The Five Elements of Effective Thinking [Infographic]

Here’s a fact: to make better decisions, you’ve got to develop better thinking habits. Whether you’re a student, a professional, a business leader, an artist, or a writer, you need to master a few basic principles of thought.

Why? Because it will lead to effective learning, understanding, and innovation.

In today’s article, I’m going to share 5 powerful strategies that can drastically improve your thinking. And here’s the best part:


You don’t need a high inborn IQ. And you certainly don’t have to be a genius to learn the skills necessary to improve your thinking.

They aren’t available to a select few and most importantly, you yourself can master and apply these strategies in your life.

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Improve Your Thinking With These 5 Powerful Principles

In their remarkable book, The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird start off by saying:

The root of success in everything, from academics to business to leadership to personal relationships and everything else, is thinking — whether it’s thinking disguised as intuition or as good values or as decision-making or problem solving or creativity, it’s all thinking.

You probably know already how crucial thinking is to your success and fulfillment in life. As ancient philosophers have realized thousands of years ago, “… a man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.”

The authors of the book continue by saying:

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.

Without further ado, let’s dive in and find out what are the 5 elements that will help you improve your thinking.

(Click infographic to enlarge.)

Source: The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, by Michael Starbird & Edward B. Burger

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We are all biased and we all have preconceived opinions about everything. We all have convictions and beliefs that are not based on valid arguments. Understanding deeply means trying to get rid of the flaws that we’re all subject to and be open-minded to new ideas.

Understanding deeply also begins with a solid grasp of the basics, of the fundamentals.

Don’t try to study the complex issues of a subject matter first. Instead, break the material down into their elementary parts. Study the simpler concepts, and then advance to greater depths of understanding.

Also, whenever you study a field of interest, try to discover the essential parts. Clear the clutter and expose what’s really important. Master the fundamentals.

Don’t get caught up in the multitude of ideas, because all of them developed from the same few basic fundamentals.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

– Bruce Lee

This is so true not just in martial arts, but in any domain, whether it’s in business, sports, arts, education etc.

Again, this doesn’t mean that you should only focus on the fundamentals and avoid other elements. It means that while you’re progressing and learning new things, remember to always get back to the basics, to the core.

You’ll always see them in a different light then you used to do before. So, be great at the fundamentals

Here’s a video of Michael Starbird explaining the first element:

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In the second element, the authors are suggesting that in order to learn something, you’ve got to make mistakes.

They say that, “mistakes are great teachers because they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding.”

Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right.

Making mistakes is a good thing when you have the right attitude about them. Whenever you make one, you should always pause and ask yourself:

  • Where have I been wrong?
  • Where is it wrong?
  • What can I learn from it?

It’s very important to learn from your mistakes. It’s so much better than banging your head against the same wall over and over again.

Learning from your mistakes can actually help you find out the right direction you need to take further.

Another way to express this idea is that you should learn from mistakes, but nobody said that they have to be yours. It’s good to learn from your mistakes, but it’s so much better to learn from other people’s mistakes.

That’s where mentors, books (especially biographies and autobiographies), seminars and conferences come into play. You can learn the most valuable lessons from their successes and failures.

And here’s the other side of the coin…

Learning from your mistakes is important, but the lessons you learned are about what DIDN’T work. In other words, you still don’t know what WORKS.

Therefore, a better approach might be to learn from your successes. Try to go back in the past and see what worked really well. Then ask yourself:

  • What have I done right?
  • Why did it work?
  • How can I repeat it?

Focus your energy on studying your successes and then see how you can replicate the same result in the present situation. Jason Fried shares a similar point of view in this article.

Here’s a video of Michael Starbird explaining the second element:

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One of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known was a man named Socrates. In fact, it is said that the Oracle of Delphi had pronounced him the wisest of the Greeks.

Despite that, Socrates never claimed to have wisdom, but only to seek it lovingly. This was the cornerstone of his modest philosophy:

If there was one thing he was really good at, it was his ability to ask questions. He always asked more than he answered. And by asking questions, he would prove to other people that they didn’t know what they thought they knew.

That’s where the Socratic Method comes from: always ask questions about everything. If there’s something you don’t understand, ask questions. If there’s something you don’t know, ask questions.

Asking and answering questions stimulates critical thinking. That’s very helpful because it often leads to ideas and conclusions that help you deeply understand a subject matter.

