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Earth, Fire, Air, Water, Change: The Five Fundamental Elements of Effective Thinking

“The root of success in everything, from academics to business to leadership to personal relationships and everything else is thinking,” writes Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird in their punchy book, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (2012). “Whether it’s thinking disguised as intuition or as good values or as decision making or problem-solving or creativity, it’s all thinking.”

Equipping young people with the necessary thinking skills to creatively problem solve in the twenty-first century is essential for future flourishing. No matter what career or interests the youth pursue, and especially if South Africa as a nation wants to create a sustainable culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, a sharp cognitive toolkit will allow and empower them to confidently navigate life’s diverse challenges.

“Doing anything better requires effective thinking—that is, coming up with more imaginative ideas, facing complicated problems, finding new ways to solve them, becoming aware of hidden possibilities, and then taking action.”

Critical thinking, complex problem solving and creativity are not only some of the most important skills that will drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution, they are valuable ingredients for nurturing a healthy and sustainable democracy. Add to that South Africa’s crisis-level youth unemployment rate—and the constant pressure for the next generation to “Innovate! Innovate! Innovate!”—and we can begin to see the urgency and importance of raising a generation of effective thinkers—we want this. But how, exactly? In short, by encouraging the right habits of mind in our youth.

In Burger and Starbird’s book on the subject, these two distinguished American professors cut to the chase and present five fundamental elements of effective thinking, mnemonically arrange to (almost) match the “classical elements” of ancient Greece: earth, fire, air, water—plus the ‘quintessential’ element: change (which takes the place of the outmoded “ether”, which modern science has long since discarded). Here is a useful summary of Burger and Starbird’s five habits of mind taken directly from their book…

EARTH – Understand Deeply

Don’t face complex issues head-on; first understand simple ideas deeply. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be brutally honest about what you know and don’t know. Then see what’s missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in. Let go of bias, prejudice, and preconceived notions. There are degrees to understanding (it’s not just a yes-or-no proposition) and you can always heighten yours. Rock-solid understanding is the foundation for success.

FIRE – Make Mistakes

Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers—they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.

AIR – Raise Questions

Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding. What’s the real question? Working on the wrong questions can waste a lifetime. Ideas are in the air—the right questions will bring them out and help you see connections that otherwise would have been invisible.

WATER – Follow The Flow Of Ideas

Look back to see where ideas came from and then look ahead to discover where those ideas may lead. A new idea is a beginning, not an end. Ideas are rare—milk them. Following the consequences of small ideas can result in big payoffs.


The unchanging element is change—by mastering the first four elements, you can change the way you think and learn. You can always improve, grow, and extract more out of your education, yourself, and the way you live your life. Change is the universal constant that allows you to get the most out of living and learning.

Encouraging young people to think deeply about a wide variety of issues (Earth); helping them learn quickly from their failures (Fire); pushing them to ask probing new questions (Air); and instilling the courage and confidence to see where new ideas lead (Water) will be to the benefit of all South Africans moving forward (Change). A democracy with a respected culture of rational discourse (of which effective thinking is a part), for example, helps immunise itself against political deception and creates favourable conditions for innovation and excellence to emerge.

“The first four elements enable you to think better than you do; learn better than you do; and be more creative than you are. The fifth element recommends that you actually do it. Just do it. Adopt the habit of improvement, whether using our four elements or by any other methods that you find. If the ability to change is part of who you are, then you are liberated from worry about weaknesses or defects, because you can adapt and improve whenever you like.”

We want the opposite of the outmoded, factory-style education where facts are merely packed in for later regurgitation, degeneration and/or loss. By empowering the youth with the right cognitive tools—and encouraging them to keep them sharp (and improve them)—we are preparing them to rise right.

Part of providing a responsible education in the twenty-first century involves not so much telling young hearts and minds what to think, but rather engaging them with the best-known methods and tools for how to think. We want, therefore, a generation of effective thinkers. And if they are to be, it will be because of others.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” ― Steve Jobs


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