Five elements of effective thinking

By  Engr. Carlos V. Cornejo

A different approach to solving problems is offered by this book written by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird entitled, “Five Elements of Effective Thinking”.  The kind of thinking the authors is recommending for us to try, is to make use (by analogy) of the elements of nature:  Earth, Air, Fire and Water.


Use the element of ‘Earth’ to solve a complex problem by going to the root of the problem:

  • Ask yourself, “What are the core components or underlying factors I need to know more about this problem?”
  • Break the problem into a list of knowledge areas you need to research.

For example, if you struggle with procrastination, break the problem of procrastination into a list of underlying factors: distraction, lack of motivation, and getting overwhelmed with the difficulties. Overcome procrastination by gaining a rock‐solid understanding of the factors that cause procrastination and solve each factor one by one.  The authors say, “To learn any subject well and to create ideas beyond those that have existed before, return to the basics repeatedly.”


Use the element of ‘Air’ to solve a complex problem by asking perspective‐changing questions. Ask yourself:

  • “What if I were a curious child who knew nothing about this problem?” When you ask this question, you adopt a beginner’s mind and notice untested assumptions. This technique was adopted by Elon Musk, when he came up with a much cheaper rocket than those build by NASA that cost a hundred million dollars each. Space X’s rockets would cost only eight million.  Elon approached the problem as a beginner and asked the question what are the main elements of a rocket.  And it turned out the main parts were very much obtainable in the market, whereas NASA would source it out from sub-contractors that makes it multiply the price because of the extra labor and intermediary fees.
  • “What if I were a pro and this was easy?” When you ask this question, you stop struggling and start looking for a simple solution (it’s also a great question to ask when feeling overwhelmed by a massive problem).

Successful entrepreneurs routinely ask, “What if I were the customer?” This question helps an entrepreneur adopt the customer’s point of view and notice points of friction in the purchase funnel, which they can fix to generate more sales.

When you consider the element of ‘Air’ imagine you are riding whirling around a problem like a tornado and adjusting your point of view.


Use the element of ‘Fire’ to solve a complex problem by testing ideas and embracing mistakes.

When you’re going to take an exam, take a practice test, then study the mistakes you’ve made in that practice test to generate the habit of spotting wrong answers and why they got wrong to arrive at the correct solution. If you’re not sure how to respond to an email, write a terrible draft, find errors, and fix them.

It’s a trial-and-error method.  There is a big difference between failing and failing productively. Failing, and quitting isn’t useful. Failing productively, however, by making mistakes and asking, “What specifically went wrong, and how can I do it better?” illuminates the path to success.


Use the element of ‘Water’ to solve a complex problem by building on past success and building your way to the perfect solution (like a small wave gradually turning into a tsunami).

If you are trying to become a writer, great authors will tell you their first draft is messy and muddled, but they can always find something small (maybe just a few sentences) that they can build from. By gradually building on what’s working, great authors can turn a rough draft into a

bestseller.  Innovative solutions come from existing ideas made better through iteration or gradual improvement.