Three Things I learned this week

I recently finished reading “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking” by Starbird and Burger.  I also happened to just read the commencement address of Adm William H McRaven Commander of US Special Operations Command.  And funnily before writing this blog, I couldn’t sense the commonality in their messages.

When smart people who don’t know each other agree in each other’s absence- it must be a terrific idea in itself.

1.Failure is not an obscene word: We, as Indians hate failures. We hate failing and we look down upon those who fail. I have heard somewhere that Asian societies have to get over their failure apartheid. But more seriously, failure can be a very effective teacher.

Starbird quotes the example of two fellows who wanted to market their traffic  counter and they failed miserably;  the story of Mary who was not very good at Maths initially but learned it well by failing effectively; the story of 3M and PostIt notes. There are many failure around us.

Yet, Starbird says that effective failing is the key word here. Mindlessly failing is disaster. Mindfully failing is success. But failing is painful.

Perhaps no one else can vouch for it, more than myself. I have got bogged down by failures in the past, and I am in the process of putting it all together.

What lessons did I learn? Funnily, my learnings have got deeper as I think more about it. When my startup failed to take off- I learned my short term strategic mistakes and some tactical ones. I understood why I couldn’t scale up. About 3 years later, I have a much deeper understanding of other dimensions of my mistakes.

McRaven says this in his fanatastical inspiring style:

Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform, you still end up as a sugar cookie. It’s just the way life is sometimes”

McRaven sets the base of the thinking. Starbird and Burger set the base for praxis. But both agree, that you got to be antifragile against failures.

2.Ask, Ask, Question : We have all heard about Socrates and his method of teaching. He would teach by continuously asking questions to his opponents, supporters, students. With each answer he learned deeper about himself, learning deeper about the matter and learning deeper about the debator. However, we don’t have the luxury of a Socrates by our side. But having such a teacher can be enormously powerful tool. It can be the difference between good and great. It can be the difference between success and failure.

So how to become one’s own Socrates?

How do I become my own Socrates?

I need to keep asking challenging questions. Questioning the assumptions which I have taken for granted. Two things will happen in that process:

      1. I will be more aware of the assumptions
      2. I will be more aware of the “fragility” of those assumptions.

Quit hiding. Quit pretending. Quit believing. Start asking. As the two authors mention- asking questions need not be only when we don’t know the answers, it can also be when we do know it.Perhaps I need to get back to asking stupid questions to myself and others, to get a better understanding of my knowledge.

3.Do it once, Do it right : This is about discipline. This is also about perfection. This has become a personal manifesto for me. Do one thing once and Do it right. Munger swears by it. So does Navy Seals.

The ‘it’ can be as mundane a work as making your bed, starching your hat or fetching a newspaper. Do it once, do it right.

I have in my small bounty of experience whenever observed myself doing it once and doing it right it made me feel a tremendous amount of satisfaction and small amount of pride.  It also builds respect for animate and inanimate objects.  But somewhere in the demanding situations of life, between deadlines and mounting pile of stress, I sacrificed it.

I am getting back to building these three habits of mind. I suggest you do it as well.


I blogged about “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking” before here: Mastering the Basics: The Long Hard Way to Mastery


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