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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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