Stand on the summit, and keep on climbing. The art of effective thinking

At the mountain’s top. Joshua Earle Photography

At the mountain’s top. Joshua Earle Photography

We can all learn to think like the best thinkers out there. Just like Einstein, The Beatles, or J.K Rowling we are all capable of mastering a subject or skill. Using tools, tips, and techniques we can train ourselves to think effectively. Thinking effectively means maximizing the output of our efforts, and learning from every experience we have.

This writing was prompted by reading The Five Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird.

It all starts with the fundamentals.

Foundations come first. When learning mathematics, there is a steep drop off of students somewhere along the time calculus roles around. Calculus, while not an impossible subject to master, requires a healthy understanding of algebra in order to utilize. Students utilizing their ability to memorize formulas begin to struggle once a true understanding of material is required. While the students who sought a deep understanding of mathematics more easily adapt to new ways of utilizing the tools they already know.

Renowned basketball coach Jack Ramsey was adamant about the importance of fundamentals:

Basketball, like every other sport, is predicated on the execution of the fundamentals. The coach is a teacher; his subject is the fundamentals.

When you understand the fundamentals of a subject, you inherently understand the inner workings of that subject. Choosing to study and learn the fundamentals builds a strong foundation for whatever subject you choose. Strong foundations lead to true understanding and later mastery of a subject.

How do you study the fundamentals?

Some of us may feel like we missed our chance to study the fundamentals. If we didn’t pay attention in school, to our parents or our coach then we missed our chance. We may feel that we are no longer able learn the fundamentals of a subject once we are a certain age or have spent time on more complex pieces. Like learning guitar tabs and then being told to go back and practice scales, it just doesn’t feel good.

Here’s the thing, you can revisit the fundamentals of a subject. And you should, often. Revisiting the fundamentals not only keeps you sharp, it strengthens the foundations of all other areas of the subject you study. Having a stronger foundation means better performance on your more complex skill.

Revisiting fundamentals accelerates learning. When you revisit the fundamentals, you strengthen the connections in your mind regarding the subject. These strengthened signals make practicing what you already know even easier, meaning you can more comfortably try something you don’t know.

Failure is the first step to understanding.

Being wrong is great. When you’re wrong, you have not only discovered at least one way which something won’t work, you have also put effort into using a chosen skill. It is the act of using a skill which improves your ability, not the act of success. Failure means action is being taken, and that is how your mind learns more about a subject.

Fail on purpose.

When you don’t know where to start, just create something. Write down your thoughts and opinions and allow yourself to be wrong. It’s okay to come up with the wrong answer. Just begin filling in the holes of what’s missing, and fixing the parts that aren’t working. Don’t try to solve the whole problem at one time. Solve a piece of the problem you know you can, and don’t worry about doing it right.

Revisit your work and begin correcting the blatant errors and filling in the gaps. You’ll be surprised how much more you know when approaching something again. Rinse and repeat this process and you will be in a perpetual state of creating and learning. Constantly achieving more than you previously thought possible.

Just tell it like you see it.

When asked about our opinions on something, or even just asked a direct question about something, we tend to construct elaborate answers in an attempt to impress. This isn’t useful in mastering a subject as we are spending our efforts on acting instead of understanding.

When examining the world, just tell it like you see it. It’s okay if you don’t understand it. Being literal about what you see is an effective way to trigger learning. By laying out the truth of what you currently understand the people around you, as well as your own mind, now have a frame from which to teach you more. No one wants to help somebody who acts like they know everything.

If you are unsure of where to go: Fail.

If stuck, make an absurd exaggerated guess and utilize it to test assumptions. Setting yourself up for failure sets you up to learn. Even an absurd goal is better than no goal at all. With an absurd goal, you give yourself a target to aim for that you will surely miss. Every failure is a new chance to learn, and learning gets you that much closer to achieving a real goal.

Be like NASA.

When NASA was tasked with putting a man on the Moon, they didn’t just buckle some astronauts in and send them flying. They started simple, and set themselves up for failure. NASA built a probe with the ultimate purpose of crashing it into the moon. While crashing, NASA was able to record the data needed to plan the actual “one small step for man” moment.

The Ranger Program, taking pictures then crashing! Learning the whole time.

The Ranger Program, taking pictures then crashing! Learning the whole time.

Discover what you don’t understand.

“Do I really know?” is the question you should learn to ask yourself. While others may try to ask for you, you are the best authority on what you don’t understand. Ask questions to yourself in order to prove yourself wrong. Prove yourself wrong in order to dig into the real “why” and “how” of a subject. Being wrong is an opportunity to learn.

Although you know yourself best, don’t be afraid to involve other people in your quest for knowledge. New perspectives offer new insights, no matter how right or wrong they are. You may discover the best correct insight due to the incorrect perspective of another. Sharing is caring!

Teach a subject to learn it deeper.

We’ve all heard the saying “The best way to learn something is to teach it.” and there’s a reason. It holds some truth. Teaching a subject causes us to recall information we previously learned. Recalling information is at the core of how our minds learn and retain information. Constantly recalling information in order to aid the learning of someone else is a powerful way to enhance your learning. And if you’re teaching newbies, you’ll be improving your fundamentals!

Speed! Another tool for prompting failure.

Another great way to jump-start learning, especially if you find yourself in a slump, is to work as fast as possible. And when we say “as fast as possible”, we mean to the point of making a mess. This will test your skills and prompt failure. Afterwards, you revisit your “lightning round” work and discover the reasons you messed up. A quick way to learn!

Be a questioner.

