Archive for January, 2014

Successful Thinking.

We humans work in a set pattern of ways. We input information, process that information to create an understanding then we output the finished product. No matter how complex the input we can only process it then spit it out again for someone else’s input. The way we do that is based only on our five senses. Our brains can only process information taken in through the five senses and output it again as a different permutation of the input.

e.g. 2+2 = 4; Input 2 and 2; Process (ADD) Output (WHAT IS OUR INPUT THE SAME AS i.e. EQUAL TO ?) Answer 4.

The complexity comes with the amount of information or understanding the process that needs to be carried out on that information to ensure an acceptable output (answer).

The mind skills needed for successful thinking are similar to those of the artist. This applies whether the task involves scientific reasoning, or a flight of imaginative creation – because art is not, essentially, about things but about ideas. The end result, whether a painting, a sculpture, a play or a symphony, is a physical expression of ideas that have been manipulated and transformed by the human mind.

Successful thinking is the highest form of intellectual artistry and to describe it as an art does not mean that the process should be regarded as a haphazard process – far from it. Behind the spontaneity of most great ideas one generally finds careful preparation. There is a lot of truth in the old saying that genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration.

Without planning the processing of information becomes random and confused. Yet this is the way many people think. Given an intellectually challenging task, they set off in search of a solution with no real idea of where they are going or how to get there. Having arrived at a conclusion or found an answer, they are frequently unclear, if it turns out correct, why is it correct, or if wrong where they went wrong. Faced with a challenging task can and does create anxiety in some individuals. Their minds fill with negative ideas, such as ‘I don’t know where to begin’, or I can’t cope with this sort of problem’, which inhibits constructive thinking.

In essence we humans are comparitors. We assess information only by comparing it with what we already know or understand. These comparisons are taken against local, national, international, moral and acceptable standards. If no standard exists we create one which takes us out of our comfort zones. It is easy to compare the existing information or condition against the previous information or conditions, but when there is no previous we feel exposed, we cannot compare. To assist in overcoming the problem of comfort zones and mental exposure we have invented – The Checklist, or The Flow Chart, or The Algorithm. Superb tools for establishing virtual comfort zones but unfortunately they stifle the creative process. If it is not on the list then its not considered. Obviously the better the list or flow chart the less likely that errors will occur. They also gives us something to blame when we get it wrong.

E.g. Once upon a time there were two brothers. They owned an aeroplane, and did not fight about whose turn it was to drive it. One day, Grant, the elder, was preparing for a flight. He meticulously walked round the plane, with clipboard and check-list, merrily ticking off all of the preflight safety checks. All was well. All the boxes now contained the mandatory ticks. Flight plan submitted, Grant jumped into the plane and taxied to the end of the runway. Ready for take-off, he increased his revs, released his brakes and shot down the runway. He pulled back on the controls, took flight, and nose dived into the neighbouring field, giving the cows a terrible fright, and curdling their milk for at least the next week. What could possible have gone wrong?

Although being meticulous with the pre-flight checklist, Grant had failed to notice that good old Phil, his younger brother, partner, and DIY enthusiast, had removed the rudder. The moral of this true story is, the use of a check list is no substitute for thinking.

If you need a checklist then you must realise that it cannot be relied upon to fit every situation. Checklists can develop of mental atrophy. The mind is like a muscle which needs exercise, if it is not used then it will find it difficult to work when stretched. Using checklists is like getting someone else to get fit and do your training for you. What is needed is a strategy for solving problems.

Mind Planning

Learning the strategy of mind planning ensures that you avoid the confusions and anxieties associated with poor thinking. You feel in control of the thought processes and answers are found by brainwork rather than guesswork. Mind planning can be applied to any kind of mental activity, whether practical or theoretical, related to work or personal problems.

Mind planning involves three stages, each posing a question for you to answer.

Stage 1 – Fact Finding          Ask: What do I know?

Stage 2 – Goal Setting        Ask: Where do I want to go?

Stage 3 – Action Taking        Ask: What do I have to do?

To illustrate the procedure in action, we will apply it to the fairly trivial mental task of converting a temperature from centigrade to Fahrenheit. As you may remember the conversion involves multiplying the temperature in degrees centigrade by 9, dividing the result by 5 and then adding 32 (Fahrenheit = (centigrade x 9/5 ) + 32).

The problem is. The outside temperature is 20o centigrade. What is the Fahrenheit equivalent?

