I downloaded the Audible version of The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Dr. Edward Burger and Dr. Michael Starbird for a weekend road trip and was, at first, disappointed to see that there was only about three hours of content. That equates to 168 pages if you’re reading rather than listening – hardly the entertainment I would need for many miles of driving. But as the book went on, I realized that the size is its strength rather than weakness.
Burger and Starbird suggest that there are five elements to effective thinking:
- Understand deeply
- Make mistakes
- Raise questions
- Follow the flow of ideas
The first four ideas serve as the table legs to effective thinking, and the fifth as the table top that supports your work.
Student: “I knew the material, I just couldn’t explain it.”
Professor: “If you can’t explain it, you didn’t know the material.”
This exchange was recounted as one both authors have heard many times in their careers. Their answer gives us the first place to start: understand the basics of a problem. In the book they suggest that perhaps the reason we don’t understand calculus is that we actually don’t understand algebra. If we don’t have a complete mastery of the basics then whatever we try to build above that will eventually be unsupported. Once we master algebra we can move on to calculus, a subject they posit is based on only two ideas and thousands of derivatives of those. Understand the two pillars deeply, then the rest is manageable.
What if you already understand an issue completely? We can rethink that too. An understanding isn’t just a “yes” or “no” proposition, it’s more like a journey. We may understand marketing, sales, or management but our learning in those areas is never really complete. We can always consider opposing views to strengthen our existing one, try to fill in the gaps of our knowledge, or adapt to changing technologies.
Never in a book have I heard the encouragement to fail more loudly – or more often. Burger and Starbird want us to “intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right.” It’s in failure that we start to see where the errors are and what to fix.
One exercise they suggest is to assume that you will fail to do something nine times before getting it right on the tenth. In doing this though, they insist we learn from our mistakes as to why we’re doing what we’re doing and what we can change about it.
They suggest that this happens with everything. Start something and get it out there, from a book draft to a piece of software, and then start to fix the mistakes. In the book they share the rough draft of FDR’s “Day of Infamy” speech after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It originally began as “a date which will live in world history” and after revisions was changed to “a date which will live in infamy.” Burger and Starbird are suggesting that every first attempt is a draft we can identify the mistakes in and learn from.
“Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding.”
When we start asking why, we start thinking about what really matters.Like challenging tasks become easier the more you do them, so will questioning. The more often you ask questions the better chance of asking the right ones.
“Framing good questions focuses your attention on the right issues.”
When we start asking questions, we aren’t proving the things we know and we don’t need to answer every question we ask. Asking why enough is like a turning a compass in the palm of your hand, after a while you’ll get an indication to the direction you should be going.
And if you’re worried about looking stupid for asking questions, don’t be. The authors write, “paradoxically, when you ask basic questions you will more than likely be perceived by others to be smarter.”
Follow the Flow of Ideas†
Envision ideas as if you were seeing them while standing on the shoreline of a river. Remember that you can only see part of the river. Upstream beyond your gaze is the point of origin, where a group of tributaries formed to start the river. Downstream is where the river has changed at the delta. You see only a bow or bend, not where it begins or ends.
Burger and Starbird want us to think of ideas in these same terms. Ideas originate not in a divine way, but after muddling and mixing with existing thoughts. Ideas also have a natural future; they move past where we are now and will exist in a new form on a new day. In the book they use the example of the phone – its evolution from Alexander Graham Bell to Steve Jobs – and acknowledge that for as great as the iPhone is, it’s certainly not the pinnacle of what the phone will become.
The final element of effective thinking is change. We can always change, grow, or adapt our thinking. We can consider new issues and go deeper in†them or take issues we understand and understand the history that led to them. We can experiment, put out fires, and examine ignition points. We can practice asking questions of each new project and person we meet. We can look for the history of ideas and try to anticipate the future. Each of these actions is an effective form of thinking.
All in all, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking might be the best per-page book I’ve been exposed to this year.