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5 Habits of Highly Effective Thinkers

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William James once said that while we think we are thinking for ourselves, in reality we are just rearranging our prejudices. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that we humans are not always the most effective thinkers.

Enjoy at the Picture, but Don’t Forget the Frame

Long ago, some friends and I were in Chicago. We went to one of the tracks there, I forget which one, to see some harness racing. I kept calling it buggy racing but that just shows my ignorance. The first night we went there and I had a heck of a night. I’d never been to a horse race before and I won about six hundred bucks. I was in hog heaven. It was so easy.

The next night, I laughed as I said, “This is so easy. You go up to the window, you give ’em your money and then after the race, you go up and collect.”

Ahhh, the naivete’ of the uninitiated.

I lost all the money I’d won the night before and then some. I was thinking with my ground game. The only thing I took into consideration was the fact that winning seemed so easy, like I had a gift or something. That was my mistake.

Had I been thinking with my upper game, thinking from the frame instead of inside the picture, I could have checked to see how many people walk out of the track winners consistently. How many left as losers? Had I considered that, I might have handled my self differently.

Keep the Mind Open for Business

When I was at the track that night, the only option I was willing to consider (it was too much fun) was that I was there to bet.

Because I was  stuck in the picture, my view was limited and I was willing to close myself off from numerous possibilities. It didn’t help that we had several beers before we got there.

Once we arrived, my mind was closed for business. I knew what I was doing there and damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. An open mind would’ve told me to consider all the factors, to go to the frame level game. Had I done so, I might realize that 10 to 1 doesn’t bode well when you’re betting on the one.

In order to keep my mind open I would have had to cultivate something called beginners mind.

Cultivate Beginner’s Mind

Let’s say you are an expert on jars of jelly beans. Your job, your assignment, is to guess the number of beans in  a jar at a local mall. After all, you are the expert. Customers at the mall would be no competition, right?

Wrong. To the detriment of the reputation of experts, any complex problem situation- jelly beans in a jar is not a simple guessing task- the crowd will almost always outguess you.

That is they will out guess you as long as there are three things in place. First, the people in the crowd guess independently.

Next, you don’t take each guess separately; you go with the average.

Finally, the crowd has some incentive for getting it right, even if that is just to beat the expert.

Beginner’s mind won’t tell you what you don’t know. But it does put you in touch with the fact that you often don’t know. Maybe, in the right circumstances, you’ll know to ask the crowd.

Political Pundits Making Predictions

Jonah Lehrer wrote that when political pundits make predictions about future events, their accuracy can be compared to monkeys trying to make bull’s-eyes on a dartboard.

Think from Both/And

In the US, when we see someone on television that has stolen something, we tend to think of them as a thief. If, perish the thought, we or someone we liked were to steal something, we tend to think that it’s because of the situation. Either/Or thinking – not a little (or a lot) of both add to mental rigidity.

Both/and would better inform. From that perspective, the facts don’t change – only the interpretation. The item would still have been taken, whether by us or them doesn’t matter. Stealing remains a verb and the thief is taken out of the picture. And there may have been circumstances that explained why.

Other People’s Viewpoints

Edward deBono tells us to broaden our thinking by taking other points of view into consideration. I teach a class to a group of men who are often very concrete in their thinking. Some of them actually refuse to attempt to see things from other points of view.

When we think and make decisions, there are often other people involved. Your point of view would be different from mine. Even if I guess at what yours is, I have information that I can check out with you. It helps to break assumptions and prejudgment.

Your Turn

What have you tried that has made you more effective thinkers? What’s worked? What’s been a bust?


Creative Commons License photo credit: Sabrina Campagna

About Mike

Writes for men in transition, interested in personal development, and who are excited or lost when it comes to life and all the possibilities it offers after 50.


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