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Summary: How Successful People Think: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life by John C. Maxwell

Author John C. Maxwell has identified a significant problem: Most people don’t think; they just do. In our fast-paced lives, this instinct comes from the necessity to constantly move to the next thing and check tasks off to-do lists. But what about the benefits of prioritizing time to think? In this book review of How Successful People Think, you’ll learn the importance of deliberate thinking as well as types of thinking that successful people employ in their daily lives.

Discover different ways of thinking and how to become a better thinker.


  • Want to learn to incorporate different types of thinking when approaching problems
  • Wish you were a better thinker and problem-solver
  • Are interested in expanding your mind and taking advantage of new opportunities

Book Summary: How Successful People Think - Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life


There is purpose in just thinking — not multitasking or trying to brainstorm an idea while waiting to pick up your lunch, but dedicating time to sitting and pondering.

We shouldn’t designate thinking time to only gaps in our schedules, such as daily commutes. The point is not just more thinking but better thinking, and this means no multitasking. Instead, we should establish a thinking place and a routine to follow. If we have good ideas, we need to dedicate time to shaping them and creating an action plan.

Being a good thinker isn’t restricted by job, education, or background. There’s not a certain degree or course of study required to become a better thinker. Engagement in the process and the discipline to change are the key factors needed — although finding a comfy, quiet place surrounded by inspiration can help move the process along.

To bring more thinking into your life and become a better thinker, follow these five pointers:

  1. Find sources of inspiration and knowledge: Read articles relevant to your industry and find work you admire. While doing your own work, keep these inspirational sources in the front of your mind or physically in front of you for extra motivation.
  2. Surround yourself with good thinkers: Talk to your friends who have a thought process you admire or who excel in their industries.
  3. Actively choose good thoughts: Set aside and prioritize time specifically for thinking through problems or ideas.
  4. Take action: Develop a sense of urgency about putting your ideas into action.
  5. Listen to your gut responses: Monitor how you feel when things are going well.

In How Successful People Think, John C. Maxwell not only covers the importance of deliberate thinking but also identifies 11 different types of thinking and how you can incorporate them in your journey toward successful thinking. This summary dives into the details of eight of those key methods.

Cultivate Big-Picture Thinking

Big-picture thinking is exactly what you think it is: You understand the greater scenario while simultaneously breaking it down and gaining perspective from the individual parts. In other words, it’s seeing both the forest and the trees, and understanding that there are lessons in everything.

Big-picture thinking requires a change in both mindset and methods. To get in the right mindset, think of yourself as an eternal student who’s always learning and widen your focus to open yourself up to new areas. When it comes to methods, listen more than you talk and actively identify learning opportunities in every experience or conversation. Big-picture thinkers understand that being open to new experiences is essential. Do you prefer absolute silence during your Uber rides? Instead, try talking to your next driver. Do you turn down the opportunity to go rock climbing because you think you won’t be good at it? In that case, rock climbing is exactly what you should do on your next day off.

Humans are conditioned to become uneasy about the unknown; it’s a survival instinct to run away from feelings of discomfort. However, to succeed at your goals, you should always embrace the unknown as having potential.

Engage in Focused Thinking

When was the last time you had two hours to yourself with nothing to do but mull over an idea? If your response is “never” or “not for a very long time,” then you’re like most people. Focused thinking involves putting your blinders on and blocking out all outside distractions, so you can hone your attention to your thinking process.

With focused thinking, you put one goal or task above all others. Narrowing your focus allows the idea to incubate, which is necessary for staying on target and potentially expanding your idea once the basics are in place. For example, if you hope to open your own business, an important first step would be establishing a business plan and purpose before you start looking for a storefront or hiring employees. Start by prioritizing your ideas. Think about your strengths and weaknesses, and assess your talents. Knowing these traits will help you move toward the right ideas and goals.

Once you have your ideas, block out time specifically for thinking. Also, specify exactly what you’ll do during that time. Now it’s time to engage in focused thinking. This is when the mental blinders come into play. To get in the groove, remove all distracting temptations. Leave your phone in another room and install a website blocker to avoid online rabbit holes. Put visuals in front of you, like a to-do list or the specific paperwork you need to complete.

Focusing this intensely may sound unattainable, especially since we all carry smartphones that can interfere with ideas before they have a chance to grow. Whether they’re for work or play, email, social media applications, and addictive games make it difficult to focus. But you don’t necessarily need a sensory deprivation tank or a blank room to make focused thinking happen.

Employ Realistic Thinking

When you think of a realist, you probably think of a character who’s the voice of reason. Realists are often portrayed as the wise best friend, the coach who gives tough love, or the mentor trying to guide the hero through unfamiliar territory. They’re practical and like to see proof before accepting or believing in something. Sometimes, they can even be a bit stubborn.

Realistic thinking is something like the scientific method: Steps are defined, there’s a control group, and the goal is to build a baseline process or idea that can be replicated. This type of thinking helps identify attainable goals and defines the steps or milestones needed to reach those goals. Realistic thinking is all about assessing and minimizing risk, knowing where things can go awry, and identifying backup plans just in case.

