We can improve our lives in all areas just by improving the way we think. As the authors Michael Starbird and Edward Burger tells us: The 5 elements of effective thinking are to put simply, better thinking habits. The 1st element is to do with striving for rock-solid understanding (earth), the 2nd element -making mistakes in order to gain insights (fire). The third element (air) is about constantly asking challenging questions, whilst the 4th element entails observing the flow of ideas (water). Finally, the 5th element involves embracing change through lifelong learning as well as improvement (quintessential element).

Here is a brief summary of each of the 5 elements of effective thinking.

The 1st Element of Effective Thinking: EARTH

Ground your thinking; Understand things deeply

 “Understand deeply” is great advice, but what does it really mean? The truth is that most of us never understand anything deeply. After not doing well on a test, students often tell us, “I knew it, but I couldn’t explain it … ” to which we respond, “If you can’t explain it, you don’t know it.”

  • Return to the basics ever so often. Think of a subject area that you think you know a lot about or are trying to master and write about it. If you can’t write a coherent description of the topic or are struggling with the big picture to connect the ideas, then take action. Consult external sources, studying the material and adding to what you wrote initially. Every time you work on the basics of a subject, you deepen your understanding of the topic.
  • Periodically go back and refine your knowledge and understanding of the fundamental concepts. Going over the basics once just does not cut it. It may also appear to you that returning to the basics is a step backwards. However, by truly strengthening the foundations of your understanding can you progress into greater depths on a chosen field. 
  • Choose depth over vagueness, when learning something new. If you are learning the piano, then instead of memorizing finger movements – understand the structure of the piece. In addition, you can study the chord progressions or even try to distinguish between notes by ear.
  • Admit what is uncertain. Admitting your own uncertainties is a powerful first step to gaining a solid understanding. If you have gaps in your knowledge or understanding of a subject: Admit it to yourself first, then work on filling those gaps.

The 2nd Element of Effective Thinking: FIRE

Igniting Insights through Mistakes; Fail to Succeed

“The typical attitude that mistakes should be avoided is patently wrong and has several detrimental consequences. The mindset that mistakes are poisonous often freezes us into inaction. If we have a healthier attitude that failure is a potent teacher… then we find ourselves liberated to move forward…”

  • Fail 9 times, succeed on the 10th. When attempting a daunting task, try this. Think to yourself that in order to resolve this issue, you need to fail 9 times, but on the tenth attempt you will be successful. By shifting your mindset in this manner, your energy diverts towards solving the task creatively rather than on fear of failing. Moreover, once you do fail, remind yourself that you are 10% done!
  • Don’t stare at a blank paper. Choose an issue or problem that you wish to solve, then start jotting down ideas on how you can solve it. The aim is to note down your stream of thoughts however bad, unorganized, inaccurate it may appear. That’s a start. Once you have formulated a bad first draft, focus on what’s wrong and improve it whilst uncovering the ideas that might be worth expanding further. By doing this, you are responding to a work that is already there rather than procrastinating in front of a blank screen.

The 3rd Element of Effective Thinking: AIR

Generate questions out of thin air; Be your own Socrates.

“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.”

  • Build a habit of asking questions. By doing so, you gain a better understanding of the nature of a problem.
  • Don’t build on vagueness or ambiguity, build on clarity. When you’re unsure about the basic things, admit it to yourself and ask a question. Confident leaders don’t shy away from asking the ‘stupid’ or ‘basic’ questions.
  • Re-frame questions. Instead of asking how can I ace my exam? Ask: how do I engage myself more with the course materials? Could I write a detailed outline for this course? Could I teach this course? What concepts do I have to focus on to deepen my understanding? 
  • Ask Meta-Questions. Sometimes, we can reach better solutions by merely asking a better question. The main concept behind meta questions is: to question your own questions so as to improve them. For instance, the next time you are stuck in traffic, instead of asking yourself “how can I fix this?” a better question would be – “Since I’m going to be waiting here for an indefinite period, how can I spend the time more productively?”

The 4th Element of Effective Thinking: WATER

See the flow of ideas. Look back, Look forward.

“To understand current ideas through flow, first find easier elements that lead to what you want to understand. 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.”

  • Look back and observe the flow of ideas. A look back makes understanding advanced topics easier. Look back to see how you came about to where you are now in a given field. By understanding the basics and the flow of ideas can lead to clarity on the next steps which eventually leads to mastery.
  • Extend ideas. Select an idea from any domain such as work or from your personal life (you do not have to be the one who came up with the idea). The goal is to engage with it and expand on it. Don’t wonder whether or not you can expand on the idea, you can. Your objective is to find it.

The 5th Element of Effective Thinking: THE QUINTESSENTIAL ELEMENT

Engaging Change; Transforming Yourself

“[Element 5]… builds on the previous 4 elements and is about practicing effective thinking so that you be a lifelong learner and are always striving for improvement.”

  • Adopt a habit of continuous improvement. Whether using any of the four elements or by any other methods. If you’re the type of person who embraces change, then you are liberated from worry about weaknesses or defects, because you can adapt and improve.
  • Do it differently. In order to become more skillful in any task, try thinking in terms of ‘what you do’ rather than ‘how well you do it.’ Similarly, instead of thinking ‘Do it better,’ think – ‘Do it differently.’
  • Mastery is a continuum. It’s not that all the puzzles fall into place in the 10,000th hour of practice but rather from the accumulated flow of incremental progress.

“A wondrously romantic belief is that brilliant students are born brilliant and brilliant thinkers magically produce brilliant ideas: A+, the star student aces the exam; click, Edison invents the light bulb. Liftoff, the Wright brothers soar into the sky. Abracadabra, J. K. Rowling apparates Harry Potter. Yea, the Founding Fathers resolve the Bill of Rights; whoosh, Ralph Lauren turns heads on fashion’s runways. Eureka, Einstein teases his hair and relativity falls out.

We can all marvel at these fanciful visions of leaps of genius, but it should not fool us into believing that they’re reality. Brilliant students and brilliant innovators create their own victories by practicing habits of thinking that inevitably carry them step-by-step to works of greatness.


 

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