The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

The key to success in everything is effective thinking. Most of us assume that effective thinking is an inborn talent. But the fact is all of us can learn them and use them. In the book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking – Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird shows how anyone can think effectively by using 5 key elements.

I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent. Curiosity, Obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas – Albert Einstein

1. Understand Deeply

When you learn anything, go for depth and make it rock solid. Any concept that you are trying to master is a combination of simple core ideas. Identify the core ideas and learn them deeply. What is deep understanding? Imagine that you wanted to understand basic economics. List down its core components – Maximize profit, free markets; supply and demand. This is not the complete list. But it is a decent one to get started with. Now you want to learn about the equilibrium of supply and demand. Excerpt from the book.

First, I need to understand what 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.)

Few years back I came across an article on What is Problem Solving written by Richard Rusczyk. Richard is the founder of Art of Problem Solving.  The article was an eye opener for me. Excerpt from the article

I was invited to the Math Olympiad Summer Program (MOP) in the 10th grade. I went to MOP certain that I must really be good at math. In my five weeks at MOP, I encountered over sixty problems on various tests. I didn’t solve a single one. That’s right – I was 0-for-60+. I came away no longer confident that I was good at math. I assumed that most of the other kids did better at MOP because they knew more tricks than I did. My formula sheets were pretty thorough, but perhaps they were missing something. By the end of MOP, I had learned a somewhat unsettling truth. The others knew fewer tricks than I did, not more. They didn’t even have formula sheets! … The difference between MOP and many of these state and local contests I participated in was the difference between problem solving and what many people call mathematics. For these people, math is a series of tricks to use on a series of specific problems. Trick A is for Problem A, Trick B for Problem B, and so on. In this vein, school can become a routine of ‘learn tricks for a week – use tricks on a test – forget most tricks quickly.’ The tricks get forgotten quickly primarily because there are so many of them, and also because the students don’t see how these ‘tricks’ are just extensions of a few basic principles.

The key is to identify the core ideas and learn them deeply. Be brutally honest with you. If you do not understand go back to the core concepts again and again. Rag the concept. You will get it at some point.

Memorizing is not deep learning.

Video – Michael Starbird on Understanding Deeply

2. Make Mistakes

Mistakes are great teachers. They highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in our understanding.

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. – Michael Jordan

One day author Starbird gave a difficult problem in mathematics on infinity to his class students. He was aware that this was a hard question and beyond the reach of his students. He picked up Mary to answer this question. Mary hated Mathematics. The conversation between him and Mary :

Mary      - I don't want to say it, because I know it's wrong.
Starbird  - I'm sure it's wrong, but I still want to hear it.
Mary      - Gave the answer.
Starbird  - Congratulated her, "You're right - your solution is wrong!"
Mary      - Smiled.
Starbird  - Tell me just one thing that is wrong in the answer.
Mary      - Pointed out something that missing from her answer.
Starbird  - Great! Now how do you fix that defect.
Mary      - After some thought she fixed the defect.
Starbird  - Great! Is the solution correct now?
Mary      - No.
Starbird  - Tell me just one thing that is wrong in the answer.
Mary      - Identified another mistake and corrected it.

After several iterations Mary was able to solve the problem. The solution she discovered was creatively different from the standard answer found in the textbooks. The key take away is that you cannot come out with a correct solution on the first attempt. Start with a probable solution (hypothesis) and keep on correcting the mistakes until you arrive at the correct solution. Thomas Edison was famous for using this approach for inventions.

Try something: see what’s wrong; learn from the defect; try again. When he said that invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, the perspiration was the process of incrementally making mistakes and learning from them to make the next attempts apt to be closer to right. When Edison was asked how he felt about his countless failed attempts at making a lightbulb, he replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Sometime your attempt would have failed to solve one issue. But it could be the best solution for another issue. A bad solution to one problem might be the best solution for another. This is what happened in the company 3M.


In 1970, 3M scientist Spencer Silver was working hard to create an even stronger adhesive. His creation was a resounding failure. In fact, the bond was actually weaker than other 3M products of the day – it was so weak it could be stuck to objects and then easily lifted off them without a trace. 3M did not fire him. Wise move, since four years later, when 3M scientist Arthur Fry was trying to devise a way of placing bookmarks in his hymnal so they would neither fall out nor damage the page, he recalled his colleague’s weak mixture. Fry coated part of his bookmarks with Silver’s super weak adhesive and thus accidentally gave birth to one of 3M’s most lucrative products: the Post-it note.

