The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

As I mentioned in the post “We’re Back”, there were many interesting symposia presented during our Scientific American Insight Cruise, and it would take some mulling in deciding which ones to write healthy memory blogs.  The very first presentation was by Dr MIchael Starboard is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas in Austin, whose presentation was one of the highlights of the entire cruise.  As his talk was on the five elements of effective thinking, and given that this is the healthy memory blog and that one of our mantras is growth mindsets, this talk is of special relevance.    However, I wanted to read his book “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking,” which he co-authored with Dr. Edward B. Burger before drafting a blog post.  Now having read the book, I think that multiple posts will be necessary.  Even then, I’ll only be scratching the surface.  I strongly recommend that you read the entire book.  It is available on Amazon, including a Kindle version.  This first post provides a general overview of the book.  The book begins with the following quote from Albert Einstein:

“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.”

The first element is to ground our thoughts by understanding deeply.  One of the examples he provided regarded a workshop he attended for virtuoso trumpeters.  The workshop was led by a world famous trumpeter.  He invited the participants to play a virtuoso  piece, which they did. He completed them all, but then asked them to play some basic exercises.  Then he played the basic exercises.  There was a clear difference in the quality he played these exercises as compared to the participants.  Then he played a virtuoso piece, which was clearly well beyond anything played by the participants.  The workshop participants admitted that they devoted little time to playing basic exercises, and they saw that the continuing practice of these exercises was reflected not only in the quality with which the exercises were played, but more importantly were evident in virtue performances.  This example was particularly informative for me.  My wife  has a Master of Fine Arts degree, and is a superb artist.  I had been puzzled as to why she continued to practice her drawing.  Now I understand why she is such a superb artist.   This particular example deals with performance.  Drs. Burger and  Starbird go into much detail as how this is done and is important in any knowledge domain.

The second element involves igniting insights through mistakes, what he calls falling to succeed.  He provided an example from a class he conducts on effective thinking.  He asked the class to prove a theorem regarding infinity.  He informed them that this was well beyond their abilities, but to try anyone, even though he knew what they did would be wrong.  He asked them to work in groups and after three minutes he called upon a woman to show what her group had produced.  She was reluctant and embarrassed, but eventually did so.  Dr. Starbird said to find just one think wrong and to fix it.  She did and the process was repeated nine more times.  Dr. Starbird was amazed to find that after ten interactions a new, ingenious proof had been produced.  His warning is never to stare at a blank screen.  Produce something even if you know it is wrong.  Consider that you are 10% done and continue to iterate.  Continue chipping away at the problem until you have produced a satisfactory answer.

His third element involves creating answers out of thin air.  This is what he calls being our own Socrates.  Creating questions enlivens our curiosity.  Answers to these questions can lead to new questions.  Very often the problem involves no formulating the correct question.  This element leads to our addressing the correct question.

The fourth element involves seeing the flow of ideas, by looking backward to understand how the current idea developed, and by looking forward to try to predict where the current idea will go.   At one time in human history, this flow of ideas was excruciatingly slow.  But in our current age of rapidly developing ideas advance quickly.  Consider the flow of ideas from the first personal computer to where we are today and try to predict where these ideas will go in the future.

The fifth element is to engage change and transform  yourself.  Ready about these ideas is a stimulating academic exercise, but the objective should be to transform ourselves by engaging personal change by using these ideas to transform ourselves.


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