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

5 Elements of Effective Thinking

RATING: 7/10…READ: September 26, 2013

Practical mental frameworks for effective thinking and overcoming cognitive biases. A great book for learning how to learn the fundamentals of any subject and relentlessly focusing on them.

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Remember: Extraordinary people are just ordinary people who are thinking differently—and that could be you.

When you learn anything, go for depth and make it rock solid. If you learn a piece of music for the piano, then, instead of just memorizing finger movements, learn to hear each note and understand the structure of the piece. Ask yourself, “Can I play the notes of the right hand while just humming the notes of the left hand?” If you study the Civil War, rather than memorizing some highlights—Lincoln was president; Lee was a general; slavery played a role—you can try to understand the background, competing forces, and evolving social values that ignited the bloody conflict. When you make political decisions, instead of focusing on a candidate’s good looks and fifteen-second sound bites, you can objectively learn about the issues and develop your own reasoned opinions.

Successful people regularly focus on the core purpose of their profession or life. True experts continually deepen their mastery of the basics.

Deep work on simple, basic ideas helps to build true virtuosity—not just in music but in everything.

In everything you do, refine your skills and knowledge about fundamental concepts and simple cases. Once is never enough. As you revisit fundamentals, you will find new insights. It may appear that returning to basics is a step backward and requires additional time and effort; however, by building on firm foundations you will soon see your true abilities soar higher and faster.

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.

To learn any subject well and to create ideas beyond those that have existed before, return to the basics repeatedly.

Great scientists, creative thinkers, and problem solvers do not solve hard problems head-on. When they are faced with a daunting question, they immediately and prudently admit defeat. They realize that there is no sense in wasting energy vainly grappling with complexity when, instead, they can productively grapple with simpler cases that will teach them how to deal with the complexity to come.

Step One: Identify and ignore all distracting features to isolate the essential core. Step Two: Analyze that central issue and apply those insights to the larger whole.

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.

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.

If you believe something only because another person—even a professor—told you it was so, then you should not view your understanding as rock solid.

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.

Add the adjective and uncover the gaps. Let’s return to a time in which photographs were not in living color. During that period, people referred to pictures as “photographs” rather than “black-and-white photographs” as we do today. The possibility of color did not exist, so it was unnecessary to insert the adjective “black-and-white.” However, suppose we did include the phrase “black-and-white” before the existence of color photography. By highlighting that reality, we become conscious of current limitations and thus open our minds to new possibilities and potential opportunities.

“If you can’t explain it, you don’t know it.”

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.” This attitude frees you and allows you to think creatively without fear of failure, because you understand that learning from failure is a forward step toward success.

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.

Traditionally people believe that it’s in the answering of questions that progress is made. In fact, creating questions is as important as answering them, if not more so, because framing good questions focuses your attention on the right issues.

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.

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

Alternative perspectives lead to new sights and new insights. With mathematical questions, you can think about the issues numerically, graphically, algebraically, or physically. With social issues, you can think of them economically, globally, locally, and historically. Moreover, we can investigate issues from an evolutionary point of view and ask what is causing change; how those influences have caused change over time; and how they will cause change in the future.

Try to bridge ideas from one discipline or area to another. Ask whether the skills, attitudes, techniques from one subject might be applied to another subject and to your work or life. In our experience, the students who embraced this mind-set have far outperformed—not just in their classes, but in their lives beyond school—those who dismissed this point of view.

Remember: If you can’t create the questions, you’re not ready for the test.

As a student, challenge yourself to attempt homework as quickly as possible—consider these questions: How fast can I do this assignment? How much can I get done in thirty minutes even if, at the moment, I can’t get it all right?

Be thought provoking. Getting in the habit of asking questions will transform you into an active (rather than passive) listener.

Sadly, many people spend their entire lives focusing on the wrong questions. They may pursue money, when they really want happiness. They may pursue the respect of people whose favor is really not worthy of being sought. So 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?” Often the question that seems obvious may not be the question that leads to effective action.

Every great idea is a human idea that evolved from hundreds if not thousands of individuals struggling to make sense of and understand the issue at hand. Thoughtful individuals moved the boundaries of our knowledge forward little by little.

To understand current ideas through flow, first find easier elements that lead to what you want to understand, and then build bridges from those easier elements to the ideas you wish to master. To generate new ideas through flow, first modify an existing idea within its own context and then apply that same idea in different settings. Then you can construct extensions, refinements, and variations.

Recognizing that the present reality is a moment in a continuing evolution makes your understanding fit into a more coherent structure.

Leibniz published the first article on calculus in 1684, an essay that was a mere 6 pages long. Newton and Leibniz would surely be astounded to learn that today’s introductory calculus textbook contains over 1,300 pages. A calculus textbook introduces two fundamental ideas, and the remaining 1,294 pages consist of examples, variations, and applications—all arising from following the consequences of just two fundamental ideas.

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.

The difference between those who have great insights and those who don’t is that the first group actually take those baby steps. Students who embrace the mind-set that better ideas are literally right next door and that “one more small step will get me there” outperform those who believe that only the great minds make great progress.

We must get in the habit of seeing each advance as putting us on the lower slope of a much higher peak that has yet to be scaled.

Good progress is often the herald of great progress.

By analogy, your life has many major features—family, friends, education, professional situations, possessions, and more. Each of these elements is in flux. So you should not expect the “normal” state of affairs to be one in which everything is finished, perfect, and performing well. In reality, the normal state is one in which some features of life and learning are problematic and need attention. Acknowledge that reality and try to identify opportunities for improvement and growth.

Those four elements are like the (correct) instructions in a diet book: if you eat this and that and don’t eat these things, and you exercise in this way, then you will lose weight. But often the real problem is following the instructions. This quintessential element speaks to the challenge of becoming a person who embraces the lessons.

People who perform better can be viewed as actually doing a different task, rather than doing the same task better.

Individuals who are more successful at anything are performing their task with their eyes open; that is, the activity they are doing is different from the activity that less successful people are undertaking.

Often people describe the distinction between the skilled practitioner and the less skilled practitioner by saying that the skilled person is better at the task. But a more useful and accurate perspective is that the skilled practitioner is doing a fundamentally different task—one that you could master as well.

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.

The image of building a life from solid success to solid success is a wonderful dream, but it is only a fantasy. Instead, you must let old ideas crumble in the face of challenges in order to build yet better structures.