Monday, March 25, 2013

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, by Ed Burger and Michael Starbird

This is a useful little book.  Its thesis is that anyone can become a better thinker using five specific strategies.  The authors had my complete attention from the first page where they point out that brilliant students are not necessarily born brilliant.   Do you imagine, they ask, that "Einstein teases his hair and relativity falls out" -- this tickled me.

As a memory aid, the authors relate each of their five strategies to a corresponding classical element.  So we have:
  •  Earth, to remind us to deeply understand the material.   In other words, if I'm confused by the basic building blocks of how to do something, I'm unlikely to grasp more complex materials.
  • Fire, to remind us that making mistakes is not only okay, it is necessary as we grapple with complex problems.  At this particular strategy I feel rather over-qualified.
  • Air, to remind us to raise questions.  Conventional wisdom is not necessarily correct (or we'd still be thinking that the sun revolves around the earth, which is flat, held on the back of a turtle).  Plus, it is by asking questions that we can learn more deeply and discover more possibilities.
  • Water, to remind us to follow the flow of ideas.  As folks start with a fundamental insight they begin to develop it, to extend it, learn more about it.  The auto of today is quite different from the 1896 Duryea.
  • The quintessential element, both to fit in a fifth concept (!) and to remind us that change is essential to good thinking.   The authors make a very important point when they notice that politicians engaged in discussion or debate never say, "That's a better idea, I'm going to change my mind." [p130]   They correctly add, "The unchangeable mind is a closed mind.  The result in politics is a calcified lack of innovation and flexibility -- gridlock."
A good test of advice is that once you've read it, you realize that it is obvious.  Of course, not quite as obvious before you read it.   That's this book in a nutshell:  it makes perfect sense, and it is useful to have folks point a strategy out clearly and memorably so that we can remember to actually follow the advice.

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