By Art Markman PhD
Awards issues like this one can be daunting to read. As nice as it is to acknowledge the contributions of great people, the honorees seem to come from another species than the rest of us. Take Lisa Randall. She has plumbed the depths of physics, and then found ways to explain it to the rest of us. Along the way, she has also made significant contributions to other fields including writing the libretto to an opera.
When you look at someone like this, you can understand why Princeton University wanted to preserve Einstein’s brain for future study. After all, there must be something special about the brains of these people that explains their contributions to knowledge and society and that makes them different from you and me.
The women honored in this issue do have one thing in common, but no amount of study of their brains will tell you what it is. They were not born with a special gene that the rest of us do not have that enabled them to scale the heights of their fields.
Instead, each of them is a smart thinker.
What does that mean? In my book, Smart Thinking, I explore the three-part formula for smart thinking: having good habits to acquire high quality knowledge and to be able to use that knowledge when you need it. Let’s look at these elements more carefully.
It may seem strange to you that habits are a part of a formula for being smart, but much of your life is driven by habits. Your brain is constantly trying to find ways to automate routines you have performed in the past so that you do not have to plan for the future. Whether you want to or not, you create a habit whenever you repeat a behavior consistently in a particular environment.
The trick is to develop habits that will enhance your ability to be smart, and to break habits that detract from your smart thinking.
On the positive side, you can develop habits to improve your memory. Studies show that you are likely to remember roughly three things about any experience you have, whether it is a book you read, a meeting you attend, or a lecture you hear. Often, there are key elements of these events that are worth remembering, but we often leave our memories of these events up to chance. As soon as the meeting is over or the book is closed, you move on to the next thing. Instead, develop the habit to repeat the three most important elements to yourself and summarize them. That will strengthen the key points and make them easier to retrieve in the future.
On the negative side, you are probably prone to multitasking. Many people pride themselves on their ability to do several things at once. You might try to check your email in a meeting, for example. Unfortunately, the human brain does not multitask. It switches back and forth among the things you are trying to accomplish. It takes time for the brain to switch from one task to another, and that makes you less efficient than if you completed one job at a time. If you are checking your email while you are in a meeting, then while you are checking your email, you are mentally away from the meeting, and you might have missed something important. So, you need to break the multitasking habit.
The second part of the formula for smart thinking is acquiring high quality knowledge. Knowledge is the core of smart thinking, because it is impossible to do anything truly new without having a lot of expertise in an area.
The most important type of knowledge that guides smart thinking is causal knowledge, which is the information you use to answer the question “why”. The more causal knowledge you have, the better able you are to diagnose problems and to find new ways to solve them rather than using solutions that other people have found before. If I get in my car in the morning and it doesn’t start, then I am stuck, because I have know idea what makes my car run. But, my mechanic knows a lot about the way the car works, and so he can fix it, even if something strange goes wrong with it.
Unfortunately, the quality of your causal knowledge is probably worse than you think it is. As Frank Keil at Yale University and his colleagues have demonstrated, people suffer from a persistent illusion of explanatory depth. For example, he asked college students whether they thought they understood how a variety of common devices like flush toilets and greenhouses work. There were many devices students thought they understood, but then couldn’t explain well when asked.
Smart thinkers have a good sense of both what they know and what they don’t understand. To maximize the quality of their knowledge, they take a lesson from education. Every teacher knows that when you try to teach a concept to someone else, you discover all of the aspects of that concept you do not understand. Those explanation failures provide an invitation to learn the material better in order to ensure that you know it by the time you have to teach it to someone else.
Of course, you do not need to wait for the opportunity to teach this information to someone else, you can teach it to yourself. Another important habit to develop is to explain new material to yourself after you are exposed to it. These self-explanations help you figure out which parts of a new concept you understand and where the gaps are in your knowledge. When you discover that you can’t explain something, that gap is an invitation to study it further. Even if you do not fill that gap, at least you are more aware of what you know and what you don’t.
It is valuable to recognize the limits of your expertise. During the financial meltdown in 2007, many people involved in constructing complex mortgage-backed securities did not understand the details of what they were creating and selling. Those few people who did wrap their heads around the details managed to make a lot of money on the backs of those who did not see the impending spike in mortgage defaults. If more people in the financial industry had been better calibrated about what they did and did not understand, a larger group of people would have made an effort to ensure they had a causal understanding of the financial products they were selling.
Once you have acquired good causal knowledge, it is important to develop strategies to use that knowledge when you need it. In order to use knowledge, you have to retrieve it from memory. Pulling things from memory is done automatically. If I ask you to think about a birthday party you attended, you can do that without trying hard, even though you probably did not expect to be asked about a birthday party.
In order to get information out of memory, you simply have to ask it the right question. Normally, it is easy to find the information you need. Ask about birthday parties, and you will remember birthday parties. Ask about salads, and you will remember salads and information about vegetables and dressing.
To solve the kinds of hard problems that characterize smart thinking, though, there are times you have to draw knowledge from one domain of your expertise to another. Fiona Fairhurst, a designer at Speedo, helped her team to create a faster swimsuit by analyzing shark skin. James Dyson developed a vacuum without a bag by drawing a parallel between vacuum cleaners and sawmills. George DeMestrel invented Velcro by using knowledge about cockleburs to figure out a way to create a reusable connection.
These parallels from the problem you are solving to an area of expertise that is quite different on the surface are analogies. In order to find a good analogy to your problem, you have to describe it by finding the essence of the problem. Problem essences are like the meanings of proverbs. A proverb like “You can’t judge a book by its cover” isn’t really about books and covers. It reflects the idea that the surface properties of an object do not reflect its inner beauty. Once you uncover this proverb definition, you may even realize that you know other proverbs that mean the same thing like “All that glitters is not gold.”
You can practice finding the essence of problems by starting with proverbs. Find a list of proverbs on the internet, and define 5-10 of them a day for a few weeks. Soon, you will find that you are treating everything as if it is a proverb, and looking beyond the surface to find its essence. That will enable you to draw out aspects of your knowledge that you can use to solve hard problems in new ways.
The best part of the formula for smart thinking—developing good habits to acquire high quality knowledge and to use that knowledge when you need it—is that all of the parts can be learned and improved with practice. Use the incredible women honored in this issue as inspiration to improve the quality of the way you think, starting today.