Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!

  • Uncover one essential. Consider a subject you wish to understand, and clear the clutter until you have isolated one essential ingredient. Each complicated issue has several possible core ideas. You are not seeking “the” essential idea; you are seeking just one—consider a subject and pare it down to one essential theme. In fact, you might perform this exercise on yourself. What do you view as essential elements of you? Isolating those elements can give a great deal of focus to life decisions.

    • Say it like you see it. Homework assignments, tests, and job-related assessments ask you what you know. Unfortunately, partial credit or social pressure often encourages you to pretend to know a bit more than you actually do. So in the privacy of your own room look at assignments or possible test questions and write down the weaknesses as well as the strengths of what you know and don’t know. Deliberately avoid glossing over any gaps or vagueness. Instead boldly assert what is tepid or missing in your understanding. Then take action. Identifying and admitting your own uncertainties is an enormous step toward solid understanding.

    • Try on alternatives and size up the fit. Temporarily embrace some opinion that is counter to what you hold. Try not to be judgmental. Don’t resist the alternative views. You are not committing to any change. This exercise has the goal of understanding alternatives more realistically. As a result, you might change an opinion, but more likely you will simply have a better understanding of why the alternative views make sense to others.

    • See the invisible. Select your own object, issue, or topic of study and attach an adjective or descriptive phrase (such as “the First” before “World War”) that points out some reality of the situation, ideally some feature that is limiting or taken for granted. Then consider whether your phrase suggests new possibilities or opportunities. This exercise helps you to create interesting and provocative insights.

  • Igniting insights through mistakes: Fail to succeed

    • Welcome accidental missteps—let your errors be your guide
    • Finding the right question to the wrong answer
    • Failing by intent

    • Fail nine times. The next time you face a daunting challenge, think to yourself, “In order for me to resolve this issue, I will have to fail nine times, but on the tenth attempt, I will be successful.” This attitude frees you and allows you to think creatively without fear of failure, because you understand that failure is a forward step toward success. Take a risk and when you fail, no longer think, “Oh, no, what a frustrating waste of time and effort,” but instead correctly think, “Great: one down, nine to go—I’m making forward progress!” And indeed you are. After your first failure, think, “Terrific, I’m 10% done!” Mistakes, loss, and failure are all flashing lights clearly pointing the way to deeper understanding and creative solutions.

    • Don’t stare at a blank screen. Take an issue or problem of interest to you. Just quickly jot down any ideas—good, bad, inaccurate, or vague—that you have about the issue. Your ideas will be very bad in many ways. They will be disorganized and jumbled. They will be inaccurate or simply wrong. They’ll be impractical. They will be boring. They won’t come close to resolving the issue. They won’t be creative. Congratulations—excellent start! Now read what you wrote and focus on two features: what’s right and what’s wrong. Now you have something to do: tease out the good elements; find particularly nice phrases or pieces of strong ideas; uncover a word that is suggestive of some unstated interesting notion; find that you have clarified for yourself the core of the idea that you want to express. The second task is to recognize and exploit what’s wrong and correct the errors you see. You are now doing something different—you are not creating a work on a blank canvas but instead you are responding to a work already there. In making this action item practical, you must be sure to give yourself enough time for the required iterations.

    • Have a bad day. Bad days happen to good people. What separates the good from the great is how we react to that bad day. Bad days often include uncomfortably clear lessons about how to grow, learn, or reassess. So the next time you’re having a bad day, make the conscious effort to find and extract positive lessons from those not-so-positive experiences.

    • Exaggerate to generate errors. Consider an issue or problem and now exaggerate some feature of it to a ridiculous extreme. If you are arguing one side of an issue, support the side you truly believe; then make the argument so exaggerated that you realize that it’s way over the top. Now study your exaggerated description and discover some underlying defect. Does that defect also exist in a nonexaggerated perspective? As if you were conducting a stress test, you might apply this exercise to something that works well and learn how it breaks down. The strategy of exaggeration to extremes can be applied to any issue, from writing to marketing to product development to politics. For example, large companies hire hackers to attempt to break into their computer systems to expose security weaknesses.
  • Creating questions out of thin air: Be your own Socrates

    • How answers can lead to questions
    • Creating questions enlivens your curiosity
    • What’s the real question?

