The 5 Elements of effective thinking: Edward Burger and Michael Starbir

“The simple and familiar hold the secrets of the complex and unknown.”

The 5 Elements of effective thinking: Edward Burger and Michael Starbir

Everyone celebrates genius and assumes people like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and the Wright Brothers were born brilliant. In reality, they became great innovators by developing the capacity to think effectively. Anyone can learn the strategies of thought that will boost their creativity, aptitude, and success in life.

This summary explains five learnable habits that will improve your effectiveness in your professional and personal life. These are:

  • The habit of understanding simple ideas deeply before complex ones
  • The habit of embracing failures and mistakes to get it right
  • The habit of asking clarifying questions to deepen your understanding
  • The habit of tracking ideas and flowing with the ideas to see where they lead
  • The habit of embracing change

These habits produce effective thinking and to remember them easily, you need to think of them in terms of the natural elements of earth, water, fire, and air. Change is considered the quintessential element because it is constant.

The 5 elements of powerful thinking[1]

  • Earth—understand deeply
  • Fire—make mistakes
  • Air—raise questions
  • Water—follow the flow of ideas
  • The Quintessential Element—change.

By mastering these strategies, you can and will change. These elements will be considered in turn


Earth represents a deep understanding of the fundamentals. Effective thinking requires a deep understanding of fundamental ideas in any field of learning. Sports, craft, and academics all have basic concepts that we can continue to understand at a much deeper level if we pay attention.

Revisiting fundamentals is not a waste of time. It provides an opportunity to refine your skills and gain fresh insights that you did not have from earlier studies. A single attempt is never enough. Taking steps back can help you gain momentum to take a huge leap forward. The additional time and effort you invest in the rudimentary aspects will fortify your abilities.

You can devote five minutes to bringing up the grey areas to your consciousness. Next, pick one item and devote 30 minutes of your time to mastering this concept. Transfer this new understanding to higher, complex concepts to see how the new level of understanding enhances your skills.

Though “seeing deeply” is a valuable metaphor, it’s also a literal reality when we look at the familiar world under magnification. When we focus a magnifying glass, and then a microscope on ordinary objects, we suddenly see not only new worlds but also explanations and organizing principles for our original, macroscopic world. In fact, we associate understanding with the element Earth because when we attain a rich understanding, we are literally standing upon rock–solid, from the ground. We are standing on earth.


Mistake is medicine NOT poison

The second element, fire, demands that we see mistakes and failures as opportunities, not weakness.

Our society is averse to making mistakes. These negative attitudes toward mistakes come with grave consequences because nothing worthwhile comes without failing first. When we see mistakes as poison, we become inactive. Instead, when we see failure as an avenue for learning, we are able to bounce back more easily. When you feel stuck, making mistakes might be the way to release yourself from the stickiness.

You have to change your mindset to be able to see failure as a learning curve. Teachers should begin to help students to see failure as a path toward success. Understanding comes from learning how not to do a thing.

When you are prepared to fail nine times and get it right the tenth time, you will achieve success more easily. See each mistake as being 10% done so that by the time you get to success, you will have 100% done.

Often, a major error is often inches away from breakthrough discovery. A willingness to step out of the box will birth transformative thinking. People who are afraid of failure cannot step outside the box much less think differently.


Asking the right questions supply the “air” you need to understand and create magic

Questions open doors to new possibilities. The ability to create questions is an important step toward understanding whether there are answers to the questions or not. Questioning is often associated with the philosopher, Socrates. He was famous for asking people probing questions that would force them to think deeply.

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.

Answers should also lead to questions. Many people ask questions only when they are unclear about something. It is important to question things you know because these questions may open your eyes to some blindspots in your thinking. Asking “What if” questions are a good way to probe answers.

The habit of framing questions helps you see what’s missing and thus see what needs creating.

Answers should also lead to questions. Many people ask questions only when they are unclear about something. It is important to question things you know because these questions may open your eyes to some blindspots in your thinking. Asking “What if” questions are a good way to probe answers.

The habit of framing questions helps you see what’s missing and thus see what needs creating.


The 5 Elements of effective thinking: Edward Burger and Michael Starbir

Following the flow of ideas is like allowing water to flow unencumbered

An illuminated light bulb is an 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.