Asking questions is a direct way to learn more about a subject. Many people have learned not to ask questions, for fear of being wrong or annoying. You don’t want to be that one person who doesn’t get something, right? Wrong! You do want to be that person, because you’re never the only person who doesn’t understand something, or who couldn’t benefit from another explanation of something. Asking questions when you are uncomfortable teaches you to ask questions in any situation when you see the opportunity to learn. Pro Tip: People love talking about what they know. So asking questions has the added bonus of making friends.

Effective questions lead to action.

Effective questions prompt deep thought. Vague questions prompt assumptions and don’t lead to learning.

“How can I become more engaged in my daily goals?” vs. “How can I become successful?”

Focus on the aspects of life that you can control instead of focusing on what you cannot control. A question that forms the foundation of many effective questions is “How can I use this moment to benefit me?” This question directs the questioner’s attention at the current moment, the here and now no matter where or when that is. The here and now is the only place you can directly impact, so starting our focus there is a great primer for effective action.

Imagine you are stuck in traffic. Do you ask “How can this traffic go faster?” or “How can I use these extra 45 minutes of time to benefit me each day?”? Which sounds more beneficial to you?

Oh, and our suggestion for those extra 45 minutes in traffic? Audiobooks.

Constantly question. Be Socrates.

Constantly question. Be Socrates.

New ideas flow from old.

New ideas don’t appear out of nowhere, they are built upon by existing ideas. You can push the boundaries by guessing at what’s next (and being ready and willing to fail!). Utilize what exists now as a foundation for your guesses.

Take time to look backwards. People born into a world with current solutions to problems assume each “solution” as just a norm. Try to see the world with these fresh eyes. Make things better that others may not even see. Henry Ford is famous for saying “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.”

Ask “What were they thinking?”

Look backward to look forward. Consider how some things that are now normal used to be shunned or disbelieved. Understand this, and utilize the knowledge to discover new ideas that may go against the grain. We are all biased and it can take considerable effort to change someone’s mind. When you’re working on something that’s against the grain, show don’t tell.

Assume there is a mistake, and look to improve it.

Have you ever noticed something about cities? Construction is always underway. That is because cities are always looking for ways to improve. Most cities have a plethora of old infrastructure needing upgrades. The citizens and the government are constantly on lookout for things to make better, since the city is their home. We all want our homes to be comfortable!

When looking to learn more about a subject, assume you are wrong. Search for the mistake(s) in your current assumptions. Seek out the holes that you wish to fill.

Focus on what you’re already good at.

“Focus on your strengths” is becoming quite the buzz phrase lately. And for good reason. Focusing your efforts on improving the things you’re already good at is an effective path to mastery. This doesn’t mean you should avoid what you’re bad at, since you should definitely be making mistakes. Focusing on your strengths only means to focus on what you already enjoy enough to have put your personal time and effort into.

Stand on the summit, and keep climbing.

We should challenge ourselves when practicing our strengths. In order to learn we must be making mistakes, and mistakes are more easily made when we are working outside of our comfort zone. Focus on your strengths, but take them outside of your comfort zone. This way your skills will always be at their best, while continually getting better.

Change is the goal

Like all forms of growth, change is the goal here. If you wish to learn more about a subject, or master a certain skill, you will need to be different than you are now. To be different, you must BE different. Instead of thinking of how to do it better, think about how to do it differently.

Learning new skills means creating new habits.

Learning and practicing are both habits needed to achieve mastery of a subject. Not to mention the healthy habits needed to feel energetic enough to tackle new tasks. There are potentially many new habits to make when seeking mastery.

Remember in order to be different we must BE different.

This means removing old habits to make room for new. We must be a person who spends their time in different ways than the old us did. This can mean what in the moment feel like sacrifices. If you believe yourself to be making a sacrifice, take the time to consider who it is you truly wish to be. Be open to change as you learn about new possibilities. Doubts are opportunities to grow.

Mastery is a forever thing.

While the 10,000 hours is a debatable rule of thumb, it isn’t a bad way to look at it. There are plenty of historical examples to show the power of 10,000 hours. One thing that there historical masters have in common? They didn’t just stop at 10,000 hours. Mastery is forever. One does not obtain mastery, mastery is a state of constantly practicing and improving something.

Quick fixes do not work.

Life long learning will require you to change your viewpoint, change your habits, and change your lifestyle. Your long term goals and their consequences matter, as you will need them to guide you. True understanding is harder in the beginning than memorization or acting. Repeated failure can at times be discouraging. But as we learn to understand a subject, it becomes easier to navigate.

Learning is a life long journey.

So let’s get started!

Methodically, slowly, and deeply learning a subject takes focus and determination. Depending on how “fast” you wish to learn, you will have to decide how to best spend your time.

Clear the clutter and seek the essential.

Do you need a $1500 laptop, or will a pencil and paper do? Is a $300 gym membership going to help you reach your goals, or would 10 minutes of Google get you the results you need? How are you spending your free time? Do you need all those toys, games, and things or do you really only spend time with 2 or 3 of them?

Start simple.

When you first start digging into a subject, it may seem daunting. Pair down the subject to a singular thing you can take action on or learn about. Change whatever you need to change, inside and out. And don’t be afraid to exaggerate to extremes, you will still find answers.

Failure leads to results.

Identify and admit your shortcomings by owning your mistakes. It’s okay to fail by intent, its the fast track to learning, think “I will need to fail at least 9 times”.

Thanks for reading!

This writing was prompted by reading The Five Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird. A good read, and not too long. If you’re looking for some extra ammo on how to think effectively, pick a copy up audio or written.