The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking Summary (Plus How to Apply it to Your Business)

By Liz Froment •  Updated: 09/01/16 •  10 min read

Here’s a confession…

I’ve always wanted to be a better thinker.

I consume a lot of content.

A lot.

Around 50 books a year plus a jam packed Pocket account full of blog posts, reports, and white papers on all sorts of topics.

The 5 Elements of Effective ThinkingI’d like to think piling all that stuff into my brain would somehow translate into massive amounts of success. Thus far, the jury is still out, and my greatest success with the info typically boils down to me being really good at pub trivia.

The real key, and the thing that I struggle with is taking all that knowledge and actually applying it effectively.

I read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck a few years ago (it’s on my list of books every entrepreneur should read). After reading it, I became really interested in what I could do to improve my own mindset, how I could learn more effectively, and apply that knowledge into more success in work and life.

That’s where The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking comes into play. Not only does it tie in really nicely with Mindset, but it’s a quick and dirty primer on how to improve your own mindset to become a more effective learner, which can be huge for your business.

I read it in just one weekend (it’s only about 150 pages), and wanted to highlight some of the biggest takeaways I learned from it.

I want to specifically apply it in terms of how it can relate to growing your own business and brand, it should go without saying that for general learning all of these apply too.

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking Summary

The authors, the awesomely named Doctors Burger and Starbird are actual professors and make the argument that brilliant people aren’t just born, they can be made.

And they can be made by concentrating thinking and learning into 5 specific elements:

  1. Understand deeply
  2. Make mistakes
  3. Raise questions
  4. Follow the flow of ideas
  5. Change

That’s it, nice and easy.

Here’s a really good infographic on the five elements of efective thinking too:

Let’s do a quick breakdown of each one.

Effective Thinking Element 1: Understand Deeply

This is the advice you always get in school but love to ignore. In order to excel at any single topic, you need to deeply understand the basics.

And that’s not like getting an 80% on a test, that’s banging out 95%-100% understanding before you move on to the next thing.

You can apply this to learning about business too. There is a reason why we suggest to start at the bottom of the ladder (SEO writing) inside Location Rebel Academy, because it helps to teach you the basics of starting and building a business.

Take that approach to everything. In order to truly become an “expert” in anything, you have to know the basics inside and out. It lets you really understand what is truly important about a subject, find and fill the gaps you have in your knowledge, and open up your mind to testing new ideas and challenging your biases, making you an all around pretty killer pro on that subject.

Having that superior level of knowledge in even the basic stuff already puts you ahead of the pack, since most people are only willing to do just enough to get by before they move on.  

Action item: Take one subject that you want to become an expert in, or you think you are an expert in and write down the core concepts. Can you explain each and every one of them fully and in depth (answer honestly)? If not, here’s where you start building your foundation of learning by filling in the gaps for that topic.

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Element 2: Make Mistakes

Raise your hand if you have a fear of failure [slowly raises hand while looking around nervously]. It’s ironic that one of the biggest reasons so many people don’t truly see success in life or work is because they are held back by this huge (and very common) fear.

Break free of the fear of failure.

From the book:

Try something: see what’s wrong; learn from the defect; try again. When Edison said that invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, the perspiration was the process of incrementally making mistakes and learning from them to make the next attempts apt to be closer to right.

The authors want us to reframe the concept of mistakes being a bad thing. Instead of looking at a mistake as a negative, look at it as an opportunity: to improve, to learn more, to reframe our thinking.

Mistakes can be teachers, they can help us understand what doesn’t work and keep chipping away at them until we find the “correct” answer.

Action Item: One of the mindset tricks I absolutely loved in the book can be applied here. Before you start anything: a blog post, an eBook, a client pitch, assume you are going to fail at it 9 times in a row, but on the 10th you’ll get it right. This frees your mind from the negative thinking around making a mistake, and for each failure you do have, you’re actually making forward progress towards getting it right.

Element 3: Raise Questions

One thing you should never ever be afraid to do is ask questions.