Be curious about everything (that’s one of the things we should learn from kids, by the way).

But let’s take it a step further. This also means that we should always question our strongly held beliefs.

Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt — particularly to doubt one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas and one’s axioms. Who knows how these cherished beliefs became certainties with us, and whether some secret wish did not furtively beget them, clothing desire in the dress of thought?

There is no real philosophy until the mind turns round and examines itself. Gnothi seauton, said Socrates: Know thyself.

– Will Durant

If you have a strong conviction about something, question it, doubt it. Ask yourself: Is it really so? What evidence do I have to support my belief?

One of the best things you can do is to always search for disconfirming evidence. It will help you get to the core of the issue and you’ll be so much more likely to discover the truth.

In synthesis:

Never pretend to know more than you do. Don’t build on ambiguity and ignorance. When you don’t know something, admit it as quickly as possible and immediately take action — ask a question.

Here’s a video of Michael Starbird explaining the third element:

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Everything great that has ever happened to humanity has begun with an idea in someone’s mind. So in order to create something, you need a constant flow of ideas.

Everything, whether it’s a physical product, a concept, or an idea came from some place, it has arrived at where it is now and is going to change in the future. It’s a constant evolution.

Here’s what the authors are saying:

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.

There’s a Latin metaphor that goes like this: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes. In English that means, “standing on the shoulders of giants.” And it expresses the meaning of “discovering the truth by building on previous discoveries.”

A more familiar interpretation belongs to Isaac Newton:

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

That’s one of the basic principles of innovation. In order to innovate, you should make connections between a variety of ideas, from different fields, until you manage to connect the dots between them.

Thomas Edison was supremely successful at inventing product after product, exploiting the maxim that every new idea has utility beyond its original intent, for he wrote, “I start where the last man left off.”

More poignantly he noted that “many of life’s failures are people who didn’t realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

With better information and better ideas, you can make better decisions. That’s why I would encourage you to take a multidisciplinary approach to learning.

Don’t study just one field. Get a grasp of the fundamental ideas from a variety of fields: history, biology, physics, philosophy, economics, psychology etc.

You’ll be able to make so much better connections between ideas and you’ll be that much more innovative.

Here’s a video of Michael Starbird explaining the fourth element:

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These four building blocks are basic elements for effective thinking.

The authors of the book have devised an easy way for us to remember them. All we need is to recall the classical elements that were once believed to be the essential parts of all nature and matter. Those elements are: Earth, Fire, Air, and Water.

Thus, they’ve associated each classical element with one of the four strategies for effective thinking, learning, and creating as follows:

Earth ↔ Understand deeply

Fire ↔ Make mistakes

Air ↔ Raise questions

Water ↔ Follow the flow of ideas

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. Ironically, here in our context of thinking and learning, the quintessential element is change.

The Quintessential Element ↔ Change

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The final element of effective thinking is change.

There is lots of evidence right now showing that knowledge in any field is more than doubling every five years. This means that fully twenty percent of your knowledge and your ability in your field becomes obsolete each year.

In order to keep up with the changes in your field, you’ve got to be flexible and adapt to the changes in your environment, changes in the economy, changes in the society etc.

Specifically, you’ve got to always learn new things, acquire new skills, and feed your mind with powerful ideas.

In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.

– Eric Hoffer

Remember that you’re always a work in progress, constantly evolving. Learn to embrace change and reap the rewards by embarking on a life-long learning journey.

Here’s a video of Michael Starbird explaining the fifth element:

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To summarize, here are the 5 elements that will help improve your thinking:

  • Understand deeply
  • Make mistakes
  • Raise questions
  • Follow the flow of ideas
  • Change

Let me remind you that you don’t need to be a genius or be born with a high IQ in order to master these strategies of thought.

All you need is a continuous appetite for learning and a burning desire to grow and improve on a daily basis.

Begin by choosing one strategy and try to implement it in your life by following the ideas described in this article.

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Daniel Cerescu

I'm Daniel Cerescu, and I'm the guy behind this blog. Even though most of the material on this website is free, I aim to make this free content better than anyone else’s paid stuff. My mission is to inspire and empower those who refuse to settle for anything less than an extraordinary life to live with passion, lead with purpose, and make their mark on the world.