The Elements of Effective Thinking

Unlocking the truth about thinking in every area of life.

Inevitable Genius

Is there an algorithm for generating rich ideas? Answer: Yes!

We all love stories about people with magical powers. Normally we can tell the difference between fact and fiction, but in the case of genius, we often confuse myth and reality. It is easy to believe in the super-powers of Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein or Marie Curie or Warren Buffett or Steven Jobs or J.K. Rowling or other famous creative innovators. We also often hear of the idiosyncratic habits that come along with the genius of these individuals—Alice: “That person is a great genius.” Bob: “So I’ve heard; and look at their different behavior.” But perhaps reality is reversed and the cause and effect flow in the opposite direction. Perhaps the reason why great ideas come from these anointed geniuses is not because of extremely special genetics or inexplicable insights, but instead because it is a natural, expected consequence of practicing some learnable strategies for using one’s mind—extraordinary habits that differ from the norm, but habits most anyone can master and exploit.

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This picture of bland causes of surprising innovation is more realistic and more empowering than the mythologized portrait of the special genius. There is magic and inspiration involved, but the magic is that learnable skills can lead to new insights, and the inspiration is that all of us can become far better thinkers than we currently are by intentionally training our minds in ways that result in creativity and insight.

Einstein said, “I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent. Curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas.” We may not really believe that Einstein had no special talent; however, it is certainly true that effective ways of using the minds we have can make all of us create significantly better ideas than we might imagine we could attain. We can engineer our own level of excellence.

Observing thousands of students and lifelong learners over many years, we have come to the conclusion that native genius is not the most common attribute associated with actual innovation. Instead, people succeed in generating new ideas by intentionally using their minds in ways that inevitably lead to innovation.

Try it. Consider a couple of challenges in your own life—personal or professional—for which you would like to conjure a new insight or innovative approach. One strategy that often works and appears in our recent book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking is to look at specific mistaken approaches as a way to guide you to better insights. For example, you could explore a possible resolution to your challenge that you already know is definitely wrong, and yet explore that path in great detail. The point is that studying a solution that you know is mistaken or will not work is definitely an action that you are able to do. Now you could isolate each mistaken feature of that erroneous ‘solution’ and carefully examine exactly why it is wrong. If you were as specific as possible in where the defects lie, you would force yourself to be clearer and more insightful about the situation at hand. The mistake is directive, it forces you to think more clearly about correct approaches and often forces you to confront the sticking point of the whole issue. You can’t learn from mistakes unless those mistakes are there out in the open, available for you to exploit.

Exploiting the directive value of mistakes is only one of several rather specific and actions you can take deliberatively to move ahead in the process of generating insights and answers. Genius is far more a matter of how we use the minds we have than it is either magical or genetic. Perhaps the fact that innovation can arise from a rather mundane application of straightforward strategies of effective thinking is itself magic enough.


Becoming an inevitable genius

Edward B. Burger, Ph.D., is a professor at Williams College.


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