What you might think is classified as a “stupid question” doesn’t actually exist. The authors refer to it instead as a “basic question.” When we are willing to let go of the need to pretend we know more than we actually do, we can start asking a lot more basic questions and building our knowledge bases.  

The fact of the matter is, when you ask questions it opens a whole new world of learning and thinking. Questions let us have a deeper understanding, they let us really think about the topic, to explore our own biases or preconceived ideas (things that might be holding us back).

Asking questions also helps to transform people from passive listeners to active listeners. Ever listen to someone talk and just space out for a minute? Now, what about if you were listening to someone but you knew that you’d have to engage with them later? Chances are, you’d be a much more active listener, paying attention so you could have something to talk about later.

See the difference?

Most importantly, asking questions is like rocket fuel for creativity. And in a world where so many of the people who build their own businesses are creative, what’s not to like about that?

Action Item: Become an effective questioner. The next time you encounter someone who knows about something that interests you (in person, over Skype, or even in a blog post comment), ask them a question. The key here is to frame your questions so that they help you take action or clarify your understanding on the topic, these are some of the skills of active listeners.

Element 4: Follow the Flow of Ideas

This element is the one that I really found the most thought provoking in the entire book. Essentially, what Burger and Starbird are saying here is that ideas don’t just pop out of thin air, they are actually built upon millions of other ideas over thousands of years of work.

Kinda crazy when you sit down and think about it, right?

Here’s an example from the book.

Most people consider Henry Ford the guy that created the car industry as we know it today, he not only came up with the Ford Model T but also the assembly line, which allowed him to make his cars very quickly.

But Henry didn’t just come up with the idea of the production line one day. He was building on the idea of another awesomely named guy, Ransom Olds. Olds was the founder of Oldsmobile, and in 1901 he decided to follow the flow of ideas and improve on the manufacturing process of the time by creating the assembly line.

When Henry came around and started making Fords in 1908, he followed the flow ideas and improved upon what was already out there by adding conveyor belts to the assembly line, a move that revolutionized manufacturing.

So the point is, no one just “comes up” with something, instead they often look to the past, to the work and idea of others and try to figure out how to keep moving that flow forward towards the future. Every time you fail or make a mistake and then go back and improve your work, you’re following that flow.

Action Item: The next time you have to write something, just bang it out, in the words of author Anne Lamott: “Write sh**ty rough drafts.” Don’t worry about spelling or grammar, or even if it makes sense. Get it on paper. Now you have a base from which you can follow the flow of ideas and improve.

If you want more on writing, check out this post on how to become a writer and this post on the best writing tools out there.

Element 5: Change

The change element is really a wrap up of everything that comes before it in the book. The authors want you to feel that you can always change the way you think and learn.

If you are able to practice the previous four elements, then chances are, you’re well on your way to creating change when it comes to becoming someone who is a better thinker. This is really the key part.

Ultimately, change is the goal, and if you’re able to become better at learning by understanding the fundamentals, embracing mistakes, asking lots of effective questions, and following the flow of creativity, you’re going to get there.

The authors call this the “meta-lesson,” and I think it really ties in nicely with what Dweck talks about in Mindset about having a “growth” versus “fixed” mindset, if you’re willing to be someone who is open to improvement and doesn’t get bogged down in mistakes, failure, or weaknesses, you can become a transformative thinker.

This is huge for anyone who is running their own business, because mindset is so important. You are going to see a lot of roadblocks, a lot of mistakes, and even some total failures getting things up and running, you have to be willing accept them while still learning and growing at the same time.

Action Item: Remember, change takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight. Work on putting each of the four elements into practice, if it feels overwhelming at first then just pick one. Start by asking questions or being ok with making lots of mistakes. Over time, include additional elements as you see fit, it will all add up to a positive change in the way you approach thinking and learning.

I hope you’ve been able to pick up a few takeaways from The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, I know I have. This is going to be a book that I can see myself referring to again and again as I put the elements into practice. Any of the elements really resonate with you?

Liz Froment

Liz Froment is a full-time freelance writer and the one who keeps Location Rebel running like a well-oiled machine. If she's not writing something informative or witty for her clients, she can most likely be found reading a good book.
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