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The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

Geniuses practice learnable habits of thinking that allow them to see the world differently.

Do you want to come up with more imaginative ideas? Do you stumble with complicated problems? Do you want to find new ways to confront challenges?

Of course you do. So do I.

But when is the last time you thought about how you think?

Do you have a process for making decisions? Are you using mental models and connecting big ideas from multiple disciplines? Are you taking steps to reduce cognitive biases? Have you defined the problem and do you know what success looks like?

Just as with any skill, some of us are better at thinking than others. Why?

We’re seduced into believing that brilliant thinkers are born that way. We think they magically produce brilliant ideas.

Nothing could be further from the truth. While there are likely genetic exceptions, the vast majority of the people we consider brilliant use their minds differently.

Often, these geniuses practice learnable habits of thinking that allow them to see the world differently. By doing so, they avoid much of the folly that so often ensnares others. Eliminating stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.

I came across The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, authored by Dr. Edward B. Burger and Dr. Michael Starbird, which presents some practical ways for us to improve our thinking.

They make a pretty bold claim in the introduction.

You can personally choose to become more successful by adopting five learnable habits, which, in this book, we not only explain in detail but also make concrete and practical.

The five habits are:
1. Understand deeply
2. Make mistakes
3. Raise questions
4. Follow the flow of ideas
5. Change

Let’s explore each of these a little.

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.

These are the four basic building blocks for effective thinking. The fifth is 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.

If you’re stuck, need a new idea, or just want to improve your thinking, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking will help you on your way.

Originally published at www.farnamstreetblog.comFor more from Shane, visit Farnam Street. Follow him on Twitter @farnamstreet.

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