Mastering the basics: the long hard way to mastery

I came across this book by Burger and Starbird named “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking“, where the authors reflect deeply on how to bring efficacy in our thinking process.

Too much of our time is spent ignoring and underestimating the basics. Too much of our time is spent focussing on the clutter around the essence. And too much of our time is spent seeing things through a constant peephole of experience and knowledge.

If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it.
—George Polya

Burger  and Starbird highlight this by narrating the story of Tony Plog, a renowned trumpet virtuoso. During a class of other extremely talented and trained soloists, he asked them to play their virtuoso piece. Each one of them played wonderfully. And then Plog asks them to play a very easy warm up exercise. In contrast they sound childish. The inherent synergy between the notes were absent. It sounded as remote from the previous piece, as the senses would allow.  The author narrates:

After they played the simple phrase, Tony, for the first time during the lesson, picked up the trumpet. He played that same phrase, but when he played it, it was not childish. It was exquisite. Each note was a rich, delightful sound. He gave the small phrase a delicate shape, revealing a flowing sense of dynamics that enabled us to hear meaning in those simple notes.

Deep work on simple, basic ideas helps to build true virtuosity—not just in music but in everything.

Burger and Starbird drive the point still harder by switching from arts to science.

“Today, when math teachers are asked what makes calculus so difficult to teach, most reply, “My students don’t know the basic mathematics that they saw in the eighth or ninth grade.


The authors comment taking the step ahead, that to really solve a problem one should focus on the very essence. Renowned masters like Pablo Picasso , Durer routinely think in this way. In his tour de force “The Bull”, Picasso showcased this idea.

From real to abstract- a tourde force in minimalism

From real to abstract- a tour de force in minimalism

 By systematically ignoring one distraction after another, you can turn your attention to more central (often initially invisible) themes. After you clear the clutter, what remains will clarify understanding and open the door to creating new ideas. Remember, you may not be able to see everything, but you can certainly ignore most things

Its a constant challenge in the modern world to actively identify and discourage bias. Today we have only facts and no insight. We have endless access to System 1 thinking and rare access to System 2 insight. This is because System 2 requires time, energy and strong desire. System 1 of our mind represents knee jerk reactionism.

In this aspect Munger commented that, we need mental models else we will be the proverbial “man with the hammer” seeing only nails to hit !

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


One thought on “Mastering the basics: the long hard way to mastery

  1. Pingback: Three Things I learned this week | Meditations

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