Thinking realistically doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, a baseline plan can provide a jumping-off point for creativity. Returning to the example of running your own small business, realistic thinking helps you identify the amount of work you’ll need to do or the number of products you’ll need to sell to pay all your expenses and turn a small profit. From there, you can determine where to make room for more creative projects.

Additionally, it’s important to note that realistic thinking is not pessimistic. Preparing for things to go wrong doesn’t mean you’re convinced that disaster is the only outcome. Instead, acknowledging where things could go wrong and taking steps to prevent it will help you succeed in the long run. Overall, realistic thinking emphasizes focusing on the facts and recognizing the pros and cons in everything, while having a backup plan or escape plan just in case the worst happens.

Utilize Strategic Thinking

Some people naturally love planning and outlining details. Think about the talents of project managers, event planners, and marketing professionals. All these roles involve anticipating needs or direction changes and making sure everyone involved is ready to adjust.

Many people in these positions are strategic thinkers. They anticipate needs, prepare for difficulty, have several plans ready, and embrace uncertainty. There’s always a chance that it will rain on a bride’s dream wedding day or that a project will receive negative feedback and must pivot to get back on track. Customizing their planning with flexible processes instead of rigid structure allows these thinkers to embrace uncertainty.

If you find it difficult to plan, you may not understand strategic thinking. Is it magic? Delusional confidence? No. Strategic thinkers define objectives upfront, break problems or goals into smaller pieces, and divide and conquer. Strategic thinkers also continually seek more information and clarity, as information is power when it comes to being flexible and embracing many possible outcomes.

Learn from Reflective Thinking

In our fast-paced lives, it may seem impossible to slow down and reflect on the past, but that is exactly what’s behind reflective thinking. This type of thinking prioritizes analyzing past events or ideas from projects that have already wrapped up.

How is it possible to innovate for the future if you’re focusing on what’s already happened? By taking the time to think about what you’ve already accomplished and why you succeeded (or failed), you gain an improved perspective on the deeper meanings of experiences and how you responded to them. This enables you to engage in better decision-making and have more confidence in the big picture. Many thinking methods discussed in the book involve widening your horizons and treating every opportunity as a potential learning experience, and the same can be said for thinking about past events. Whether something succeeded or failed, you can add that experience to your portfolio and learn from it.

Reflective thinking can be applied in many areas of your life and incorporated into your regular workflow. For example, you could schedule reflective thinking at the end of a big project, or you could schedule time for it at regular intervals during a long-term project. At meetings that are often humorously referred to as postmortems, a team sits down at the end of a project to have an open conversation about the good, the bad, and the ugly.

You can also block out the time for your own reflective thinking. During this time, ask yourself a series of questions and answer honestly. Examples of selfreflective questions include:

  • How did I make a positive impact today? How could I improve?
  • Did I lead well today? How did my team respond?
  • What do I need to spend more time on?

Then, write an analysis on how you plan to change your actions in the future.

Question Popular Thinking

While reading about the different ways of thinking, you may have some doubts about how each method applies to you. You may think, “I won’t find any benefit in that, so it’s not worth my time.” This is an example of popular thinking: using conventional thoughts against yourself. Time is a popular excuse for not prioritizing thinking — you just don’t have time. Popular thinking isn’t particularly helpful and can impede progress. And this is precisely why you should question it.

When you start to break it down, this type of thinking is designed to be mindless, as it removes the need for active decision-making. Instead, you simply rely on popular opinion or thought. By taking away decisions, popular thinking encourages only average outcomes. This is why our standards for measuring the success of outcomes are rooted in the most common expectations instead of what’s actually possible. In addition, popular thinking doesn’t suit change. The status quo changes at a snail’s pace because change is often viewed as disruption.

In itself, questioning popular thinking is an act of rebellion. If you want to change standards and expand possibilities, it’s essential to think for yourself. Don’t go along with what others are doing; instead, question why things are the way they are. Explanations such as “That’s the way it’s always been done” or the dreaded “because I said so” do not justify aversion to change. Even your own ideas are not exempt — you should question yourself too. Think for yourself by exploring new methods, embracing discomfort, and appreciating other innovative thinkers.

Benefit from Shared Thinking

Teamwork makes the dream work — and this includes team thinking. While many thinking methods are designed as solo activities, shared thinking is essential for any collaborative effort, where you work with others while expanding your own understanding of your ideas.

You may associate group projects with bad experiences you had in school. Or you may just prefer flying solo. If this is the case, it can be tricky to open yourself to shared thinking. But shared thinking inevitably makes your ideas stronger, and it’s the only way to gauge whether your ideas benefit the greater good or just yourself.

Aim to work with people who have experience in arenas you’re unfamiliar with. Listening to them provides invaluable knowledge that can transform your ideas in surprising ways. This process will also strengthen your relationships, increase innovation by adding many perspectives, and divide the work for better efficiency.

