The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking
The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

Book notes
Published February 3, 2023


Thinking is hard, probably the most critical skill to cultivate for a quintessential life. The book lays out five fundamental habits used to improve our thinking skills, backed by convincing evidences that through continuous practice of those habits, we can all become a better thinker.
Understand deeply:
Don’t face complex issues head-on; first understand simple ideas deeply. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be brutally honest about what you know and don’t know. Then see what’s missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in. Let go of bias, prejudice, and preconceived notions. There are degrees to understanding (it’s not just a yes-or-no proposition) and you can always heighten yours. Rock-solid understanding is the foundation for success.
Make mistakes:
Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers—they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.
Raise questions:
Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding. What’s the real question? Working on the wrong questions can waste a lifetime. Ideas are in the air—the right questions will bring them out and help you see connections that otherwise would have been invisible.
Follow the flow of ideas:
Look back to see where ideas came from and then look ahead to discover where those ideas may lead. A new idea is a beginning, not an end. Ideas are rare—milk them. Following the consequences of small ideas can result in big payoffs.
The unchanging element is change—by mastering the first four elements, you can change the way you think and learn. You can always improve, grow, and extract more out of your education, yourself, and the way you live your life. Change is the universal constant that allows you to get the most out of living and learning.


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
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.
Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten. —B. F. Skinner

Grounding Your Thinking

What is deep understanding?
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.
The whole of science is merely a refinement of everyday thinking. —Albert Einstein
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.
If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it. —George Polya
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.
Clear the clutter. Uncover the essence.
When faced with an issue that is complicated and multifaceted, attempt to isolate the essential ingredients.
Step One: Identify and ignore all distracting features to isolate the essential core.
Step Two: Analyze that central issue and apply those insights to the larger whole.
To better understand your world, consciously acknowledge what you actually see—no matter how mundane or obvious—rather than guess at what you think you are supposed to see.
You (and everyone else) have prejudices. Admit it already and move forward from there.
Whenever you “see” an issue or “understand” a concept, be conscious of the lens through which you’re viewing the subject. You should assume you’re introducing bias. The challenge remains to identify and let go of that bias or the assumptions you bring, and actively work to see and understand the subject anew.
Being honest and accurate about what you actually know and don’t know forces you to identify and fill gaps in your understanding. It is at the interface between what you actually know and what you don’t yet know that true learning and growth occur.
How can you see what’s truly invisible?
Add the adjective and uncover the gaps. What if we had called it “World War I” back in 1918? Such a label might have made the possibility of a second worldwide conflict a greater reality for governments and individuals, and might have led to better international policy decisions. We become conscious of issues when we explicitly identify and articulate them.

Fail to Succeed

Failing productively involves two basic steps: creating the mistake and then exploiting the mistake.
You may not know how to do it right, but you can certainly do it wrong. A good way to generate useful mistakes is simply to tackle the issue at hand by quickly constructing the best solution you can with little or no effort.
Two reactions to mistakes. So when you see or make a mistake, you have at least two actions to take: (1) let the mistake lead you to a better attempt, and/or (2) ask whether the mistake is a correct answer to a different question.
Failing by intent
Deliberately exaggerating or considering extreme, impractical scenarios often frees us to have an unforeseen insight. For example, manufacturers conduct stress tests to the point of breaking a product.
Failure is a sign of a creative mind, of original thought and strength.
A person who is willing to fail is someone who is willing to step outside the box. Being willing to fail is a liberating attribute of transformative thinking.
A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. —Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

Creating Questions out of Thin Air

Teach to learn. Constantly formulating and raising questions is a mind-opening habit that forces you to have a deeper engagement with the world and a different inner experience.
Ask meta-questions
Asking questions should not be reserved for moments when you don’t know an answer. Even when you do know the answer, asking, “What if … ?” is a great way to see more and delve deeper.
asking questions about an assignment or project before beginning work in earnest will always lead to a stronger final product. Ask, “What’s the goal of this task?” and “What benefit flows from the task?” Keep that benefit in mind as you move forward.
Overcoming bias. Challenge everything and everyone—including your teachers. Don’t be intimidated. You are the best authority on what you don’t understand—trust yourself: don’t be afraid to ask the questions you need to ask, and be brave enough to change your thinking when you uncover a blind spot.
Creating questions enlivens your curiosity
A questionable habit. Constantly generate questions and then ask them—that mind-set will lead to a richer appreciation of the issues.
Be thought provoking. Getting in the habit of asking questions will transform you into an active (rather than passive) listener.
Often the question that seems obvious may not be the question that leads to effective action. Effective questions turn your mind in directions that lead to new insights and solutions. They highlight hidden assumptions and indicate directions to take to make progress.
What should be the goals of education beyond good grades and a sheepskin? Ideally, the goal of education should be to develop critical thinking and communication skills and other such mind-strengthening abilities.

Seeing the Flow of Ideas

Iterate ideas.
An illuminated lightbulb is the iconic metaphor for a bright, original idea. But one part of the metaphor is simply wrong—the brightness of a lightbulb occurs in a vacuum, whereas ideas never arise in a void. New ideas today are built on the ideas of yesterday and illuminate the way to the brilliant ideas of tomorrow.
The only person who needs to move forward little by little is you. Engineer your own evolution.
To generate new ideas through flow, first modify an existing idea within its own context and then apply that same idea in different settings. Then you can construct extensions, refinements, and variations.
Think back.
A look back makes earlier material easier. Once you understand a more advanced topic, look back to see what brought you to where you are. That process will improve your understanding both of the earlier work and of the more advanced work.
One small step. One of the most heartening realities of human thought is that all the new ideas we have are, in fact, only tiny variations of what has been thought before.
I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else. —Pablo Picasso
Ask: What were they thinking? What beliefs, cultural habits, opinions, or actions that are completely accepted today will be viewed as ridiculous by our grandchildren? What are some possible candidates? Centuries ago, perfectly respectable people viewed slavery as a natural and moral practice. What practices that we accept as fine today will be condemned as offensive in the future?

Engaging Change

Definition of insanity: Doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome
Don’t mute voices that challenge your beliefs. Listen for whispers of doubt and turn those doubts into helpful and positive tests of assumptions, ideas, and theories. Doubts are strengths when you use them effectively.
If the ability to change is part of who you are, then you are liberated from worry about weaknesses or defects, because you can adapt and improve whenever you like.