Today we have access to more information than ever before — at our fingertips, quickly, and in great volume. Going along with that, we also have a wealth of books and websites that tell us how to manage all this information, and how to use it efficiently. It’s easier than ever to solve problems now, right?
Entering this landscape is Smart Thinking, by Dr. Art Markman. This book draws on two impressive strengths: an examination of 50 years of interdisciplinary studies, including but going beyond cognitive science, and Dr. Markman’s deep expertise in developing and teaching the skills associated with innovation. The book is written in clear and straightforward prose, and filled with everyday examples to help the reader see the precepts operating in his or her daily life.
What is “smart thinking”? If you’re intelligent, don’t you do smart thinking? Not necessarily. Smart thinking is the ability to solve new problems using your current knowledge, and it’s a skill you can develop.
One great example of smart thinking offered in the book is James Dyson’s vacuum cleaner. Dyson realized what we all know: that vacuum cleaners don’t work all that well. Brushes pull up the dirt, and suction pulls the dirt up into the bag – until the bag starts to fill with dirt, which minimizes the suction. Dyson created an entirely new kind of vacuum cleaner and created a company that makes over $100 million in profits a year.
But surely he was some kind of genius; surely there is just something uniquely creative about the way he thinks. Dr. Markman argues instead that Dyson simply relied on his existing knowledge (about the way things work), applied it from one area to another, and he was persistent – all skills that can be learned.
The book is organized around three core elements of smart thinking: developing smart habits, acquiring high-quality knowledge, and applying knowledge. The material in Chapter Two, “Creating Smart Habits and Changing Behavior,” is fascinating and practical, and reassuring (especially “the worst way to try to stop a habit is through what we usually call willpower”!). Instead, developing smart habits essentially involves two steps: stopping the performance of an old behavior, and replacing the bad habit with a good one. This chapter breaks those two steps down into clear and simple processes that will leave you less distracted by inefficient thinking, and ready to spend your mental energy on more creative and productive things.
Chapters Three and Four focus on the acquisition and development of high-quality knowledge. I found these chapters fascinating, because they highlighted specific ways out of my own muddied understanding. Chapter Three explores the ways our memories do and don’t work. It offers very practical advice on ways to pay attention and obtain the information before us, as well as ways to help others pay attention – a unique aspect of this book.
Chapter Four focuses quite closely on causal knowledge: the answer you give to questions that begin with “why” or “how.” How does a ballpoint pen write? How does a flush toilet operate? How does a zipper work? The issue here is not that it’s important to know how a ballpoint pen writes, for instance, but that we operate too often with vague, hand-waving understandings of things. Developing the skills to answer these questions will bring far-reaching benefits: you’ll have complete, specific, understandable knowledge; you’ll develop the habit of teaching yourself as you go along; and you can ask for this level of explanation from people around you, which helps promote good thinking habits in others!
In Chapters Five, Six, and Seven, Dr. Markman moves into applying the high-quality knowledge you have obtained. These chapters, like those which came before, focus on practical strategies to help you access the knowledge you have, when you need it.
Chapter Five explores the concepts of similarity and analogy. It provides a number of great examples of the power of analogies to communicate and to solve new problems. Chapter Six returns to how our memory works and provides a number of specific strategies to help it work better. (As a middle-aged person, I found these strategies quite useful.) Chapter Seven brings it all together and provides a four-step process to solving problems.
Finally — and this is a unique strength of this book — Dr. Markman steps back and explores ways we can all contribute to a “culture of smart.” Very few of us work alone, and it’s not enough for one or two team members to do all the smart thinking for the entire group (as we know if we’ve been the one doing the heavy lifting). This straightforward chapter should be required in every business class, and handed out to new employees of every company. Readers who take this material to heart, and take it to their jobs, will be on the way to making everyone else a smart thinker too.
With succinct takeaway summaries at the end of each chapter, key concepts pulled out and highlighted, and the three main points of each chapter listed under the chapter title, this wonderful book practices what it preaches. At the beginning of the book, Dr. Markman (again, practicing what he preaches) advises readers to move slowly through the book, stopping to think when he recommends doing so, explaining the material to yourself as you read, and doing the exercises provided in the book. I wanted to read it that way, and I’ll probably read it that way my second time through. In my first reading, though, I was so engaged by the clarity of explanation, and the lovely examples, I just kept turning pages, underlining passages, flagging details. As I read, I saw too clearly my own muddy thinking, the gaps in my ability to think logically through causal knowledge, and my lazy habits – but the book left me energized and motivated to address them.
This book would be a great addition to your library; it will be the gift I give every college graduate, to friends who are beginning a new career, or to those of any age who feel stuck and unable to be as creative as they believe themselves to be.
Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done
By Art Markman, PhD
Perigee Trade: January 3, 2012
Hardcover, 272 pages