When you encounter a complex problem, think of the classical elements once believed to be the essence of nature and matter: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.
With The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, you’ll learn how to think effectively and realize your full potential. Using as an organizing principle the four elements – earth, fire, air and water – the authors explain many techniques for improving the way in which we think. With the addition of a fifth element, change, they demonstrate how adopting the right attitude helps to bring about lasting, positive change.
“Extraordinary people are just ordinary people who are thinking differently… 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.” – Edward Burger & Michael Starbird
The Quintessential Element
To implement the four elements of thinking in your life, you must be willing to change.
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Table of Contents
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In this summary of The Five Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird, you’ll
- Lose your fear of failure. You’ll be able to take on challenging endeavors fearlessly. In fact, you’ll embrace failure as a way of learning new things that you can then apply elsewhere too.
- Become a more inquisitive and critical thinker. You’ll ignite your inner curiosity and learn to ask more questions – even ones that you already know the answer to – and this will deepen your understanding of the subject.
- Be able to find outside-the-box solutions to problems. You’ll learn how to look beyond the obvious, generally-accepted solutions and find completely new approaches to problems.
Use the element of ‘Earth’ to solve a complex problem by going to the root of the problem:
- Ask yourself, “What are the core components or underlying factors I need to know more about?”
- Break the problem into a list of knowledge areas you need to research.
For example, if you struggle with procrastination, break the problem of procrastination into a list of underlying factors: distraction, lack of motivation, and overwhelm. Overcome procrastination by gaining a rock‐solid understanding of the factors that cause procrastination.
“To learn any subject well and to create ideas beyond those that have existed before, return to the basics repeatedly.”– Edward Burger & Michael Starbird
What’s the best way to develop a true understanding of something? Should you learn as much as possible about a subject, for instance?
Actually, no. The key to developing a true understanding of an issue is to master the basics. The basics make up the foundation of any skill or talent, the core of any expertise – just like the element Earth represents the solid ground underneath our feet.
Often a person who wants to become an expert – such as a student cramming for an important exam – will attempt to master as many complex theories or facts as she possibly can at once.
This isn’t the best strategy, however. True experts are instead concerned with continually and constantly perfecting the basics.
Virtuoso trumpet player Tony Plog once gave a masterclass for accomplished soloists, in which he requested that they play their most challenging, virtuosic piece. As you’d expect, they all played incredibly well.
In response, rather than offering advice and tips about how the performances could be improved, Plog asked the soloists to then perform a simple beginner’s exercise.
While they played the exercise well, none played impressively. Once they were finished, Plog himself performed the exercise, astonishing the group as to how virtuosic this “basic” piece was played.
What happened? Plog knew that mastery requires constant attention to and understanding of the basics, as it’s the basics that provide the foundation on which we can improve.
So when you’re faced with a challenging task, don’t tackle it headlong immediately. First, consider the basic elements of the task, and through this, you can attack each simpler element successfully.
Consider how the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) met the challenge of landing a man on the moon in the 1960s. The agency didn’t accomplish this goal by immediately shooting people into space; rather, they started with sending an unmanned rocket to the moon first.
Only once NASA had accomplished this basic step did they pursue and succeed in their goal of sending a man to the moon.
For years, people looked at birds, bats and insects and concluded, “All these animals flap their wings; flapping must be the secret to flight!”
If you’ve flown in an airplane, you know this conclusion is clearly wrong. But when trying to understand a phenomenon, we often reach for what seems the most obvious answer.
To get to the bottom of a problem, we need to uncover its essence, which is often hidden behind other, irrelevant details. Again, we are reminded of the element Earth, as a problem’s essence is its core or foundation.
Let’s think about flying. Understandably, the mechanics of flapping wings distracted observers from the real reason behind how a body can fly. It was only when people studied the mechanisms of flight more closely that they were able to better understand what enabled flight: the particular curvature of a wing.
Thus to find the essence of an issue or problem, we need to look at only what we can see. This means actively ignoring what we might expect to see, or have been taught to see.
Often our expectations get in the way of discovering the essence of an issue or problem, as we don’t question enough what others have told us that we should be observing.
For centuries, people believed Aristotle’s theory that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. It wasn’t until much later, during the seventeenth century, when curious individuals actively ignored Aristotle’s claim and examined the situation with fresh eyes – and discovered that Aristotle was wrong.
There’s also another way to find the essence of problem: to focus on what’s missing.
Today when we look at old photographs, we describe them as “black and white,” as those are the only colors present. Yet before the invention of color film, such monochrome photographs were simply known as photographs.
At the time, people didn’t think such photos as being limited in any way. But had they added the adjective “black and white” to “photography” before colored film was invented, people would have had a better understanding of the essence of the photographs in front of them.
Use the element of ‘Air’ to solve a complex problem by asking perspective‐changing questions. Ask yourself:
- “What if I were a curious child who knew nothing about this problem?” When you ask this question, you adopt a beginner’s mind and notice untested assumptions.
- “What if I were a pro and this was easy?” When you ask this question, you stop struggling and start looking for a simple solution (it’s also a great question to ask when feeling overwhelmed by a massive problem).
Successful entrepreneurs routinely ask, “What if I were the customer?” This question helps an entrepreneur adopt the customer’s point of view and notice points of friction in the purchase funnel, which they can fix to generate more sales.
