The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

by Edward B. Burger , Michael Starbird

Number of pages: 168

Publisher: Princeton University Press

BBB Library: Personal Success

ISBN: 978-0691156668

About the Authors

Edward B. Burger : Edward Bruce Burger is a mathematician who is currently president of


Michael Starbird : Michael Starbird is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics at


Editorial Review

The root of success in everything, from academics and business to personal relationships, is thinking—whether it’s disguised as intuition, good values, decision making, problem solving, or creativity. Therefore, thinking more effectively is the key to success. Doing anything better requires 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. The basic elements of thinking more effectively are the same in everything in life and can be described, taught, and learned. They are not inborn gifts of a special few and they are not so esoteric that only geniuses can master them. All of us can learn them and use them.   

Book Reviews

“The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking is replete with sound advice and fresh ideas while drawing on historic examples to substantiate the efficacy of putting the elements into practice.” —The Washington Times

“It’s a very short, lively book that persuasively makes the case that there are learnable general skills that contribute to clear thinking and effective problem solving.I found many good points on each front, especially on the importance of depth of understanding.”—Casnocha

Books on Related Topics

Wisdom to Share

Brilliant students and innovators create their own victories by practicing habits of thinking that inevitably carry them step-by-step to works of greatness. Just a few basic strategies of thought can lead to effective learning, understanding, and innovation.

Understanding is not a yes-or-no proposition. It requires mastering the fundamentals, identifying the essential themes, and attaching each idea to its core structure.

People can understand the core of a subject, yet what makes a person an effective thinker is how they continually develop their thoughts.

People can understand the core of a subject, yet what makes a person an effective thinker is how they continually develop their thoughts.

Occasionally, you have to review your knowledge, what you are up to, and how your thoughts are changing from time to time. Refine your skills and knowledge about fundamental concepts and simple cases, because once is never enough. You will find new insights and beliefs, helping your true abilities soar higher and faster. When you look back, the basics seem far simpler, but they are also subtler, deeper, more nuanced, and more meaningful.

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.

Mistakes are great teachers—they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.

Any creative accomplishment evolves out of lessons learned from a long succession of missteps. Failure is a critical element of effective learning, teaching, and creative problem solving.

Your bad solution to one problem might lead to a different project altogether—a project suggested by the accidental virtues of your mostly bad attempt.

One profound way to make new discoveries is to intentionally fail along the way. Exploring exaggerated extremes and impractical scenarios is one of the ways that frees us to have an unforeseen insight.

Many people associate questions with being ignorant, being lost, or, even worse, being tested. A different perspective will help you see that questions can be an inspiring guide to insight and understanding. In fact, the very act of creating questions is a profound step toward understanding—even if the questions are neither asked nor answered.

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.