Video – Michael Starbird on Make Mistakes

3. Raise Questions

If you want to deepen your understanding you need to raise questions. Do not be afraid to show your ignorance. If you do not understand ask. Socrates a great philosopher who is known for asking great questions.

He challenged his students, friends, and even enemies to make new discoveries by asking them uncomfortable, core questions. You would certainly be astonishingly successful if you had your very own personal Socrates with you at all times, prodding you with the right leading questions. In fact, such as 24/7 Socrates is possible, because you can generate your own questions that challenge your own assumptions and lead to insights. You can become your own Socrates.

On January 28, 1986 space shuttle Challenger exploded. A presidential committee was formed to probe the explosion. Richard Feynman was one of the committee members. The night before the launch the air temperature was very low. During the launch the videos showed that there was a misalignment between the two parts of the solid rocket boaster. Hence the probe moved towards investigating the O-ring seals used between the segments of the boasters. The engineering details are extremely complex and involves chemistry, physics, and mechanics. What did Feynman do? He asked the question.

What if we just test the elasticity of a cooled 0-ring?

Video on Feynman solving the puzzle

In fact, he conducted a simple demonstration live on the televised broadcast of the investigation. He took on of NASA’s O-rings, clamped it down with a little C-clamp, and submerged it in a paper cup filled with ice water. When he removed the C-clamp, the entire coast-to-coast audience could see that the cold rubber did not return to its previous round shape. The miserable mystery was solved.

Remember to

Never pretend to know more than you do. Don’t build on ambiguity and ignorance. When you don’t know something, admit it as quickly as possible and immediately take action – ask a question.

Video – Michael Starbird on Raise Questions

4. Follow the flow of ideas

To truly understand a concept, discover how it evolved from existing simpler concepts. Recognizing present reality is a moment in a continuing evolution makes your understanding fit into a more coherent structure. Charlie Munger calls this coherent structure as Latticework of mental models. Calculus is the mathematical study of change. It has truly changed the world. But this did not happen on the day it was discovered.

During the past three hundred years, calculus has been applied to mechanics, to the motion of the planets, to electricity and magnetism, to fluid flow, to biology, to economics, as well as to countless other areas. Calculus may hold a world’s record for how far an idea can be pushed. Leibniz published the first article on calculus in 1684, an essay that was a mere 6 pages long. Newton and Leibniz would surely be astounded to learn that today’s introductory calculus textbook contains over 1,300 pages.

The textbook introduces two fundamental ideas which is 6 pages long. The remaining 1,294 pages consists of variations arising from the two fundamental concepts. The key is to master the core and see how one idea leads to another.

As you are learning a topic, ask yourself what previous knowledge and what strategy of extending previous ideas make the new idea clear, intuitive, and a natural extension.

You cannot discover everything on your own. You need to use the existing ideas and improve it.

Thomas Edison was supremely successful at inventing product after product, exploiting the maxim that every new idea has utility beyond its original intent, for he wrote, “I start where the last man left off.” more poignantly he noted that “many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Video – Michael Starbird on Follow the flow of ideas

5. Change

By mastering the first four elements, you can change the way you think and learn.

You simply need to shrug off perhaps a lifetime’s habit of accepting a relatively superficial level of understanding and start understanding more deeply. You simply need to let go of the constraining forces in your life and let yourself fail on the road to success. You simply need to question all the issues you have taken for granted all those years. You simply need to see every aspect of your world as an ever-lasting stream of insights and ideas. You simply need to change.

Learning is a life long journey.

Each of us remains a work-in-progress – always evolving, every changing – and that’s Quintessential living.

Video – Michael Starbird on Change

10 thoughts on “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

  1. Wonderful summary. Just loved it. Understand deeply, Make mistakes, ask questions, follow the flow of idea and change the way one learns and thinks.
    I especially liked Make mistakes and the example of student Mary. If we show persistence and follow a method we can solve difficult problems.

  2. I am reminded of Elon musk’s words on First principles of learning after reading it “[With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.”
    Thanks for explaining the core concepts.

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