When you consider the element of ‘Air’ imagine whirling around a problem like a tornado and adjusting your point of view.
Children ask a lot of questions. Yet as adults, we’re often distracted by our own problems and thus annoyed by this overeager inquisitiveness – especially the persistent, “why?”
This response is wrongheaded. Indeed, constantly questioning is crucial to developing the most effective mind-set.
But what steps should you take to achieve this ideal frame of mind? Think about the element Air – asking questions acts like a breath of fresh air, clearing the way to deeper knowledge.
First, put yourself in the position of a teacher. When you have adequately grasped a specific subject or solution to a problem, consider how you would then teach the subject to someone else.
For instance, you could prepare a lecture – perhaps for a colleague or friend – and, as you assemble your thoughts, try to make the subject as clear as possible.
In this process, you may find yourself considering questions you might not have had before. Moreover, having to explain a subject in detail to another person can help you to identify gaps in your own knowledge.
Once you’ve created your lecture, evaluate your work by making up an exam on your subject. Which questions would you ask? And more importantly, would you be able to then answer those questions accurately, based on your lecture’s contents?
Second, embrace an attitude of being constantly inquisitive and critical.
When you are curious about a subject, don’t bog yourself down with trying to absorb every fact you can at once. Instead, ask questions. Regularly ask yourself, “what if…?” and find an answer that satisfies your curiosity.
This approach works. The book’s authors, as they gave lectures, would randomly select one student in the hall to be the “questioner.” The questioner then had to ask at least two questions during the lecture.
Over the years, the authors noticed that the questioner usually would gain and retain a better understanding of a subject – because the questioner had to be inquisitive – than any other student present at the lecture.
Two men are walking in the forest when suddenly an angry bear starts to chase them. Both break into a sprint. While they’re running, one asks the other if he thinks they can outrun the bear and survive. The other says, “I don’t need to outrun the bear. The question is: Can I outrun you?”
Coming up with good questions is an invaluable skill. But what exactly makes a good question?
Questions should be effective; they should engage your mind in ways that lead to new insight and solutions.
An ineffective question is one that might be obvious or vaguely formulated, one that doesn’t lead to action. A question such as, “How can I get better grades?” is too general to generate a response that would actually lead you down the path to better grades.
Like the element Air, an effective question should provide clarity and focus. “How can I manage my time better?” or “How can I understand this subject more deeply?” are questions that get to the heart of the matter, where “How can I get better grades?” does not.
Yet sometimes, asking the right questions means questioning your own questions.
Think of the last time you were stuck in traffic. You were probably stressed, and perhaps came up with a half-dozen ways to fix the “traffic problem” in your city – by adding more lanes, as one example.
The reason your solutions aren’t helpful? You’re asking the wrong question.
In this situation, the right question begins with accepting the traffic you’re stuck in. So, by questioning your original question, a better question can then be formulated. For example, “Given the likelihood that I’m stuck here, is there a way for me to use this time effectively?”
The final type of question is more philosophical in scope: “What’s my reason for even doing this task in the first place?” A very good question. Before you begin a project, question why you’re interested in doing it, and determine what it is that you hope to gain from it.
Use the element of ‘Fire’ to solve a complex problem by testing ideas and embracing mistakes.
When you’re not sure what to study for an upcoming exam, take a practice test, then study the subject matter related to the questions you got wrong. If you’re not sure how to respond to an email, write a terrible draft, find errors, and fix them.
There is a big difference between failing and failing productively. Failing, looking bad, and quitting isn’t useful. Failing productively, however, by making mistakes and asking, “What specifically went wrong, and how can I do it better?” illuminates the path to success.
We all have bad days. Yet what distinguishes great thinkers from the average is not the absence of bad days, it’s the way a great thinker reacts to them when they occur.
This is a crucial lesson: whenever you make a mistake, make sure you take time to reflect on it.
Your accomplishments are built on the lessons you’ve learned, and mistakes are the basis of your most effective lessons. Sure, we don’t like making mistakes, just like we don’t enjoy being burned. The element Fire embodies this uncomfortable truth; we must embrace our mistakes to learn better.
So when you make a mistake, understand what you did wrong and then question why it was wrong. With each mistake you identify and investigate, you’ll have better insight into how to tackle future problems.
Thomas Edison was someone who understood the fire element, believing that invention was “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” His approach was to experiment, see what went wrong, learn from the mistake, then try again.
After he successfully invented the lightbulb, Edison was asked about his failed attempts. His response?
“I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Indeed, an ineffective solution to one problem could be the perfect solution to another. In 1970, for example, a scientist working for 3M Laboratories tried to create a strong adhesive. What he came up with instead was a failure: an adhesive so weak it could be peeled off any surface, leaving no trace. The project was subsequently abandoned.
Three years later, another scientist at 3M was seeking to create a bookmark that wouldn’t slip out between pages easily or damage them.
The solution? That same “failed” weak adhesive. The scientist’s invention went on to become one of 3M’s most successful and ubiquitous products: the Post-it note.
So before you consider an idea useless or a failure, take a moment to consider whether your idea might be used in a way that you haven’t yet imagined.
Many people are deathly afraid of failure. They believe that in failing, they won’t ever succeed – a perspective that stops many people from ever trying new things.