Stage 1. Fact finding

What do I know?

At this stage we know the outside temperature = 20o C.

The formulae for making that conversion = ( C X 9/5 ) + 32

We also know how to substitute the values into the formulae and how to calculate the basic maths.

Stage 2. Goal setting

Where do I want to go?

This is quite straightforward.

From degrees centigrade to degrees Fahrenheit.

Stage 3. Action taking.

What do I need to do?

This draws our attention to the manipulation and transformation that must be performed on those FACTS at Stage 1 in order to arrive at the desired goal in Stage 2. Here all that is required is the application of the formulae correctly.


F = (20 X 9/5 ) + 32

F = 36 + 32

F = 68.

When applied to so straightforward a problem, mind planning may seem like an over-complicated way of thinking. Yet even with such a simple task many people make careless mistakes, especially when their perceptions and attitudes lead them to respond impulsively to mental challenges.

In this problem confusion could arise at stage 1, where a hasty reading of the problem might cause the individual to convert the wrong temperature, or at stage 3, where they might apply the formulae incorrectly – for instance, adding the 32 before multiplying and dividing.

Stage 1 Fact Finding – requires you to gather the information which is pertinent to the task at hand. The greater the information the greater the probability that you will determine the correct choice of action at stage 3. But do not assume that all your gathered information is correct. Always check its validity, its appropriateness, its suitability, its accuracy, its source, its quality and its quantity.

Information must be clearly evaluated and this can be done by asking the following questions:

  1. Have I considered all the possible meanings and implications of each item of information?
  2. Am I making any unjustified assumptions about any items of information?
  3. Could I look at any of those items differently?
  4. Is there a synergistic relationship between this information?

Review all the facts before moving onto stage 2.

Making unjustified assumptions about the information is a very common source of error.


Two scientist at the South Pole were sitting in their heated cabin. What is the temperature outside asked one. His partner went outside and the gauge read minus 40 degrees but forgot to check if the scale was Fahrenheit or Centigrade. Fortunately he didn’t have to go back outside and check. Why?

Stage 2
Goal Setting – requires the nature of the problem to be clearly understood. What tends to happen here is that when people fail it is not because they do not know how to think but because they correctly work out the right answer to a different problem!

Errors are easily made when working under pressure. One of the problems of working in the computer dominated environment is that, increasingly, information will have to be mentally processed under such conditions. The only safeguard is a methodical examination of the task to ensure that no such misinterpretation occurs. The questions to be asked at this stage is:

“Do I fully understand what is being asked?” and “Could other equally valid answers exist?”

In the question ‘What is half of 2 + 2?’, equally correct answers could be either 3 or 2.

If you did not give both possible solutions, it would mean that you failed to identify that two valid outcomes, or goals existed.

Stage 3 Action Taking – This stage of thinking is where the information is processed to achieve the desired result. You should ask ‘What can I do with what I know?’ ‘Have I looked at all possible ways of using what I know?’ ‘Do I need to have further facts before continuing?’

Since the most appropriate action to take must depend on the goal sought, strategies for improving the mind skills involved in stages 2 and 3 can best be explored together.

Just as the artist will have many techniques of transforming the raw material into the finished work, so should you learn the mental skills for manipulating ideas and concepts. What actions are going to prove most appropriate, and which goals will be involved, however, depends on the type of problem being tackled.

Some problems have only one correct solution, and these are called convergent problems. Others, known as divergent problems, have a number of equally correct or useful solutions.

Convergent problems demand methodical analysis and logical reasoning to solve them. Usually the goal is clearly stated as part of the problem, and the questions tend to be narrow ones starting with When, Where, Why and Who – e.g. When was the great fire of London?; When did Wellington defeat Napoleon?; etc. Convergent problems are usually tests of knowledge rather than of thinking, and demand accurate recall of information.

The problems of divergent problems is that they come in all shapes and sizes. Solving this type of problem is more of a right brain than a left brain skill. They demand creativity, brainstorming, mental images, etc.


Our lives have their fair share of both types of problems but as was mentioned earlier we tend to solve the easier ones, the convergent solutions. We must extend our comfort zones to allow us to develop the skills required to solve our divergent problems. The creation of checklists is a way of transforming our divergent problem into a convergent solution. This unfortunately should not be an option because we fail to spot the multiplicity of answers available to our problem.

January 21, 2014 at 6:34 pm Leave a comment


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