quintessential element was the unchanging material from which the extraterrestrial realm was made. Here the unchanging fifth element is, ironically, change itself.

Strive for rock- solid understanding (Earth). Fail and learn from those missteps (Fire). Constantly create and ask challenging questions (Air). Consciously consider the flow of ideas (Water). And, of course, remember that learning is a lifelong journey; thus each of us remains a work-in-progress—always evolving, ever changing—and that’s Quintessential living.