To be innovative, you cannot be afraid to make mistakes. In fact, because failing can provide you with such useful information, it shouldn’t be avoided but instead welcomed. The element Fire reminds us of this; we have to make the uncomfortable comfortable to truly succeed.
Although thinking like this is fairly unconventional, there are several ways to encourage it in yourself.
First, commit to the idea that you’ll fail at least nine times before getting something right.
Whether you’re producing a new gadget or artistic work, don’t believe that you’ll succeed on your very first attempt. By thinking in this way, you’ll feel free to simply go ahead and try new ideas without fear.
So when your first attempt inevitably turns out to be a failure, you can say, “Well, that just means I’m 10 percent closer to succeeding! Let’s try again.”
Second, attack your problem in a way that excludes the thought that your idea is somehow “correct.”
When you write down your ideas without caring whether they’re right or wrong, your thoughts will tend to drift more easily, and they’ll be clearer too. Leave the task of distinguishing right from wrong, or good from bad, for later.
Finally, exaggerate potential problems on purpose to “force” mistakes, and then fix those mistakes.
Taking your ideas to the extreme can reveal inherent flaws. This is an approach that manufacturers often take: they perform “stress tests” designed to push a product to its breaking point. In doing so, they gain valuable information about the product’s strengths and weaknesses.
Similarly, certain companies hire skilled hackers to attempt to break into their computer systems, so they can locate even the most difficult-to-find security holes.
So the next time you’re facing a challenging task, don’t allow yourself to be paralyzed with fear. Fail! And then try again.
Use the element of ‘Water’ to solve a complex problem by building on past success and iterating your way to the perfect solution (like a small wave gradually turning into a tsunami).
Great authors will tell you their first draft is complete crap, but they can always find something small (maybe just a few sentences) that they can build from. By gradually building on what’s working, great authors can turn a rough draft into a bestseller.
Innovative solutions come from existing ideas made better through iteration.
In cartoons, a character has an idea and a light bulb switches on over their head. Although this is a popular and visual metaphor, it’s far from accurate.
That’s because every idea has its own history. “New” ideas do not come from nowhere; rather, they are simply variations on existing ideas. Like the element Water, ideas flow from the past to the present.
In the seventeenth century, for example, Isaac Newton and Gottfried von Leibniz independently formulated a branch of mathematics that would change the world: calculus.
Yet, a closer examination of history reveals that all of the necessary elements to come up with calculus had already been conceived by other mathematicians.
Even Newton himself admitted that he was able to see further than others only because he’d “stood on the shoulders of giants.” In short, Newton and Leibniz took just a small, albeit crucial step forward based on the ideas of the past.
And after them, even more ideas marched on. While Leibniz’s published theory was just six pages long, current theoretical writings on calculus weigh in at 1,300 pages. In other words, after the two men came up with their theory, generations of mathematicians added their own small contributions.
So what does this teach us about developing our own ideas?
Whenever you’re trying to develop an idea, you should look to the past and explore the rich history of ideas. How did past thinkers develop their ideas? What do you think they were thinking at the time?
In doing this, you’ll discover that great ideas seldom arrive like that cartoon light bulb but make themselves known after a long process of trial and error. Once you accept this, you’ll let your thoughts flow like water, and you’ll reach your goals sooner than you know.
The American mathematician R. H. Bing once said that the time to work on a problem is after you have solved it. In other words, innovation should never come to a halt.
As we saw in the previous book summary, every new idea is the source of another new idea. Thus you shouldn’t stop thinking, just because you’ve reached one solution to a particular problem.
Indeed, the most effective thinkers are those who continually exploit new ideas for further inspiration.
The invention of the light bulb was just one solution for bringing artificial light to dark rooms. Yet this one idea sparked dozens of others: electric heaters, television, even computers.
By thinking of the light bulb not as a final product but as a point of departure for new ideas, one small drip of inspiration turned into a flood of new ideas and discoveries.
The element Water can be an inspiration to let your ideas flow. Never allow yourself to dam up this creative process! Instead, maintain your flow of ideas by seeing each new solution as just a waypoint to other destinations down the river, which itself flows endlessly forward.
The question is not whether an idea will lead to further ideas, as all ideas do. The real question is how to find those new ideas. So keep asking yourself, “What’s next?” and then take that first step toward tackling your next challenge.
The Quintessential Element
“In ancient Greek philosophy, the quintessential element was the unchanging material from which the extraterrestrial realm was made. Here the unchanging fifth element is, ironically, change itself.” – Edward Burger & Michael Starbird
The first four elements won’t do you much good unless you’re willing to embrace change. Most people think, “I am who I am. I can’t change my ways,” but effective people think, “I am constantly evolving. I am a lifelong learner.”
When you think of the quintessential element, imagine a rising phoenix, a symbol of transformation. See every problem as an opportunity to transform your thinking and improve your problem‐solving abilities.
To implement the four elements of thinking in your life, you must be willing to change.
What’s the definition of insanity? Someone once said it’s doing the same thing again and again, and expecting different results each time.
So, if you’re not happy with how your life is progressing, change it. Earlier book summarys have shown you what you can do to make a positive change. Now it’s time for you to actually do it!
The first thing you must do is be willing to change. People often think of change as being too difficult, or too complicated. They think it’s better to continue along the same path, saying, “Surely if I keep at it, things will improve.”
