The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

by Edward B. Burger, Michael Starbird

The one thing we incessantly do throughout the time we spend awake is think. We use our thinking skills in our work as well as our personal and social lives. So it is only logical that, by improving our thinking skills, we can improve all the other areas of our lives. A common misconception we are led to believe is that creative thinkers, such as geniuses and innovators, are born that way. That we either have it or we don't. But, as described in this book, great thinkers are not born; they are made. By simply adopting a set of thinking habits, anyone can become an effective thinker. This book will help you to identify those habits and implement them in your life.

Edward Burger is a mathematician who has been a professor at several esteemed universities. He has been the recipient of many prestigious accolades such as the “Global Hero in Education” by Microsoft. He currently serves as the CEO and president at St. David’s Foundation. He also has a weekly program on higher education, thinking, and learning called Higher ED.

Summary Notes

Element 1: Earth—Gain a Rock Solid Understanding of the Basics

“When you look at your own familiar world with unaccustomed depth and clarity, that world will open up to show richness, structure, and meaning that you never saw before.”

Understanding something is not a binary proposition. We can understand even the simplest concept in an ever-increasing depth. Strong fundamentals help us build a rock-solid understanding upon which we can build advanced ideas. That is why it is of the highest importance to spend time mastering the basics.

Oftentimes the difference between the expert and amateur is not in the level of complexity one can handle. Instead, it's the subtle things like how nuanced one’s fundamentals are. A professional tennis player plays better tennis than an amateur. If we pay close attention though, we can notice the differences starting from the basics such as the way the pro watches the ball or swings his bat. The professional performs the basics with incredible technical efficiency and clarity. That is why they can perform sophisticated feats with mastery.

So mastering the basics and revisiting them from time to time is crucial. Every time we revisit the basics, we can spot new nuances that went unnoticed before. Looking at the fundamentals with a probing mind is necessary to gain expertise in any subject area or skill.

Actions to take

Solving Complex Problems

“The simple and familiar hold the secrets of the complex and unknown. The depth with which you master the basics influences how well you understand everything you learn after that.”

The next step to understanding deeply is identifying the essential theme of the subject. The way to do that is by clearing out the clutter (mainly the obvious distractions) surrounding the core.

When trying to learn how birds fly, humans believed for centuries that flight was made possible due to the flapping of the wings. In reality, the flapping was not the solution. The gentle curve at the top of the wings is what gives birds flight. This finding was made possible only because experts were able to look beyond the obvious, distracting details like flapping and capture the true essence of flight.

Similarly, we must strip down distractions one by one until we find the essential theme. Noticing the essential core might not solve the entire problem, but it will be the North Star that guides us through the morass.

When faced with a complex problem, instead of trying to solve it head-on, we must break it down into simpler problems. Once we solve each simpler problem, we can study that problem in detail. Then, we can find the common pattern between the simple problem and the complex one. At that point, all that’s left is to tweak the solution accordingly.

Actions to take

Knowing Our Limitations

“You (and everyone else) have prejudices. Admit it already and move forward from there.”

The final key to understanding anything deeply is to be aware of our prejudices and the limitations of our knowledge. Then we must actively try to enhance our expertise. Often we are persuaded by authority and repetition rather than by sound evidence.

This tendency to accept what surrounds us makes it difficult to separate what we really know from what we just believe we know. Always question the source of your beliefs and assumptions. Try to get rid of the human biases that cloud your judgment.

One of the most common biases that we must be aware of is assuming we know something for sure without testing it. In order to learn what we don't know, we must be completely honest with ourselves about our understanding of a concept and commit to learning the unknown.

One very effective method is to attach an adjective to the things that you want to improve in your life. For example, you could attach an adjective to each year or decade of your life to identify its limitations. That can provide you with precious insights about how you can further improve upon it in the coming years.

Actions to take

2. Fire—Failures Spark Innovative Insights

“A person who is willing to fail is someone who is willing to step outside the box.”

Failure is often seen as something we should avoid. In reality, failure is a wonderful tool that can help us become successful in our endeavors. Mistakes allow us to focus our attention in productive ways by finding out what went wrong.