    • Teach to learn. There is no better way to learn anything than to actually teach it, because to teach something you have to confront many fundamental questions: What is the motivation to learn this topic? What are the basic examples? On what aspects of this material should I focus? What are the underlying themes? What ties the ideas together? What is the global structure? What are the important details? These questions force you to discover the heart of the matter and see exactly what you truly understand and what you still need to work on. So consider an idea or topic you are trying to better understand, and ask yourself what you would say if you had to start right now to give a complete explanation, including motivation, examples, overview, and details, of that subject. Better still, prepare a minilecture and then deliver it to someone—family, friends, or even your teacher.

    • Improve the question. From a student’s point of view, the question “How can I get better grades?” is not the most effective route to higher grades. Questions such as “How can I learn to think better and understand more deeply?” “How can I learn to communicate better?” “How can I increase my curiosity?” are far more constructive. For each question that presents itself in life, craft more focused questions that might lead to a productive conclusion. Try to create questions that expose hidden assumptions, clarify issues, and lead to action. Question your own questions.

    • Ask meta-questions. Whether in the classroom, the boardroom, or the living room, asking questions about an assignment or project before beginning work in earnest will always lead to a stronger final product. Ask, “What’s the goal of this task?” and “What benefit flows from the task?” Keep that benefit in mind as you move forward. A by-product of this exercise is that it often saves time, because it focuses your attention on the core issues and allows you to quickly clear up the initial confusion that always is present at the start of any project or task.
  • Seeing the flow of ideas: Look back, look forward

    • Understanding current ideas through the flow of ideas
    • Creating new ideas from old ones

    • Iterate ideas. You don’t need an army of thousands of individuals to struggle to address a challenge. The only person who needs to move forward little by little is you. Take a homework assignment, essay, or project that you’re facing and quickly just do it; that is, tackle the questions, draft the essay, or move forward on the project at a fast-forward speed that will surely generate a work that is, at best, subpar. Now consider that poor effort as your starting point: react to that work and start to improve and iterate. The flow of iteration will lead to a refined final product. Notice how this flowing mind-set perfectly coincides with the elements of failure we introduced earlier.

    • Think back. Whenever you face an issue—whether an area of study or a decision about a future path—consider what came before. Wonder how the issue at hand landed in front of you. Ask where and what it was yesterday, a month ago, a year ago, and so forth. Everything, everyone evolves. Acknowledging that reality as well as considering the subject’s history will allow you to generate new insights as well as create fruitful directions in which to move forward.

    • Extend ideas. Take a good idea from any arena—work, society, or personal life. It need not be an idea you yourself originated. Now engage with that idea and extend it. The key is not to wonder whether the idea has extensions; it does. Your challenge is to find them.

    • Once you have it, see if you can improve it. Take a solution to an issue or an essay you’ve written and create a different, better one. Assume there is a mistake or omission or missed opportunity in your work—there always is! Now find it (yet another example of the power of failing). This activity is much more challenging than it might at first appear. We are biased and limited by what we already know—especially since we know it works. However, moving beyond that bias can lead to new answers that, in turn, can lead to new insights and more effective solutions.

    • Ask: What were they thinking? What beliefs, cultural habits, opinions, or actions that are completely accepted today will be viewed as ridiculous by our grandchildren? What are some possible candidates? Centuries ago, perfectly respectable people viewed slavery as a natural and moral practice. What practices that we accept as fine today will be condemned as offensive in the future?
  • Engaging change: Transform yourself

    • Expert change. If you’re learning something, solving a problem, or developing a skill, imagine in detail what a more skilled practitioner does, or what added knowledge, understanding, and previous experience the expert would bring to the task. In other words, describe the different task that an expert would be doing compared to what you are currently doing in undertaking your task. Instead of thinking that you are going to be doing something that is harder—requiring more concentration and more effort—think in terms of what kind of knowledge or skill or strategy would make the task an easier one.

    • The quintessential you. 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. Adopt the habit of improvement, whether using our four elements or by any other methods that you find. 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.

  • Summary

    • Strive for rock-solid understanding (Earth).
    • Fail and learn from those missteps (Fire).
    • Constantly create and ask challenging questions (Air).
    • Consciously consider the flow of ideas (Water).
    • And, of course, remember that learning is a lifelong journey; thus each of us remains a work-in-progress—always evolving, ever changing—and that’s Quintessential living.

Stay up to date with my latest posts/tweets here: @manas_saloi