But this isn’t true. The only way to improve your life is to change it. If that sounds daunting, don’t worry. Now that you’re armed with the elements of effective thinking, you have the tools to change.
All you need to bring to the table however is a willingness to change. Sure, it’s not easy to go out into the world and make mistakes on purpose; but you must accept that this is the only way to generate better ideas.
So, don’t concern yourself with the risks involved – just do it!
However, it’s not enough to do this just one time. To transform yourself, you must be prepared to change and evolve constantly. There is always room for improvement.
This process is somewhat like renovating a city. While people usually tend to think of an ideal city as complete and perfect, by thinking effectively you will see that an entire city cannot be renovated all at once, but in incremental steps.
Fixing one area takes time. And once that area is ready, the next area will also take time. This process will continue until the moment you believe you’re finished – at which point, you should begin working on the first part again!
The five elements can help you on your path: the Earth centering your ideas, Fire inspiring your confidence, Air clearing your thoughts, Water helping your ideas flow from one inspiration to the next, and the final element – Change – leading you to success.
The key message in this book:
Extraordinary people are just ordinary people that think differently. By using the proven methods of effective thinking, that ordinary person that thinks differently could be you.
Fail on purpose and learn from your mistakes.
Next time you’re facing a problem and you don’t know what to do, rather than allowing yourself to be paralyzed with fear, try an approach you know will fail, and then learn from your mistake.
Locate your weaknesses to test your mastery.
To see exactly how well you’ve mastered a subject’s basics, take a blank sheet of paper and write down everything you know about it. Later, compare what you’ve written with other, more authoritative sources. In doing so, you’ll discover the weaknesses you have in your understanding of the basics.
About the author
Edward B. Burger is an educational and business consultant and president of Southwestern University in Texas. His teaching and scholarly works have earned him many honors in the United States as well as the biggest teaching award in the English-speaking world.
Michael Starbird is a distinguished teaching professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a business and educational consultant. He has been awarded with the highest American teaching award in his field, and his many books, lectures and workshops have reached large national audiences.
Edward B. Burger is president and CEO of the St. David’s Foundation, president emeritus of Southwestern University, and an educational and business consultant. He has authored or coauthored more than sixty-five articles, books, and video series; delivered over five hundred addresses and workshops throughout the world; and made more than fifty radio and television appearances. His teaching and scholarly writing have earned him many national honors and the largest teaching award given in the English-speaking world. Michael Starbird is University Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Austin and an educational and business consultant. His numerous books, lectures, workshops, and video courses have reached large national audiences of students, teachers, businesspeople, and lifelong learners. His success at teaching people to think has been recognized by more than fifteen awards, including the highest national teaching award in his field as well as statewide and university-wide honors selected from all disciplines.
Career and Success, Psychology, Self Help, Personal Development, Business, Productivity, Philosophy, Education, Leadership, Behavioral Sciences, Cognitive Psychology, Study and Test-Taking Skills, Creativity, Cognitive Psychology
Table of Contents
Preface: Thinking Makes the Difference
Introduction: Elements of Effective Thinking, Learning, and Creating
1. Grounding Your Thinking
Understand simple things deeply
Clear the clutter – seek the essential
See what’s thee
See what’s missing
Final thoughts: Deeper is better
2. Igniting Insights through Mistakes
FAIL TO SUCCEED
Welcome accidential missteps – let your errors be your guide
Finding the right question to the wrong answer
Failing by intent
Final thoughts: A modified mind-set
3. Creating Questions out of Thin Air
BE YOUR OWN SOCRATES
How answers can lead to questions
Creating questions enlivens your curiousity
What’s the real question?
Final thoughts: The art of creating questions and active listening
4. Seeing the Flow of Ideas
LOOK BACK, LOOK FORWARD
Understanding current ideas through the flow of ideas
Creating new ideas from old ones
Final thoughts: “Under construction” is norm
The Quintessential Element
5. Engaging Change
Summary: A Way to Provoke Effective Thinking
A Brief Review
Share Your Own Stories of Effective Thinking
About the Authors
Simple but powerful strategies for increasing your success by improving your thinking
The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking presents practical, lively, and inspiring ways for you to become more successful through better thinking. The idea is simple: You can learn how to think far better by adopting specific strategies. Brilliant people aren’t a special breed―they just use their minds differently. By using the straightforward and thought-provoking techniques in The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, you will regularly find imaginative solutions to difficult challenges, and you will discover new ways of looking at your world and yourself―revealing previously hidden opportunities.
The book offers real-life stories, explicit action items, and concrete methods that allow you to attain a deeper understanding of any issue, exploit the power of failure as a step toward success, develop a habit of creating probing questions, see the world of ideas as an ever-flowing stream of thought, and embrace the uplifting reality that we are all capable of change. No matter who you are, the practical mind-sets introduced in the book will empower you to realize any goal in a more creative, intelligent, and effective manner. Filled with engaging examples that unlock truths about thinking in every walk of life, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking is written for all who want to reach their fullest potential―including students, parents, teachers, businesspeople, professionals, athletes, artists, leaders, and lifelong learners.
Whenever you are stuck, need a new idea, or want to learn and grow, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking will inspire and guide you on your way.
