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The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking - Book summary

The way you think affects your level of success in any area of life. In this book, Edward Burger and Michael Starbird present 5 practical learning strategies for thinking and creativity. Each strategy is linked to 1 of 5 elements—earth, fire, air, water and the quintessential element—to help you remember the concepts. In this free version of The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking summary, you’ll get a quick overview of all 5 strategies.

The 5 Elements Of Effective Thinking: An Overview

Brilliant thinkers and innovators aren’t born with superior intellect. They’re just ordinary people who’ve adopted sound strategies to think, learn and create more effectively. The 5 strategies in this book will help you to do just that.

The authors recommend that you read the book at least 3 times:

  • First, read the entire book to take in the concepts.
  • Then, reread the book, pausing to try out the exercises and reflect on the lessons and insights.
  • Finally, reread the book with the goal of incorporating the 5 elements into your daily life.

In a nutshell, the 5 elements of effective thinking are:

  1. Ground your Thinking (Earth): Understand Deeply
  2. Ignite Insights through Failure (Fire): Learn from Mistakes
  3. Create Questions from Thin Air (Air): Ask Challenging Questions
  4. Tap on the Flow of Ideas (Water): Look Forward & Backward
  5. Transform yourself (The Quintessential Element): Engage Change

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking summary - overview of the 5 strategies

Let’s take a quick look at each element below. Do get a copy of our full 11-page summary for additional details, examples and application tips for each of the 5 strategies.

Simulating Effective Thinking with 5 Elements

Each of the 5 thinking strategies come with specific exercises to help you stimulate your thinking and cultivate positive learning habits.

1. Ground your Thinking (Earth): Understand Deeply

Build a rock-solid foundation by mastering the fundamental principles, concepts and techniques. It’s like looking at something through a magnifying glass to see nuances and details that you would otherwise miss. This includes:

  • Going deep into the basics to master the fundamentals;
  • Focusing on a simpler issue or sub-problem which you can solve, to lay your foundations;
  • Filter out what’s essential from the noise;
  • Learning to see your own biases, what’s missing or invisible.

In our complete version of The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking summary, we’ll dive into each of these components and explain how you can apply them in the real world. Here’s a quick example of an exercise to go deeper into a topic/skill you wish to improve or understand better:

  • Take 5 minutes to list down all the components you can think of, e.g. Economics involves concepts like profit-maximization, supply-and-demand, free markets, equilibrium, and so on.
  • Just choose 1 component, and take 30 minutes to learn whatever you can about it. Be honest with any knowledge gaps or concepts that you don’t fully understand. For instance, you may zoom in on the supply-and-demand-curve, consider the relationship between price and quantity, and realize that you don’t fully understand what it means when the curves intersect.

2. Ignite Insights through Failure (Fire): Learn from Mistakes

Failure is often frowned upon as a “bad” thing. In reality, failures and mistakes are essential for learning and creative breakthroughs.  You can use mistakes to (i) identify what went wrong or how/why something led to the failure, (ii) how you can correct the issue and/or (iii) apply the failed solution to solve a different problem.  Specifically, this strategy includes:

  • Using your errors as a guide;
  • Working on iterative drafts instead of sorting things out in your head;
  • Considering if a wrong solution for 1 problem can be a perfect solution for another problem; and
  • Using exaggeration and stress-tests to discover errors or get fresh ideas.

3. Create Questions from Thin Air (Air): Ask Challenging Questions

Questions are often treated as a sign of ignorance or a way to test others. In reality, asking the right questions helps you to focus on the right issues, challenge your assumptions, and jolt your thinking.

To use questions to sharpen your thinking:

  • Challenge what you “know”;
  • Learn something by teaching it;
  • Cultivate curiosity in yourself and others; and
  • Find the core issues by asking good questions.

Do get more details on each of these steps in our full text, infographic and audio summaries of The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking summary.

4. Tap on the Flow of Ideas (Water): Look Forward & Backward

Ideas don’t appear out of nowhere. Every idea is built upon other ideas, and the best innovators and learners tap on the flow of ideas to (i) understand an existing idea or (ii) generate new ideas from old ones. This strategy is about:

  • Generating new ideas from existing ideas by extending, varying or applying in new settings;
  • Understanding the history and evolution of a challenge or decision;
  • Fast-forwarding to the future; and
  • Considering the concept/assumptions across different time horizons.

5. Transform yourself (The Quintessential Element): Engage Change

The final element—change—comes naturally when you apply the other 4 elements: understand things deeply (instead of accepting the superficial), learn from failures (instead of avoiding/rejecting them), ask questions (instead of taking things for granted), and treat everything as a constantly-evolving flow of ideas.

Getting the Most from The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

This is a succinct, easy to read book, written in a conversational style. Both the authors are Mathematics professors, so many of the examples and anecdotes in the book involve education and classroom learning. However, the principles and exercises can be applied by anyone to any context to improve your thinking and creativity. If you’ve enjoyed the ideas outlined above, do get more details about all 5 elements of effective thinking our complete book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 11-page text summary, and a 23-minute audio summary.

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking summary - book summary bundle

If you’d like more examples to deepen your understanding, do get a copy of the book or visit for more resources/details.

About the Authors of The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking is written by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird.

Edward Bruce Burger is a mathematician and President Emeritus of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Previously, he was the Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics at Williams College, and the Robert Foster Cherry Professor for Great Teaching at Baylor University.

Michael P. Starbird is a Professor of Mathematics and a University of Texas Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his B.A from Pomona College and his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking Quotes

“When you learn anything, go for depth and make it rock solid.”

“After you pare down a complex issue to its essentials, the essentials are much clearer and easier to face.”

“Identifying and admitting your own uncertainties is an enormous step toward solid understanding.”

“If you see it, then say it; if you don’t see it, then don’t claim to see it.”

“If you’re stuck, a mistake can be just the thing to unstick you.”

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