Derek Sivers

Programmer, writer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.
5 Elements of Effective Thinking - by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird

5 Elements of Effective Thinking - by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Short and brilliant book with tips on being a better thinker. Being persistent, thorough, rooted in fundamentals, creative, and a more active learner. Surprisingly inspiring.

my notes

Understand fundamental ideas 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.

Change: 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.

In any movie, play, or literary work, media scholars tell us how to determine who truly is the main character of the story - it’s the individual who, by the end, has changed the most.

When you learn anything, go for depth and make it rock solid.

Deep work on simple, basic ideas.

Return to the basics repeatedly. When you look back after learning a complicated subject, the basics seem far simpler; however, those simple basics are a moving target. As you learn more, the fundamentals become at once simpler but also subtler, deeper, more nuanced, and more meaningful.

Without referring to any outside sources, can you write a coherent, accurate, and comprehensive description of the foundations of the subject, or does your knowledge have gaps? Do you struggle to think of core examples? Do you fail to see the overall big picture that puts the pieces together?

Great scientists, creative thinkers, and problem solvers do not solve hard problems head-on. When they are faced with a daunting question, they immediately and prudently admit defeat. They realize that there is no sense in wasting energy vainly grappling with complexity when, instead, they can productively grapple with simpler cases that will teach them how to deal with the complexity to come.

When faced with a difficult issue or challenge, do something else. Focus entirely on solving a subproblem that you know you can successfully resolve.

I realized my problem is not just procrastination but focus. Ah ha! So for ten minutes, I’ll turn off my computer and cell phone and spend that short uninterrupted time knowing there will be no distractions. Once I’ve made this little ten-minute practice a daily habit, I’ll revisit the larger challenge of time management.

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.

There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.

Perform this exercise on yourself. What do you view as essential elements of you?

I simply asked the artist, “Tell me one insight into painting.” The artist responded, “Shadows are the color of the sky.”

Acknowledge what you actually see - no matter how mundane or obvious - rather than guess at what you think you are supposed to see.

Be very clear about the foundations of your opinions. If you believe something only because another person - even a professor - told you it was so, then you should not view your understanding as rock solid.

Regularly consider your opinions, beliefs, and knowledge, and subject them to the “How do I know?” test.

A practice of spending one day assuming that quantum mechanics was true and following the implications of that perspective, and then spending the next day assuming that quantum mechanics was false and following the consequences of that view. By alternating his views, he was able to explore each alternative more objectively.

Suppose we did include the phrase “black-and-white” before the existence of color photography.

Select your own topic of study and attach an adjective that points out some feature that is limiting or taken for granted.

If you can’t explain it, you don’t know it.

Understanding simple things deeply means mastering the fundamental principles, ideas, and methods that then create a solid foundation on which you can build. Seeking the essential creates the core or skeleton that supports your understanding. Seeing what’s actually there without prejudice lets you develop a less biased understanding of your world. And seeing what’s missing helps you to identify the limits of your knowledge, to reveal new possibilities, and to create new solutions to complex problems.

If you think, “I’m stuck and giving up. I know I can’t get it right,” then get it wrong. Once you make the mistake, you can ask, “Why is that wrong?” Now you’re back on track, tackling the original challenge.

Students need to experience the arc of starting with failure and ending with success. It shifts the activity from trying to think of a correct solution, to the activity of correcting mistakes, which is often something you can do.

Write a really bad draft and then look for problems and fix them.

A man’s errors are his portals of discovery. - James Joyce

Ask for another volunteer to present an erroneous solution to the same challenge, so the class can explore the reasons behind that defect.

“I got an 80% that’s good enough and I’m moving on.” Bad idea. Learn from mistakes until you understand 100% before moving on. If you can’t get 100% on your last test (actual or metaphorical), then you’re not ready for your next exam.

Look at a mistake not as a wrong answer, but instead as an opportunity to ask, “What is the question to which this is a correct answer?”

Ask what you would do if there were no budgetary constraints whatsoever. Maybe some aspects of those unrealistic solutions will point the way toward a practical solution that you otherwise would never have even considered.

Consider an issue or problem and now exaggerate some feature of it to a ridiculous extreme.

Become your own Socrates. Asking uncomfortable core questions.

Never pretend to know more than you do.

If an exam is looming in your future, prepare by writing the test itself.

Instead of asking whether there are questions, assume there are, and say, “Write down two questions.” Then randomly call on students to read their questions.

Constantly engaged in asking yourself questions about what you are hearing, you will find that even boring lecturers become a bit more interesting.

When someone else speaks, you need to be thought provoking!

Questions about what is missing, what is assumed, what might be extended, or what is vague or unclear.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” - Peter Drucker

Move forward on the project at a fast-forward speed that will surely generate a work that is subpar. Now consider that poor effort as your starting point: react to that work and start to improve and iterate.

All the new ideas we have are, in fact, only tiny variations of what has been thought before.

The novelties that appear strange to us today will be familiar, natural, and perhaps even beautiful to the next generation.

“The time to work on a problem is after you’ve solved it.” - R. H. Bing

Engage with that idea and extend it. The key is not to wonder whether the idea has extensions; it does. Your challenge is to find them.

Starting with what is currently the best is often the ideal place to expect great improvements.

See with fresh eyes the current world for what it is now. Knowing the history is certainly helpful, but not if we tend to see current solutions as summits. We must get in the habit of seeing each advance as putting us on the lower slope of a much higher peak that has yet to be scaled.

The same is true of mastering skills at increasingly higher levels. Having toiled to get that far, you may think that it would be impossible to go yet further, or you may just feel worn out. But after you have reached one level, that is where you start.

Take an essay you’ve written or a solution to an issue and create a different, better one. Assume there is a mistake or omission or missed opportunity in your work - there always is!

Memorizing a smaller number of isolated facts is harder.
HORSE ORDER BECAUSE EASY IN WE BEFORE SENTENCE A DID LOGICAL IS

Easier and faster to memorize the following longer list of words:
THIS SENTENCE IS EASY TO REMEMBER BECAUSE THE WORDS APPEAR IN A LOGICAL ORDER; THAT IS, WE DID NOT PUT THE CART BEFORE THE HORSE.

Describe the different task that an expert would be doing compared to what you are currently doing.

What kind of knowledge or skill or strategy would make the task an easier one?