“Winner of the 2013 Silver Medal in Self-Help, Independent Publisher Book Awards”
“What do earth, fire, air, and water have to do with effective thinking? Everything, according to mathematics professors Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird. In The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, the authors draw on these metaphor-laden elements from the natural world to demonstrate how to ask better questions, take calculated risks, learn from mistakes, and, ultimately, transform ourselves into more engaged and thoughtful citizens of the world. . . . The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking is a useful guide for anyone interested in tackling difficult subject matter, particularly in the classroom. The book also could serve as a solid supplementary text in courses on critical thinking.”—Jennifer Moore, ForeWord Reviews
“If you remember being told by your teachers to think harder and having no idea how, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking should help. . . . This is a snappy, illuminating read that should appeal to anyone who has ever dreamed of being a genius and is willing to strive, step by step, to become one.”—David Wilson, South China Morning Post
“Thinking is good, enthuses this book by two distinguished teachers of mathematics. You might think you’re being creative or having intuitions or conducting a romance or whatever, but it’s all thinking, right? And you can learn to think better! So you can, and the advice herein, which includes many practical tenets of ‘critical thinking’, will surely be useful to many a schoolchild or business leader.”—Steven Poole, Guardian
“The authors aim to teach readers how to expand their intellectual and creative capacity by adopting habits that train the mind to see beyond the surface level of ideas in order to find innovative ways to solve problems. . . . Overall, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking is a quick, easy read that is entertaining and engaging. It’s the type of book that you can read in one sitting or read over time as you grapple to master the elements.”—Catherine A. Cardno, Education Week
“The challenge of books such as these is that, in the wrong hands, the contents can come across as banal generalities and just so much hokum. But the appeal of The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking lies in that its authors are mathematicians by profession, and it shows in how the book is written. It’s a very systematic book about being organized and critical in one’s thinking, written by individuals whose work demands that they are organized and critical in their thinking. Yet it isn’t at all imposing; in fact, the discussion is often down-to-earth, and the fact that the book is structured like a playbook readers can easily apply certainly has its merits. In short, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking is the kind of book I know would have helped me a lot in my days as a student. I’d like to think it will be helpful to students of today, too.”—Brian L. Belen, Brain Drain blog
“The root of success in everything is thinking–whether it’s thinking disguised as intuition or as good values or as decision making or problem solving or creativity, it’s all thinking. The surprising fact is that just a few learnable strategies of thinking can make you more effective.”—John G. Agno, Business Week’s Coaching Tip blog
“Inspirational and engaging but also educational and immensely practical.”—Anthony J. Sadar, Washington Times
“The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird is a fun little book with great tips to improve overall thinking skills. . . . Suited for students who can employ the techniques in the book to earn better grades and become better thinkers.”—Brandon Kroll, NACADA Journal
“There is undoubtedly much here that would be of practical use to professionals from all walks of life, and indeed other educators, such as management trainers and coaches. As a practical and helpful guide, particularly for students seeking to improve the quality of their thinking and learning, The Five Elements of Effective Thinking is a thought-provoking and useful manual.”—Jonathan Gravells, Teachers College Record
“Teachers from primary grades to university courses can use the model in this book to deliver curriculum in a way that students are forced to develop thinking skills to successfully understand the material they are being taught and to identify their own next steps in learning. Although the authors draw most of their examples from the learning of mathematics, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking can be applied in any classroom where thinking is emphasized.”—Kent Miller, Canadian Teacher Magazine
“This is a short book, easy to read and understand. But its value is very high because it teaches us how to change the way we think. It shows us how to think effectively. Our thoughts precede our actions and govern our lives. The way we think determines our success and happiness in life. If these are important elements to you, so is this book.”—Paiso Jamakar, Biz India
“Whenever you are stuck, need a new idea, or want to learn and grow, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking will inspire and guide you on your way.” ― World Book Industry
“I’ve applied some of the ideas and they give real food for thought in terms of comparing and contrasting different approaches.”—Ian Baulch-Jones, Quality World
“A great book that makes you reassess that most important process.”—Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition
“I remember as a kid in school being told by teachers to think harder and having no idea what to do. This book solves that once and for all. We now have a guide for people of all ages to learn how to think more effectively. I highly recommend this book.”―Jack Canfield, cocreator of the New York Times best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul® series and The Success Principles
“Think…fail…question…understand…change…learn: in their powerful new book, Burger and Starbird show students, teachers, and everyone else how to harness the genius of learning. The 5 Elements argues that the door to knowledge is not opened by a magical test. Instead, the key is for each of us to boldly embrace a willingness to fail while organizing persistent approaches to thinking. Even more than helping one master content, this book can lead to a satisfying and rewarding life of the mind.”―Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association
“The authors invoke Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett, and Winston Churchill to illustrate practical approaches―including failing―to understanding, creativity, and wisdom. Their observations apply to honing any skill from sports and school to leadership and citizenship. Knowing how to listen and learn has become a rare art―The 5 Elements is a timely tutorial.”―Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates
“In this compact and remarkable book, two renowned professors share decades of teaching experience with anyone―from students to business people―seeking advice on how to improve skills and expand learning. It should be read, studied, and cherished―then reread.”―Fay Vincent, former commissioner of Major League Baseball and former president of Columbia Pictures