Innovators — inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell, artists such as Claude Monet, scientists such as Charles Darwin, writers such as J. K. Rowling, and business leaders such as Steve Jobs — see ideas as a continuum that began in the past and will continue to the future.

Successful and effective learners and innovators harness the power of the flow of ideas, which suggests the element Water. There’s always more: every advance can be the launchpad to far greater advances yet to be discovered.

An Apple computer built in a garage in the 1970s has evolved into its current state and will soon be unrecognizably more advanced. Solving simple problems opens the door to solving great problems.

Have you ever sat in a lecture totally lost or read some profound ideas in a book and thought to yourself, “How did anyone ever come up with this stuff?!” Great question. Unfortunately, the origins of ideas are often covered up, giving the impression of magic, or spontaneous creation rather than of incremental evolution, which is a far more accurate description.

Great ideas are the product of the struggle of thousands of people. As they grapple with a problem, each person transfers the idea to another who develops it a little bit further until someone solves the puzzle. By applying the elements of thinking that we’ve considered in the previous chapters — understanding deeply, failing, and asking questions, the frontiers of knowledge continue to expand.

Every wandering step, every misstep, and dead–end provided a new insight that moved those struggling minds along the path of discovery.


The 5 Elements of effective thinking:

For a better life experience, adopt the habit of constructive change

The fifth element of effective learning and thinking is the simplest and most difficult, the most important and most dispensable. If this chapter doesn’t resonate with you, just skip it. In some sense, the four preceding elements of effective thinking and learning paint the entire picture.

Each of the preceding four techniques has the goal of changing you into someone who thinks and learns better. Change is really the goal of the whole story.

Feedback from hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, professionals, business leaders, and lifelong learners shows that following these lessons will help you to understand at a deeper level.

The fifth element is a meta–lesson. It recommends that you adopt the habit of constructive change.

“Don’t be afraid to change any part of yourself — you’ll still be there, only better.”

This element ensures you implement the first four elements you’ve learned. Knowing something and doing it are two entirely different things. When the ability to change becomes internalized, you will be free from the worry that comes with weaknesses and defects. You will become free to adapt to a better version of yourself as the need arises.

Attempt to write your name on a sheet of paper with your eyes closed. You’ll see that it is not perfect when you open your eyes. Rewrite your name with your eyes open. It will definitely be much better.

This simple exercise applies to virtually everything in life. When you are consciously changing the way you do things, it can feel like you’re performing a different task altogether. The feeling comes from the consciousness and intentionality that is attached to the task.

Repeatedly writing your name with your eyes closed will only produce better results for closed eyes. A noble way to do the task is to do it differently by opening your eyes. To improve yourself, think about doing things differently rather than doing the old method in a better way.

Many people are where they are today not because they cannot do better, but because they do not try hard enough. They blame others for whatever is wrong in their lives and try to get out of any responsibility. This is not a good way to live; it only leads to disappointments and stagnancy.

If you want to live a memorable life, start by coming up with a plan for what you want. Decide what it will take to achieve those plans and then go ahead to begin work on them. If it requires asking for help from others, ensure that you do so. If it means taking a course or traveling, do it.

Conclusion: Perfection is a myth.

The 5 Elements of effective thinking: Edward Burger and Michael Starbir

Learning how to think effectively will do the world a world of good. As humans, our feelings often cloud our judgment. Therefore, developing the habit of thinking effectively will enable us to automate the capacity to make good judgments, solve problems, and innovate.

People are often attracted to complex concepts when they are yet to master foundational ideas.

Earth is the first element of effective thinking and it stands for being grounded in the basics of any field. Fire, the second element, represents mistakes. A positive attitude to failure is essential if we want to become great in life. Air is the element that is analogous to asking questions.[2]

We must learn to question our answers and seek answers to those questions. That way, our blindspots or biases become revealed and we work our way toward the objective truth. Ideas are like water, the fourth element. Do not obstruct the flow of ideas no matter how poor they appear at first. Just follow it. You might be at the precipice of discovery.

These four elements are activated by the fifth element — change. These habits require a willingness to open the door of your mind to change for them to be activated.

Perfection is a myth. Instead, consider life as a journey in progress.

Acknowledge that reality and try to identify opportunities for improvement and growth. Expect and embrace change, and use the reality and perspective of the flow of ideas to help you both to understand the world and to create new worlds to come.

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