Summary of the book “The Five Elements of Effective Thinking”

In this blog post, I am going to summarize the key ideas from the book titled “The Five Elements of Effective Thinking” written by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird along with my thoughts on the topic.

The preface starts with arguing that thinking is the skill which forms all other skills like decision making, creativity, or intuition. The first question that came to my mind is What are other such qualities?. Learning, articulating, teaching, observing keenly avoiding bias, out-of-box thinking, intelligence, multi-disciplinary thinking. There could be countless such qualities. For example a person who designs should have empathy and emotional intelligence to understand the essential need of the user. Why is understanding a customer difficult? My immediate thought was, can I find a counter argument to the authors claim that thinking is not the only essential ingradient?.

Write to think better: We know from experience that writing helps in thinking. Does speaking have any role at least half as much of writing in thinking?. Other than writing what else helps you think better?. One other possibility is questioning.

Explaining someone else helps us think better because while explaining we get exposed to things which we thought we knew but actually didn’t.
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, then my question is is drawing should be even more helpful in thinking?.

Is writing an abstraction for your thoughts?. If that is the case then ideally we must be throwing away information right?. If thinking is the basis component then how can another activity like writing/teaching can enhance it?. What are the basis components to thinking?. Can you replace questioning with some other activity?.

If there is a systematic and optimal way to think and assume you did that once, then this means we only need to do it once because doing it again will produce the same results right? Because we already took the optimal action?

Role of Curiosity: What a fascinating ingredient is curiosity! Hard to understand. Why are humans curious? Is that the only driving force that forces us to do everything? We need to survive (eat and protect ourselves) and pass out genes to offspring according to Richard Dawkins but what is making us curious? It is the fuel that drives us to explore. Humans as a species, do we have specialties in our gene pool to explore, protect, and lead?.

In the book, Einstein’s comment about his intelligence is mentioned. The qualities he mentions are more or less curiosity, grit, and self-criticism. Here the author points out the essentiality of being a lifelong learner. He claims great people are having effective thinking habits. He says “This book describes habits that will automatically cause you to regularly produce new knowledge and insight”. He claims that there are five such habits that will make our thinking efficient. Those are listed below along with some keywords for ease of remembering.

  • Earth (Understand Deeply)
  • Fire (Make Mistakes)
  • Air (Raise Questions)
  • Water (Follow the flow of ideas)
  • Change

Earth (Understand Deeply): Simplifying the problem, and dividing and conquering such ideas can come here. It is the place to think about what is important here. What is the big picture here? Be brutally honest about what you know and what you don’t know. Then see what is missing. Fill in the gaps. Writing or teaching can be done in this section. Try your best to avoid bias. He says there are degrees to understanding and it is not a binary variable. You can always improve your understanding no matter how deeply you think you know it. 

Air (Make Mistakes): First of all, learn to see failures as more gains. There is always something profound to learn if you fail then you succeed. He even says to intentionally get it wrong. Mistakes highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next. And they ignite your imagination. 

Air (Raise Questions): This we know already. Think about what is the real question here. But one thing interesting here is he says that working on the wrong question can waste a lifetime. This is counterintuitive to me. How can a question be wrong/irrelevant/stupid? Ideas are in the air and the right questions will bring them out and help you see connections that otherwise would have been invisible. 

Water (Follow The Flow Of Ideas): This topic is poorly understood for me. Look back to see where ideas came from and then look ahead to discover where those ideas may lead. He says following the consequences of small ideas can result in big payoffs. 

You can understand anything better than you currently do. Setting a higher standard for yourself for what you mean by understanding can revolutionize how you perceive the world. He gives the example of trumpet player. Deep work on simple, basic ideas helps to build true virtuosity— not just in music but in everything.

A way to practice this as he describes is to deliberately write down possible basics and practice them for a given period. He gives a great test to check our basics. Choose a topic and write down a detailed outline of all the fundamentals of the subject. You will have to write down a clear, layman’s explanation for all the fundamental components. Identify where you struggle. Can you see the big picture? And how do different pieces fit together? When you find weakness in your understanding, take action to fill those gaps.

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.

When Faced with a Challenge Don’t Do It: RetreatThe idea he is presenting here is to address a mini version of the problem to get insights. If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it— George Polya.

When the going gets tough, creative problem solvers create an easier, simpler version of the problem that they can solve. They resolve that easier issue thoroughly and then study that simple scenario with laser focus. Those insights often point the way to a resolution of the original difficult problem.