“This book is just what American education needs. It guarantees invention and discovery.”―Barbara Morgan, former NASA “Teacher in Space” astronaut
“The 5 Elements is an enormously insightful examination of what constitutes effective thinking. Everyone will find something of value in it.”―Morton O. Schapiro, president of Northwestern University
“I highly recommend this book for instructors who care more about their students than test scores, for students who care more about learning than their GPA, for leaders of society and masters of the universe who care more about serving the public good than increasing their profit margin, and for artists who constantly remind us of the human condition. The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking provides comfort in a world that has lost its equilibrium.”―Christopher J. Campisano, director of Princeton University’s Program in Teacher Preparation
“Our brain is our greatest asset in life, so it is a ‘no brainer’ that we should invest some time learning how to use it effectively. In this concise and carefully crafted book, renowned professors Burger and Starbird demonstrate their talent for making difficult concepts accessible. An average reader can peruse this book in only a few hours, but for many people those will be the best hours ever spent on a book. Highly recommended.”―Brett Walter, president of the Homeschool Buyers Co-op
“Edward Burger and Michael Starbird became renowned scholars and educators by demonstrating that mathematical expertise is within the reach of the general population and not confined to those with the ‘right’ aptitude. With the publication of this remarkably wise and useful book, they extend their pedagogical principles to the general realm of practical affairs and the entire range of academic endeavor. Regardless of the reader’s background, The 5 Elements offers highly applicable and original lessons on how to think.”―John W. Chandler, president emeritus of Hamilton College and Williams College
“So this is how Newton stood on the shoulders of giants! Burger and Starbird outline the basic methods of genius―so that ordinary people, too, can see further than others.”―Robert W. Kustra, president of Boise State University
“[A] short and brilliant book with tips on being a better thinker. . . . [I]nspiring.”―Derek Silvers
“I remember as a kid in school being told by teachers to think harder and having no idea what to do. This book solves that once and for all. We now have a guide for people of all ages to learn how to think more effectively. I highly recommend this book.”–Jack Canfield, cocreator of the New York Times best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul® series andThe Success Principles
“Think…fail…question…understand…change…learn: in their powerful new book, Burger and Starbird show students, teachers, and everyone else how to harness the genius of learning.The 5 Elements argues that the door to knowledge is not opened by a magical test. Instead, the key is for each of us to boldly embrace a willingness to fail while organizing persistent approaches to thinking. Even more than helping one master content, this book can lead to a satisfying and rewarding life of the mind.”–Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association
“The authors invoke Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett, and Winston Churchill to illustrate practical approaches–including failing–to understanding, creativity, and wisdom. Their observations apply to honing any skill from sports and school to leadership and citizenship. Knowing how to listen and learn has become a rare art–The 5 Elements is a timely tutorial.”–Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates
“In this compact and remarkable book, two renowned professors share decades of teaching experience with anyone–from students to business people–seeking advice on how to improve skills and expand learning. It should be read, studied, and cherished–then reread.”–Fay Vincent, former commissioner of Major League Baseball and former president of Columbia Pictures
“This book is just what American education needs. It guarantees invention and discovery.”–Barbara Morgan, former NASA “Teacher in Space” astronaut
“The 5 Elements is an enormously insightful examination of what constitutes effective thinking. Everyone will find something of value in it.”–Morton O. Schapiro, president of Northwestern University
“I highly recommend this book for instructors who care more about their students than test scores, for students who care more about learning than their GPA, for leaders of society and masters of the universe who care more about serving the public good than increasing their profit margin, and for artists who constantly remind us of the human condition.The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking provides comfort in a world that has lost its equilibrium.”–Christopher J. Campisano, director of Princeton University’s Program in Teacher Preparation
“Our brain is our greatest asset in life, so it is a ‘no brainer’ that we should invest some time learning how to use it effectively. In this concise and carefully crafted book, renowned professors Burger and Starbird demonstrate their talent for making difficult concepts accessible. An average reader can peruse this book in only a few hours, but for many people those will be the best hours ever spent on a book. Highly recommended.”–Brett Walter, president of the Homeschool Buyers Co-op
“Edward Burger and Michael Starbird became renowned scholars and educators by demonstrating that mathematical expertise is within the reach of the general population and not confined to those with the ‘right’ aptitude. With the publication of this remarkably wise and useful book, they extend their pedagogical principles to the general realm of practical affairs and the entire range of academic endeavor. Regardless of the reader’s background,The 5 Elements offers highly applicable and original lessons on how to think.”–John W. Chandler, president emeritus of Hamilton College and W
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The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger & Michael Starbird, Edward B. Burger interview from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.
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1. Grounding Your Thinking Understand Deeply
He never did a thing so very bad. He don’t know why he isn’t quite as good As anyone.
–From “The Death of the Hired Man” by Robert Frost
Silas felt the nervous excitement that all students feel as their professor returns graded exams. When Silas saw the red “58%” on the top of his test paper, he was frustrated, annoyed, and bewildered. “I really knew the stuff on the test. I just made a bunch of stupid little mistakes. I really knew it. Really.” And he really believed he knew it. Really. Sadly, such unpleasant surprises do not necessarily end after we receive our diplomas. Many people spend their entire careers confidently (and erroneously) thinking they know more and deserve more than their yearly evaluations, salaries, and success seem to reflect.