Most people, when they fail at something, beat themselves up for wasting their precious time and resources. They overlook the fact that some of the greatest accomplishments were created only through failures. Bill Gates and Paul Allen failed at their first business venture. Thomas Alva Edison failed countless times before inventing the light bulb. It is easy to list plenty of examples where eminent personalities failed their way to success.

To develop effective thinking, we must fail productively rather than simply failing. We should not be frozen by the fear of failure. Rather, we should use failures to find out where exactly the problem lies, correct it in the next version, and then try again. That's how we fail productively.

Actions to take

3. Air—Raise Questions to Gain Wisdom

“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.”

A unique characteristic that made Socrates one of the wisest men of his time is his habit of raising questions. He questioned not just himself but also his peers, students, and even his enemies. His questions challenged himself and everyone around him to discover new insights, identify biases, expose vagueness, and become a better person overall.

Unfortunately, we tend to repel questions because they make us uncomfortable. They constantly challenge our beliefs and the assumptions that underpin our thinking. The mere act of raising questions can provide plenty of valuable wisdom, even if they are not answered. Effective questions force us to focus on the right issue.

By embracing the habit of questioning everything regardless of the source, we can avoid building on false notions. We can create our own personal Socrates. This opens our minds to new perspectives on anything we want. Questioning ourselves solidifies our understanding and refines our thinking.

Actions to take

4. Water—Embrace the Flow of Ideas

“New ideas today are built on the ideas of yesterday and illuminate the way to the brilliant ideas of tomorrow.”

Have you ever wondered where great ideas come from? If we look at history, we can find several remarkable ideas that led to breakthroughs and in turn transformed the way future generations perceived the world.

We romanticize the idea that these breakthrough ideas are created through a lightbulb moment. However, for every single idea, there is a flawed predecessor and an improved successor. Every profound innovation of the present is built on the pre-existing knowledge and tools that were created by past generations. So to reach a higher level of creativity in any field, we must understand the flow of ideas.

To develop better ideas, we must first master the current ideas. Mastering the current ideas requires learning the simple concepts that make up those ideas and understanding how they all fit together to evolve into the present version. Once the existing concept has been mastered, we can proceed to modify it within its own context and then apply that same idea in different settings. This will give us an opportunity to create extensions, refinements, and variations.

For any groundbreaking solution, we must not conclude that it is the end product. One generation's final product is the prototype of the next generation. Everything is always under construction. Therefore, we must embrace the idea that there is a better design for any idea/product/solution and not acquire a fixed mindset.

Actions to take

Hard Truths of Innovation

Every journey worth embarking on contains hardships. By getting to know them beforehand, we can prepare ourselves to overcome those challenges with ease. There are so many more hidden obstacles in this journey, and we can cross them only if we believe that there is always a better version. This better version is just one correction or one iteration away.

There are certain brutal truths to accept before we embark on this journey of innovation.

  1. Not every answer to the question, "How can I make this better?" will lead to a fruitful journey. Still, these answers perform necessary functions that point to subtle nuances and help us identify the factors to take into account for the next try. 
  2. The novel features we add to the current version might not always be appreciated by others. It took hundreds of years for people to accept that slavery is a bad thing. Don't be discouraged if people don't value your creation. Continue your process of innovation. By and by, the world will celebrate your improvements. 

Actions to take

5. Aether—The Quintessential Element

“If the ability to change is part of who you are, then you are liberated from worry about weaknesses or defects, because you can adapt and improve whenever you like.”

The previously mentioned four elements will provide you with the necessary knowledge to become an effective thinker and learner. However, gaining knowledge is futile on its own. It's vital that we convert the knowledge gained into the wisdom of practicing every day. That's where the quintessential element comes in. 

In Greek philosophy, the quintessential element is used to represent a material that never changes. In this context, it represents the opposite, change. Becoming a better thinker involves changing our thinking patterns. To adopt new habits of thinking, we must let go of bad habits that are holding us back. 

A common excuse that might prevent us from implementing these habits is that it requires a lot of unnecessary effort and concentration. Although these habits require additional effort initially, in the long run, it makes the entire process of learning easier and more meaningful. Instead of struggling to remember concepts like disconnected pieces of information, it will help us create a proper context that turns the entire subject into an interconnected web of concepts. 

Actions to take

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