Seeing The Unseen: Here he shows the example of the airplane and birds. The emphasis is on the importance of seeing the unseen. There will be an obvious visible thing and a subtle but more important thing in every aspect. 

Uncover the Essence: When faced with a complex and multifaceted situation, he is asked to attempt to isolate the essential ingredients. There is a further step to understanding how the other features of the situation fit together. He suggested a two-step process for this. 

  1. Identify and ignore all distracting features to isolate the essential core
  2. Analyze that central issue and apply those insights to the larger whole

This reminds me of the meditation technique where we direct attention to surrounding sounds, smell, colors, temperature, and tastes one by one. He says a complex idea can have more than one essential idea. Find what is at the center and work out from there. He shares an interesting observation of an artist which is shadows having color. 

Challenge the assumptions: We always are subject to bias. To see beyond we need to be aware of it and take a conscious effort to avoid those. This is challenging to throw away the assumptions. The author says “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.” The order of thinking by great leaders of Why, how, and what is often missing in ordinary people.

When learning things, be honest with yourself. Don’t pretend like you know things that you don’t know. Ask yourself. Is it making sense to you? “It is at the interface between what you actually know and what you don’t yet know that true learning and growth occur.”

Let Evidence Lead: If you are writing an essay, read literally what you have written— not what you intended to communicate. If you think you know an idea and cannot express it then the process has identified a gap in your understanding. Authority and relatedness may falsely guide us into believing things that are actually not true. Individuals tend to accept ideas if people they know or respect state or believe those ideas. 

Here the idea was evidence-based thinking rather than relying on authority no matter how important the authority is. But one possible fault is if our evidence is wrong or it is not evidence. How can we assure the validity of the evidence?.

Be aware of your opinions and beliefs. Regularly consider your opinions, beliefs, and knowledge, and subject them to “How do I know”?. What is the evidence that your understanding is based upon? Beware 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.

One actionable item is to deliberately advocate for the opinion opposite to yours and try to prove or disprove it. Even following ideas that you know as wrong is also useful. Because by following those, you might lead to a better understanding of why your original idea is correct. Or you might lead to new and unexpected insights that run counter to your original beliefs. This process can be switched from one side to another for a given period and repeated.

Only if we can identify or imagine the current limitations then we can foresee an even better future. He gives examples of black-and-white photographs and World War 1. Identifying limitations/negatives is easy in most cases but not obvious in some cases.

Fire: Fail To Succeed: Igniting Insights Through Mistakes 

Winston Churchill said success is the ability to go from one failure to another one with no loss of enthusiasm. Failure is good as long as we can learn from it. But how can we precisely identify what went wrong? Identifying what went wrong may not be easy. “Mistakes direct our attention in productive ways by forcing us to focus on the specific task of determining why the attempt at hand failed”.

Can we use convergent/critical thinking approaches to identify what went wrong or what is or why are we not understanding a situation or concept? Will things like learning and teaching/reflect work? He suggested failing nine times before thinking of giving up. Take a risk and when you fail, no longer think, “Oh, no, what a frustrating waste of time and effort,” but instead extract a new insight from that misstep and correctly think, “Great: one down, nine to go— I’m making forward progress!”

Now he points out some cool ideas on how to leverage mistakes. One is to do your best attempt, fail, and narrow down to the issue. The second is to fail deliberately and identify and clarify the weak point. Analyze each mistake to find out why it makes it wrong. This will point in the right direction. The final trick is to check whether the failed method is applicable to any other problem. 

This technique reminds me of the gradient concept. The gradient always points towards the direction of higher change. Taking a smaller version of the problems before attacking the big problem is a good technique. Why don’t I use the same technique for learning as well as explaining a concept? 

Idea of Inversion: Making mistakes connects back to the idea of inversion. You don’t know the correct solution, hence you take a wrong answer and examine why it is wrong. “The process shifts the activity from trying to think of a correct solution, which you don’t know at the moment, to the activity of correcting mistakes, which is often something you can do.” 

Change:  The essential idea is to be willing to change and improve yourself. If we want to improve then we should always embrace change. He gives the example of the teaching method of professor R. L. Moore. Observing an expert and replicating their style is one method he suggests. 

In summary, the book is packed with some pretty good techniques such as solving a miniature problem, the idea of inversion, writing to think, etc. Over many times it came handy for me to use these techniques to solve some issues easily. I hope this will be usefull to my readers also.

The blog post series on various book summaries can be found here.

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