Understanding is not a yes-or-no proposition; it’s not an on-or-off switch. Silas spent hours studying for his test. But he spent that time memorizing facts rather than building a deep understanding. He would have earned a higher grade had he invested the same amount of time mastering the fundamentals, identifying essential themes, attaching each idea to that core structure, and, finally, imagining what surrounds or extends the material he was studying. Instead, Silas’s strategy was like that of a well-intentioned elementary school student who meticulously memorizes the mechanics of adding two-digit numbers but has no idea why the process works, and, as a result, finds adding three-digit numbers as alien as visiting another planet. Silas’s understanding was, at best, thin and fragile. Even tiny variations threw him, because he viewed his job as pinning down a certain number of isolated facts rather than understanding the meaning and connections of the ideas.
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.
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. The following steps illustrate why a deep understanding is essential to a solid foundation for future thinking and learning.
Understand simple things deeply
The most fundamental ideas in any subject can be understood with ever-increasing depth. Professional tennis players watch the ball; mathematicians understand a nuanced notion of number; successful students continue to improve their mastery of the concepts from previous chapters and courses as they move toward the more advanced material on the horizon; successful people regularly focus on the core purpose of their profession or life. True experts continually deepen their mastery of the basics.
Trumpeting understanding through a note-worthy lesson. Tony Plog is an internationally acclaimed trumpet virtuoso, composer, and teacher. A few years ago we had the opportunity to observe him conducting a master class for accomplished soloists. During the class, each student played a portion of his or her selected virtuosic piece. They played wonderfully. Tony listened politely and always started his comments, “Very good, very good. That is a challenging piece, isn’t it?” As expected, he proceeded to give the students advice about how the piece could be played more beautifully, offering suggestions about physical technique and musicality. No surprise. But then he shifted gears.
He asked the students to play a very easy warm-up exercise that any beginning trumpet player might be given. They played the handful of simple notes, which sounded childish compared to the dramatically fast, high notes from the earlier, more sophisticated pieces. After they played the simple phrase, Tony, for the first time during the lesson, picked up the trumpet. He played that same phrase, but when he played it, it was not childish. It was exquisite. Each note was a rich, delightful sound. He gave the small phrase a delicate shape, revealing a flowing sense of dynamics that enabled us to hear meaning in those simple notes. The students’ attempts did not come close—the contrast was astounding. The fundamental difference between the true master and the talented students clearly occurred at a far more basic level than in the intricacies of complex pieces. Tony explained that mastering an efficient, nuanced performance of simple pieces allows one to play spectacularly difficult pieces with greater control and artistry.
The lesson was simple. The master teacher suggested that the advanced students focus more of their time on practicing simple pieces intensely—learning to perform them with technical efficiency and beautiful elegance. Deep work on simple, basic ideas helps to build true virtuosity—not just in music but in everything.
What is deep understanding? How can you realize when you don’t know something deeply? When the advanced trumpet students played the simple phrase, they played every note and it sounded good to them. Before hearing the contrast between their renditions and the true virtuoso’s performance, the students might not have realized that it was possible to play that phrase far, far better.
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.
* A WAY TO PROVOKE EFFECTIVE THINKING …
Master the basics
Consider a skill you want to improve or a subject area that you wish to understand better. Spend five minutes writing down specific components of the skill or subject area that are basic to that theme. Your list will be a free-flowing stream of consciousness. Now pick one of the items on your list, and spend thirty minutes actively improving your mastery of it. See how working deeply on the basics makes it possible for you to hone your skill or deepen your knowledge at the higher levels you are trying to attain. Apply this exercise to other things you think you know or would like to know.
* Illustration: A student’s response in trying to understand basic economics
Step 1: A brainstorming list of components: Maximize profits; free markets; supply and demand; equilibrium of supply and demand. (Note that the student’s list is neither organized nor complete, which is great.) Step 2: Improve understanding of “equilibrium of supply and demand”: First, I need to understand what the graphs of the supply and demand curves mean. The horizontal axis is the quantity and the vertical axis is the price; so I see why the demand graph curves down to the right and the supply graph curves up to the right. I think that equilibrium is the point of intersection of those two graphs. But if the quantity level is to the left of that intersection, then the price for demand is higher than the price for supply. I don’t know what that means. (Note that this student successfully identified a lack of understanding of a basic idea, namely, what the supply and demand graphs represent. He now knows what he should work on first. A firm understanding of that basic idea will allow him to progress further and faster in the future.)
… UNDERSTAND DEEPLY
The whole of science is merely a refinement of everyday thinking. –Albert Einstein
A commonsense approach leads to the core. Many of the most complicated, subtle, and profound ideas arise from looking unmercifully clearly at simple, everyday experiences. Calculus is one of the most influential concepts in history. It has fundamentally changed the way we experience life today—a wide range of technological innovations, from space exploration to plasma TVs, computers, and cell phones, would not exist without calculus. And calculus is based on thinking deeply about simple, everyday motion—like an apple falling from a tree.
In 1665, England suffered an epidemic of bubonic plague. Cambridge University was closed to stem the dreaded disease’s spread, so Isaac Newton and the other students were sent home. Newton spent the next two years on his aunt’s farm, during which time he formulated the fundamental ideas of calculus and the laws of physics. The famous story about Newton sitting under an apple tree when an apple fell on his head, giving him the idea of universal gravitation and calculus, may be almost literally true. Thinking about the speed of a falling apple can generate the idea of the derivative—the profound extension of the basic notion that speed equals distance divided by time. Thinking about how far the apple would fall if you knew its speed at each instant leads to the idea of the ITL∫ITL—the abstraction that distance equals speed multiplied by time.
