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The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

·8 mins
Book Notes Nonfiction Productivity Self Help
Table of Contents

Top-Level Thought

How can one make his thinking more insightful? The ways are rather simple, but they are fundamental and can change one’s life remarkably. Make every effort for rock-solid understanding, make mistakes and learn from the failure, build and ask challenging and meaningful questions, follow the flow of ideas and consider the learning as a lifelong journey - these are the fundamental concepts of effective thinking.


A relatively short, yet very comprehensive overview of critical thinking skills. This book does not only helps me significantly inspire me to keep improving my thoughts and ideas but also offers a lot of helpful strategies to follow to improve my understanding and learning. The main idea of this book is you don’t need to do everything in a better way, instead, you just need to think differently. That’s it. The idea is quite simple and fundamental, but need to practice in day-to-day life, hence increase the quality of thinking.



  • Doing anything better requires effective thinking—that is, coming up with more imaginative ideas, facing complicated problems, finding new ways to solve them, becoming aware of hidden possibilities, and then taking action.


  • 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
  • Creativity is not a matter of magical inspiration.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 classical elements of nature included a fifth special element—the quintessential element—that was the changeless matter from which all the heavens were made.

1. Earth🌍: Grounding Your Thinking

  • Understanding is not a yes-or-no proposition; it’s not an on-or-off switch.
  • If you learn a piece of music for the piano, then, instead of just memorizing finger movements, learn to hear each note and understand the structure of the piece.
  • The most fundamental ideas in any subject can be understood with ever-increasing depth.
  • 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 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.
  • Open up a blank document on your computer. Without referring to any outside sources, write a detailed outline of the fundamentals of the subject. Can you write a coherent, accurate, and comprehensive description of the foundations of the subject, or does your knowledge have gaps?
  • 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.
  • The challenge comes from the clutter. If you literally clear the clutter from your desk, the remaining items are easy to find. But not only can clearing the clutter expose those things that you know are there; it can reveal the otherwise invisible essence of the situation.
  • There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality. —Pablo Picasso
  • 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.
  • 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. Saying what you actually see forces you to become conscious of what is there and also what is missing. If you see it, then say it; if you don’t see it, then don’t claim to see it.
  • If you are writing an essay, read literally what you have written—not what you intended to communicate.
  • You need to 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.
  • Understanding simple things deeply means mastering the fundamental principles, ideas, and methods that then create a solid foundation on which you can build.

2. Fire🔥: Igniting Insights through Mistakes

  • “Fail” is not an obscene word.
  • If we have the healthier attitude that failure is a potent teacher and a scheduled stop along the road to success, then we find ourselves liberated to move forward sooner, because mistakes are actions we definitely can take at any time. If you’re stuck, a mistake can be just the thing to unstick you.
  • Failing productively involves two basic steps: creating the mistake and then exploiting the mistake.
  • Success is about persisting through the process of repeatedly failing and learning from failure.
  • To make failure a positive step toward success, you need to revise your work, try again, try more, and seek help until you’ve completely understood the defects in your failed efforts.
  • Seeing a mistake as possibly a correct answer to a different question puts our thinking on its head. We 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?”
  • 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.

3. Airđź’¨: Creating Questions out of Thin Air

  • Asking yourself challenging questions can help you reveal hidden assumptions, avoid bias, expose vagueness, identify errors, and consider alternatives. Generating questions can help direct your next steps toward deeper understanding and creative problem solving.
  • If you want to get more out of what you hear or see, force yourself to ask questions—in a lecture, at a meeting, while listening to music, watching TV, or viewing art.
  • Ask yourself, “What would someone ask me in order to determine whether I really understand these ideas?”
  • Getting in the habit of asking questions will transform you into an active (rather than passive) listener.

4. Water🌊: Seeing the Flow of Ideas

  • Every wandering step, every misstep, and every dead end provided a new insight that moved those struggling minds along the path of discovery.
  • 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.
  • When you learn a new concept or master a skill, think about what extensions, variations, and applications are possible.
  • Think one step back to imagine one step forward.
  • Nothing is easier than seeing the ridiculous biases of the past or the ridiculous biases that other people hold. But nothing is harder than seeing the ridiculous biases that we accept ourselves.
  • The better dream is to see yourself standing on what seems to be the summit and climbing higher by taking one small step after another. That modest habit of effective thinking will help you accomplish things you never dreamed possible.

5. The Quintessential Element🧗: Engaging Change

  • The first four elements enable you to think better than you do; learn better than you do; and be more creative than you are. The fifth element recommends that you actually do it. Just do it.
  • Ironically, memorizing a smaller number of isolated facts is harder.
  • To become more skillful and successful, you might think in terms of altering what you do, rather than thinking in terms of how well you do it. Instead of thinking, “Do it better,” think, “Do it differently.”
  • An expert memorizes the music and thus can look at the keyboard while performing those long jumps. That may be an easier task than reading the music while attempting to strike the correct keys. At a more subtle level, the accomplished musician understands the chord structure and hears each voice of the music, so the expert is doing a different task from that of the person who is merely remembering what keys to press.
  • Compare with the “how to take smart note”
  • What is most impressive is the distance between what people could potentially achieve and what they do actually achieve.
  • We could claim that every person is equally capable of everything, and while that assertion might sell books, it is not reality. However, the reality is that you personally can learn far more and be far more creative and successful than you are today.
  • 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.

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