Edward B. Burger
ISBN: 0691156662
Read: 7/15/2014
Pages: 157
Rating: 7/10
View on Amazon
Reading Ease: Reading Time:4 hours

A quick read with a simple and powerful message, although the message is not ground breaking new. The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking and learning states that extraordinary people are just ordinary people that think differently and this book hopes to change the way you think. There are four central themes represented by actual elements, which make up the elements of effective thinking: 1) Earth: Strive for Rock-Solid Understanding 2) Fire: Fail and learn from missteps 3) Air: Constantly create and ask meaningful questions 4) Water: Consciously consider the flow of ideas The 5th element brings them all together, and that is The Quintessential Element – Engage Change, Transform Yourself. It is the path of a lifelong learner.

Notetable Quotes

"The depth with which you master the basics influences how well you understand everything you learn after that."Edward B. Burger
"Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten."B. F. Skinner
"A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for."Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

Motivations to Read

I'm drawn to books that are simple, time-tested and attempt to focus on principles in proving solutions to problems. Improving thinking is a high leverage activity that has cascading benefits in multiples areas of your life.

3 Reasons to Read

  • Improve the way you go about learning
  • Acquire more mindsets to improve your thinking
  • Better prepare yourself to be a life long learner

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking
Summary & Notes

Five elements of thinking and learning

Understand Deeply

Break down complex issues, focus on what you know first and seek to understand simple ideas deeply. Organize to simplify and get to what’s important.

Make Mistakes

Mistakes can build greater understanding, by showing you the knowledge gaps you need to fill and where to direct your efforts next.

Raise Questions

Ask questions to help you clarify and extend your understanding. Good questions will lead to better answers.

Follow the flow of ideas

Find the root of your ideas to spark new pathways to explore and discover. Following the consequences of small ideas.


“The unchanging element is change — by mastering the first four elements, you can change the way you think and learn. [..] Change is the universal constant that allows you to get the most out of living and learning.”

Elements for Effective Thinking



🌱 Earth

Understand deeply

🔥 Fire

Make mistakes

💨 Air

Raise questions

🌊 Water

Follow the flow of ideas

🌀 Quintessential Element


Deep Understanding

“successful people regularly focus on the core purpose of their profession or life. True experts continually deepen their mastery of the basics.”

“In everything you do, refine your skills and knowledge about fundamental concepts and simple cases. Once is never enough. As you revisit fundamentals, you will find new insights. It may appear that returning to basics is a step backward and requires additional time and effort; however, by building on firm foundations you will soon see your true abilities soar higher and faster.”

“The simple and familiar hold the secrets of the complex and unknown. The depth with which you master the basics influences how well you understand everything you learn after that.”

Uncover the essence

  • Step One: Identify and ignore all distracting features to isolate the essential core.
  • Step Two: Analyze that central issue and apply those insights to the larger whole.

“Whenever you “see” an issue or “understand” a concept, be conscious of the lens through which you’re viewing the subject. You should assume you’re introducing bias. The challenge remains to identify and let go of that bias or the assumptions you bring, and actively work to see and understand the subject anew.”

List of Cognitive Biases- Wikipedia

“To better understand your world, consciously acknowledge what you actually see—no matter how mundane or obvious—rather than guess at what you think you are supposed to see.”

Related to Realism, seeing the world as it is.

“Being honest and accurate about what you actually know and don’t know forces you to identify and fill gaps in your understanding. It is at the interface between what you actually know and what you don’t yet know that true learning and growth occur.”

I want to emphasize this point as being very important to your journey as a life long learner. Don’t fool yourself on what you think you know. Use the words “I don’t know”, more often; don’t spread false knowledge. Your knowledge gaps you have are areas of opportunity. Prioritize what’s worth learning and delegate the rest.

“What everybody believes is not always what’s actually true.”

This reminds me of an interesting inverse question from Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One:

“What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

“How can people, for thousands of years, believe false assertions that are easily disproved? Answer: Individuals tend to accept ideas if people they know or respect state or believe those ideas.”

“It’s not what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you do know that ain’t so.” —Will Rogers or Mark Twain or someone else

“How do you know? Becoming aware of the basis of your opinions or beliefs is an important step toward a better understanding of yourself and your world.”

See what’s missing

“One of the most profound ways to see the world more clearly is to look deliberately for the gaps— the negative space, as it is called in the art world; that is, the space surrounding the objects or issues of interest.”

Seeing what is missing is very difficult. You may find that having too much knowledge on a subject may actually blind you from seeing what’s missing.

They call this the “Curse of Knowledge”.

Buddhist talks about the beginner’s mind to starting from a blank state to see what you have not seen before.

Deeper is better

“Understanding simple things deeply means mastering the fundamental principles, ideas, and methods that then create a solid foundation on which you can build. Seeking the essential creates the core or skeleton that supports your understanding.”

“Success is about persisting through the process of repeatedly failing and learning from failure.”

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” —Samuel Beckett

“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” —Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

Creating Questions out of Thin Air

The very act of creating questions is a step towards understanding.

“Traditionally people believe that it’s in the answering of questions that progress is made. In fact, creating questions is as important as answering them, if not more so, because framing good questions focuses your attention on the right issues.”

Answers can lead to questions. Even if you know the answer, you can always ask, “What if..?”

“A transformative but challenging personal policy is to 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.”

Challenge everything you know.

Ask questions from various viewpoints.

“Effective questions turn your mind in directions that lead to new insights and solutions. They highlight hidden assumptions and indicate directions to take to make progress.”

Seeing the Flow of Ideas

“To truly understand a concept, discover how it naturally evolves from simpler thoughts.”

“But, as we saw with the birth of calculus, essentially every important brilliant idea can easily be seen to be the result of someone’s understanding what was already known and taking a small step to reveal the next idea—another variation on understanding simple things deeply.”

“Expect and embrace change, and use the reality and perspective of the flow of ideas to help you both to understand the world and to create new worlds to come.”

Embracing Change

“However, like the way to happiness, the path to change is not through greater willpower and harder work, but rather through thinking differently.”

“The first four elements enable you to think better than you do; learn better than you do; and be more creative than you are. The fifth element recommends that you actually do it. Just do it.”

“If the ability to change is part of who you are, then you are liberated from worry about weaknesses or defects, because you can adapt and improve whenever you like.”

“To become more skillful and successful, you might think in terms of altering what you do, rather than thinking in terms of how well you do it. Instead of thinking, “Do it better,” think, “Do it differently.”

“Descartes’s cogito ergo sum observes that thinking confirms your very existence. Embracing the elements of effective thinking will inevitably lead you to your quintessential self.”

“The unchanging element is change”

“When you learn anything, go for depth and make it rock solid. If you learn a piece of music for the piano, then, instead of just memorizing finger movements, learn to hear each note and understand the structure of the piece.”

“Instead of taking formal tests, we encounter daunting questions from employers or even family and friends; instead of earning grades, we are judged in the workplace and in social settings; instead of understanding course material, we regularly need to master new skills and absorb new knowledge to keep up with a rapidly changing world. All our stories have direct relevance to you and your life.”

“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.”

“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.”

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. —Winston Churchill”

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