Indraniel's Notebook

Thinking Basics

01 January 2013

"Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten"

B. F. Skinner

I often feel I'm caught in the prevailing conventional wisdom of the moment and lose sight of the fundamentals. Sometimes it's nice to be reminded of the basics.

I recently came across "The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking". The book, written by a couple of mathematicians, describes a set of strategies and habits to improve thought, and associates them with the classical elements that were once believed to be the essential parts of nature (Earth, Fire, Air & Water). While I have not fully read the book, I found the following excerpt from the front matter interesting:

  1. Understand deeply (Earth)

    Don't face complex issues head-on; first understand simple ideas deeply. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be brutally honest about what you know and don't know. Then see what's missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in. Let go of bias, prejudice, and preconcieved notions. There are degrees to understanding (it's not just a yes-or-no proposition) and you can heighten yours. Rock-solid understanding is the foundation for success.

  2. Make mistakes (Fire)

    Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers - they highlight unforseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.

  3. Raise Questions (Air)

    Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding. What's the real question? Working on the wrong question can waste a lifetime. Ideas are in the air - the right questions will bring them out and help you see connections that otherwise would have been invisible.

  4. Follow the flow of ideas (Water)

    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.

By mastering these strategies, you can and will change. 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.

  1. Change (The Quintessential Element)

    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.

My Father, the ever lifelong learner, regularly practiced many of the above notions and would have been an advocate of the techniques.