The grandest, most cosmic ideas, such as how the planets move, arise from thinking deeply about an apple beaning Newton. Newton described the universe—the behavior of the sun, planets, and distant stars—using the same laws that describe everyday occurrences like apples falling from trees. 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.
Today, when math teachers are asked what makes calculus so difficult to teach, most reply, “My students don’t know the basic mathematics that they saw in the eighth or ninth grade.” One secret to mastering calculus is to truly master basic algebra. In any class, when preparing for your next exam, make sure you can earn a 100% on all the previous exams—if you can’t, then you’re not ready for the test looming in your future. Instructors should also embrace this fundamental reality and help their students have a firmer grasp of the basics that preceded the material currently being explored.
To learn any subject well and to create ideas beyond those that have existed before, return to the basics repeatedly. When you look back after learning a complicated subject, the basics seem far simpler; however, those simple basics are a moving target. As you learn more, the fundamentals become at once simpler but also subtler, deeper, more nuanced, and more meaningful. The trumpet virtuoso found limitless beauty in a simple exercise and, in turn, found deep insights into the more interesting difficult pieces.
* A WAY TO PROVOKE EFFECTIVE THINKING …
Ask: What do you know?
Do you or don’t you truly know the basics? Consider a subject you think you know or a subject you are trying to master. Open up a blank document on your computer. Without referring to any outside sources, write a detailed outline of the fundamentals of the subject. Can you write a coherent, accurate, and comprehensive description of the foundations of the subject, or does your knowledge have gaps? Do you struggle to think of core examples? Do you fail to see the overall big picture that puts the pieces together? Now compare your effort to external sources (texts, Internet, experts, your boss). When you discover weaknesses in your own understanding of the basics, take action. Methodically learn the fundamentals. Thoroughly understand any gap you fill in as well as its surrounding territory. 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.
* Illustration: Voting
How well do you know the candidates running for office—their records, their positions? Write a list of issues that are important to you. Then list what you believe to be the positions of the candidates on each issue—their stated opinions, their voting records, and their other actions associated with the issue. Most voters will have inaccurate or only meager knowledge, particularly for candidates they don’t support. Then look up the actual records and see the differences. Fleshing out your knowledge will lead to more informed decisions—on Election Day and beyond.
… UNDERSTAND DEEPLY
When faced with a difficult challenge—don’t do it! In a speech delivered to Congress on May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy challenged the country with the words “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” On May 26, the National Space Council didn’t suit up an astronaut. Instead their first goal was to hit the moon—literally. And just over three years later, NASA successfully smashed Ranger 7 into the moon at an impact velocity of 5,861 miles per hour (after the unmanned spacecraft transmitted over four thousand photographs of the lunar surface). It took fifteen ever-evolving iterations before the July 16, 1969, gentle moon landing and subsequent moon walk by the crew of the Apollo 11 spacecraft.
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.
If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it.
When the going gets tough, creative problem solvers create an easier, simpler 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.
Apply this mind-set to your work: when faced with a difficult issue or challenge, do something else. Focus entirely on solving a subproblem that you know you can successfully resolve. Be completely confident that the extraordinarily thorough work that you invest on the subproblem will later be the guide that allows you to navigate through the complexities of the larger issue. But don’t jump to that more complex step while you’re at work on the subissue. First just try to hit the moon … walking on its surface is for another day.
* A WAY TO PROVOKE EFFECTIVE THINKING …
Sweat the small stuff
Consider some complex issue in your studies or life. Instead of tackling it in its entirety, find one small element of it and solve that part completely. Understand the subissue and its solution backwards and forwards. Understand all its connections and implications. Consider this small piece from many points of view and in great detail. Choose a subproblem small enough that you can give it this level of attention. Only later should you consider how your efforts could help solve the larger issue.
* Illustration: A student’s response to this exercise applied to time management
Time management is too big an issue for me, so I’ll just focus on getting my homework done. That’s still too big a task, so let me just focus on starting my homework. I could commit ten minutes right after each lecture to review class notes and think about the homework assignment. Then five minutes before the next lecture I could review the notes from the previous lecture—great, but not always realistic. So to make it practical, when I return to my room for the night, I’ll commit at least ten minutes to reviewing the class notes of the day and beginning the assigned homework. In fact, my problem is not just procrastination but focus. Ah ha! So for those ten minutes, I’ll turn off my computer and cell phone and spend that short uninterrupted time knowing there will be no distractions. Without text messages and emails, those ten minutes will be qualitatively different from and better than thirty minutes of interrupted time. That weird serenity will bring me to a meditation-like, focused state of mind. And looking at the homework on the day it was assigned—when it’s still fresh in my mind—is better than investing the same amount of time the day before the homework is due—when I’d have to spend time just remembering what was going on. Once I’ve made this little ten-minute practice a daily habit, I’ll revisit the larger challenge of time management. (See how this exercise did its job—it brought out some important principles to consider when facing the daunting challenge of time management: the value of uninterrupted, focused time and the value of carving out small regular intervals of time when they will be most effective.)