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Is There a Formula for Smart Thinking?

One day, one of my kids was star­ing at a sim­ple cir­cuit dia­gram. It showed a bat­tery con­nect­ed to a resis­tor and a light bulb. He was doing a home­work prob­lem. The par­tic­u­lar ques­tion that had him stumped asked what would hap­pen to the cur­rent in the cir­cuit if the resis­tor was replaced with anoth­er that had more resis­tance. He hadn’t been in class that day and had nev­er stud­ied elec­tric­i­ty, and so he stared at the dia­gram for a few min­utes with­out com­pre­hen­sion.

My son had reached what psy­chol­o­gists call an impasse, which is real­ly just a fan­cy way of say­ing that he was stuck. One of keys to good prob­lem solv­ing is to deal suc­cess­ful­ly with impass­es. My son was not being suc­cess­ful. He sat sul­len­ly at the table and his eyes start­ed to glaze over. As luck would have it, I did know the answer to this ques­tion, because I had got­ten a ham radio license as a kid and so I had to study some elec­tri­cal the­o­ry. But, as a par­ent, I don’t like to give my kids the answers, so I put on my best Socrates impres­sion and went to work with him.

I asked him to describe the prob­lem to me, but all he was able to do was to read it back to me almost word-for-word. I asked him what else he knew about elec­tric­i­ty. He described to me how the elec­trons in a cir­cuit flow from the neg­a­tive part of the bat­tery through the cir­cuit to the pos­i­tive part. I asked him what resis­tors did, and he said that they made it hard­er for the elec­trons to move through the cir­cuit.

So, then I asked him if he knew any­thing else that flowed. He thought for a moment and then said that water flows. I told him to think about water flow­ing through a hose. I asked him to think about what it would be like for a water hose to have a resis­tor on it. He thought of bend­ing the hose as he and his broth­ers some­times do when I’m try­ing to water the plants or wash the car. He quick­ly real­ized that mak­ing the resis­tor big­ger was like putting more of a bend in the hose, and so the flow of water would go down as the resis­tance went up. The frus­tra­tion evap­o­rat­ed, and he went back to work. He solved the rest of the prob­lems on the page by think­ing about water hoses rather than elec­tri­cal cir­cuits.

In his own way, my son was doing the same thing that James Dyson did. He was using his exist­ing knowl­edge to help him solve a new prob­lem. Like Dyson, he was using knowl­edge that came from a dif­fer­ent realm of exper­tise.

This exam­ple high­lights two of the key ele­ments of the gen­er­al for­mu­la for smart think­ing. It is cru­cial to have high qual­i­ty knowl­edge and to find that knowl­edge when you need it. My son reached an impasse, because he could not find any knowl­edge that he had that was relat­ed to the prob­lem. By sug­gest­ing ways to re-describe the prob­lem, I helped him to think of water flow­ing through a hose. Because he under­stood the way that water flow is affect­ed by putting a kink in the hose, he was able to learn some­thing new about the effects of resis­tance on an elec­tri­cal cur­rent.

In this case, he was not able to access the knowl­edge he need­ed on his own. He had to have some­one else’s help to enable him to move for­ward with the prob­lem. In gen­er­al, an impasse feels so frus­trat­ing, because you don’t know what to do next. That feel­ing of being stuck makes you anx­ious. Get­ting anx­ious and stressed when try­ing to solve a prob­lem is not usu­al­ly a recipe for suc­cess­ful think­ing.

Prob­lem solv­ing can be stress­ful in part because you have a lot of men­tal habits that you have gen­er­at­ed through years of prac­tice think­ing. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, not all of those men­tal habits are con­ducive to smart think­ing.

The think­ing habits you have are not part of some fixed men­tal toolk­it that you were born with. Those habits were cre­at­ed by going to school for years and then they were rein­forced by all of the think­ing you have done since then. Smarter think­ing requires devel­op­ing new habits to com­ple­ment the ones that have already brought you suc­cess. It also requires chang­ing habits that are get­ting in the way of smart think­ing. When you reach an impasse, you need to have habits that allow you to do for your­self what I helped my son to do. You have to devel­op habits to cre­ate high qual­i­ty knowl­edge and habits to help you find it when you need it.

If we dis­till the exam­ples of Dyson, Fairhurst, Edi­son, chess experts, and even my son, we get the for­mu­la for Smart Think­ing:

Smart Think­ing requires devel­op­ing Smart Habits to acquire High Qual­i­ty Knowl­edge, and to Apply Your Knowl­edge to achieve your goals.

- This is an Excerpt from Smart Think­ing (Perigee Books ©2012 Arthur B. Mark­man used with per­mis­sion). Art Mark­man, PhD is a pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­o­gy and mar­ket­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin and direc­tor of the pro­gram in the Human Dimen­sions of Orga­ni­za­tions. He has writ­ten over 125 sci­en­tif­ic papers. He blogs reg­u­lar­ly for Psy­chol­o­gy Today, Huff­in­g­ton Post, and Har­vard Busi­ness Review, and teach­es exec­u­tive edu­ca­tion class­es  via his con­sult­ing com­pa­ny Max­i­miz­ing Mind, LLC.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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