Practice Unselfish Thinking

You don’t need to be a saint to practice unselfish thinking. Shared thinking emphasizes using the perspectives of others to improve your ideas. Unselfish thinking takes this to another level by prioritizing others’ perspectives and goals in your process.

Starting your own unselfish thinking process requires these essential steps:

  1. Put others before you: Prioritize looking out for the interests of others before thinking of your own stake in a situation.
  2. Build awareness of needs: Discover what needs there are in your area of expertise, beyond what you’re already aware of.
  3. Give without expecting reward: Give without expecting any acknowledgment or reward in return, such as by making an anonymous donation.
  4. Invest beyond yourself: Give for the sake of enriching someone else’s wellbeing or development.
  5. Evaluate your motives: Check in regularly to make sure you’re thinking like a giver and not expecting something in return.

In addition to helping someone else, unselfish thinking yields benefits for you. (And appreciating this doesn’t make you selfish!) Helping others increases your sense of personal fulfillment, especially when you’re able to perform a service or provide a perspective someone else can’t provide. It can also lead to a positive domino effect: You’re more motivated to help others, and those witnessing your actions are inspired to do the same. Engaging in this process inevitably leads you to incorporate even wider impacts into your ideas and goals instead of focusing only on yourself.


In this summary, you’ve learned not only the importance of setting aside time exclusively for thinking but also the different types of thinking that can help you in problem-solving, goal-setting, and many other areas of life. Remember, the fundamental keys to better thinking are engagement in the process and the discipline to change. In addition, try to surround yourself with sources of inspiration, as well as other good thinkers. Actively choose good thoughts and prioritize those ideas as the ones to pursue and put into action.

The book offers many examples of how to think big and expand your thinking based on your work and previous life experiences. The ideal scenario is to use a healthy mix of all the different types of thinking. While this may seem to be a daunting task, it’s a goal to work toward as you learn to prioritize time for careful thought and become a more successful thinker.

About the author

John C. Maxwell trains leaders all over the world on how to lead and think more effectively. He was named the top leadership and management speaker by Inc. magazine in 2014. He is also a bestselling author, with more than 20 million copies of his books sold to date.


Business, Self Help, Leadership, Nonfiction, Personal Development, Psychology, Productivity, Management, Philosophy, Motivation, Self-Esteem, Relationships, Personal Growth, Christian Living

Table of Contents

1. Cultivate Big-Picture Thinking
2. Engage in Focused Thinking
3. Harness Creative Thinking
4. Employ Realistic Thinking
5. Utilize Strategic Thinking
6. Explore Possibility Thinking
7. Learn from Reflective Thinking
8. Question Popular Thinking
9. Benefit from Shared Thinking
10. Practice Unselfish Thinking
11. Rely on Bottom-Line Thinking


“How Successful People Think” by John C. Maxwell is a concise and insightful book that explores the thought patterns and mental habits of successful individuals. Maxwell, a renowned leadership expert, outlines various ways of thinking that can empower individuals to enhance their problem-solving abilities, creativity, and overall success in life.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, each focusing on a different thinking style or concept. Maxwell discusses topics such as big-picture thinking, focused thinking, creative thinking, shared thinking, and reflective thinking. He provides practical advice and real-life examples to illustrate how these thinking styles can be applied to various aspects of life, from personal development to leadership and decision-making.

Key Takeaways:

  • Thinking Is a Skill: Maxwell emphasizes that thinking is a skill that can be developed and improved with practice.
  • The Power of Questions: Asking the right questions is a crucial aspect of successful thinking. Maxwell encourages readers to ask probing and strategic questions to gain insights and solve problems.
  • Creative Thinking: The book explores the importance of creativity in problem-solving and innovation and offers strategies for nurturing creative thinking.
  • Focused Thinking: Maxwell highlights the value of concentrating on one task or idea at a time to maximize productivity and effectiveness.
  • Shared Thinking: Collaboration and seeking input from others can lead to better decision-making and solutions.

“How Successful People Think” is a valuable book that provides readers with practical insights into the mindset and thought processes of successful individuals. John C. Maxwell’s writing is clear, concise, and filled with actionable advice. The book’s organization into distinct chapters on various thinking styles makes it easy to digest and apply the concepts discussed.

One of the strengths of the book is its emphasis on the idea that thinking is a skill that can be honed over time. Maxwell provides numerous examples of successful people who have cultivated specific thinking habits to achieve their goals. This perspective is empowering and encourages readers to take an active role in improving their thinking abilities.

While the book offers valuable insights and actionable advice, some readers may find that the content is somewhat general and lacks deep exploration of specific thinking techniques or strategies. Additionally, the book primarily focuses on individual success and may not address the complexities of teamwork and leadership in great detail.

In conclusion, “How Successful People Think” is a worthwhile read for individuals looking to enhance their thinking skills and develop a mindset conducive to success. John C. Maxwell’s practical approach to understanding and improving one’s thought processes can benefit a wide range of readers, from aspiring leaders to those seeking personal development and growth.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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