How to Solve Problems

This is the text of a speech I gave at Franklin Square Hospital in Baltimore MD.

Who here would like to be more effective in their lives?

Who here would like to have a better ability to think effectively?

Who here has a hidden secret of a goal or an ambition that seems just a little too removed from reality?

Ultimately, one has to ask, and the question I ask myself is, “How can I be a better me?”

Thinking Makes the Difference

“I think, therefore I am.” —René Descartes

The root of success in everything, from academics to business to leadership to personal relationships and everything else in between, 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, using the soft tissue that lies between our ears.

So it is not a surprise that thinking more effectively is the key to success for students, professionals, business leaders, artists, writers, politicians, and all of us living our everyday lives. Doing anything better requires some thought, some better way of applying ourselves, or simply ‘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.

What is a surprise is that the basic methods for thinking more clearly, more innovatively, more effectively are fundamentally the same in all areas of life— in school, in business, in the arts, in personal life, in sports, in everything. The other surprise is that those methods of effective thinking can be described, taught, and learned. They are not inborn gifts of a special few. They are not so esoteric that only geniuses can master them. All of us can learn them and use them, and that is what the book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking is about.

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.

Who wants to know more? Here’s a quote, tell me if you recognize the person who said it.

“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.” Who said it?———-—Albert Einstein

Do you remember in high school, those straight A students who aced every exam? We think of the Einsteins, the Edisons, whose very breath exuded genius, intelligence, the veritable brainiacs among us. Is it really the case or did these noble thinkers have a better strategy or a method of thinking that produced extraordinary results?

Brilliant students and brilliant innovators create their own victories by practicing habits of thinking that inevitably carry them step-by-step to works of greatness.

There is a clue in that last sentence. The phrase step by step – humble little steps that led Einstein to his theory of relativity, humble little steps that led Edison through 10,000 failures to get to a vacuum tube incandescent light bulb, that today makes the world a very different place.

So what are the 5 elements?

How can we breakdown the process of thinking into steps that are easy to do? Easy to perform? Who here likes to work hard?

Hard work is made easy by chunking it down. Tackling one little problem after another until that massive problem has boiled down to the purity of its essential elements.

Can you imagine Madame Curie as a student? How about William Shakespeare before he wrote his first sonnet? Yes, they had to learn just like the rest of us. They didn’t wear “Future Genius” buttons on their lapels while they were in school, learning their craft. They plodded along like their classmates.

The book 5 Elements of Effective Thinking describes habits that will automatically cause any of us to regularly produce new knowledge and insight.

Extraordinary people are just ordinary people who are thinking differently— and that could be you.

“Ordinary students can attain extraordinary heights. Mark was a mathematics students whose work at the beginning of the semester was truly dismal. He was so lost that his homework assignments were neither right nor wrong— they were simply nonsense. He merely recycled math terms that he wrote down during class discussions without even knowing their meaning. It was as if he were writing a poem in a language that he himself did not understand.”

“Although he was genuinely dedicated, Mark appeared to be the textbook example of a lost cause. By the end of the semester, however, Mark had transformed himself into a different person— a person who was able to think about mathematics in clever and imaginative ways. As the term came to a close, he devised a creative and correct solution to a difficult, long-standing challenge that no one else in the class was able to resolve. At some point during the semester, Mark had the epiphany that mathematics had meaning and that he could make sense of it.”

So how did he do it? Make this massive turn around?

“He returned to the most basic ideas of the subject— ideas that he had seen years before but never truly grasped. He floundered when he viewed learning as memorizing techniques and repeating words. He succeeded when he sought to understand fundamental ideas deeply. With his new mind-set, building up a solid understanding of the subject was relatively easy, and his success in the class was inevitable.”

Mark graduated from college with high grades in all subject because he mastered the fundamentals of thinking.

“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” —B. F. Skinner

The Greeks had the world and the known universe divided in 4 elements. Let’s examine the art of thinking in terms of these 4 basic elements.

Someone help me out with the 4 elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water

Earth – Who here likes to garden? Where are my gardeners? Yes, thank you. I hate gardening. I especially despise trying to dig in my yard only to discover my yard is entirely infested with tree roots as big as the branches I see in the above ground part of the tree. Just imagine turning a tree upside down and burying the canopy under the earth, that’s what’s in my yard!

Understand deeply: Don’t try face complex issues head-on; first understand simple ideas deeply. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be honest about what you know and especially, be brutally honest about what you don’t know. Then see what’s missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in. Let go of bias, prejudice, and preconceived notions. This will go a long way to deepen  understanding. Rock-solid understanding is the foundation for success. Successful people regularly focus on the core purpose of their profession or life. True experts continually deepen their mastery of the basics.

In business, you’ve got to know everything there is to know about your business or you will not succeed.

Fire – Make mistakes: Don’t you just hate to make mistakes, to fail! Isn’t it embarrassing, to make a mistake in front of colleagues or superiors?  No! It’s wonderful! You have to fail to learn. Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are your greatest teachers— they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination. When you get an 85% on the quiz and you think you’ve done okay, that’s when you are wrong. It’s not the 85% that is important, it’s the 15% that you don’t know that separates you from the genius within. Go back and learn from the mistakes.  

Air – Right now in the air all around us are ideas, data points in the universe that just need someone to ask the right questions, to connect the dots.

Raise questions: Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding. What’s the real question? Don’t settle for the superficial questions. 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 remain invisible.

Water: 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.

Look at the Iphone 5. Do you think that is the end of the line? There won’t be an Iphone 6? I fear what will come with the Iphone 6,7, and the 8! That thing will be talking to you when you pass a store. It will remind you that you bought those jeans six months ago and what a great deal they were, and yes, there is a buy one get one free sale going on right now! Well, I better go in.

Knowledge is flowing forward, all you need to do is let go of how things used to be and be willing to grab on to the idea of what is coming next.!

Earth ↔ Understand deeply – dig deep get to the roots, gardening.

 Fire ↔ Make mistakes – don’t you just hate to make a mistake.

 Air ↔ Raise questions – they are in the air around us all the time.

Water ↔ Follow the flow of ideas – there is a past and future of an idea.

But wait there’s more!

That is only 4 elements, yet the book is called the 5 elements of Effective Thinking. What’s the fifth element?

The Quintessential Element – Is change.

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.

When this book came out on my daughter’s summer reading list, I couldn’t find it in our BCPL system. It was just recently published in 2012 and I bought it through Amazon on my kindle. It was the best $15 I have spent.  I recommended it the buyers at BCPL and got an email last week stating that my recommendation had been approved.

This book should be in every middle school and high school in Maryland. Every teacher should read this book in order to know how to guide students into effective thinking practices. My daughter Christina, highlighted a paragraph that had to do with writing and said, “This explains in a paragraph what my English teacher couldn’t explain in an entire year.”

That my friends is an endorsement to read this book.

Read it with your kids, give it to your friends and by all means make sure your Congressman gets a copy.

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