Seven Useful Thinking Tools

Most people think being smart is about having more facts. Trivia-shows like Jeopardy! epitomize this view of knowledge. The smartest people are the people with the most names, dates and places stored away inside their mind.

This is probably the least important and useful part of learning. Instead of facts, author Scott H. Young prefers to focus on knowledge that acts as tools. The more you have, the more ways you can approach different problems.

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s long-time investing partner at Berkshire Hathaway, calls these mental models. More mental models mean you have more ways to solve more problems.

This is a topic that has been discussed a lot before, but Young likes to take a different angle at it.

Professions as Thinking Toolkits

Most people define professions by what those professions do: Engineers build things. Economists study money. Psychologists look into people’s minds.

However, while this is an obvious distinction, Young is less interested in what types of problems professions try to solve, but how they try to solve them. Here, we can uncover a wealth of different thinking tools that are often abstract enough to apply well outside the typical interest of the profession.

Consider economics. Although most people view this as a study of money, it is more like a way of thinking about the world. Hence, we have books like Freakonomics which apply the thinking tools of economics to all sorts of scenarios that have nothing to do with money.

Young lists theories from leaders in 25 professions.  We’ve boiled them down to 7 that you may encounter in your daily work.

1. Graphic Artist: What if Creativity Were the Priority?


Most other professions are full of constraints upon one’s ideas. They need to be monetizeable, mathematical, under budget and within specifications. Graphic Artists operate in a realm where most of these constraints are reduced, so the bigger question is, “Why is this unique and interesting?”

This, however, is a useful thinking tool to apply to many other concerns. Often the best companies produce things that look like art. They are driven by uniqueness and creativity, rather than blandly filling out a list of specs.

How would your work change if you made novelty the biggest priority? How could your goals and projects be different if coolness, interestingness or refinement of an original idea were your priority?

2. Engineer: Can I Model This and Calculate?


Engineering, being built off of the hard sciences, has some of the most precise and accurate estimates in any profession. While your financial advisor can only throw darts at picking which stocks will rise, and a psychologist can only give hints at what people will do, engineers routinely create things which don’t currently exist and need to work 100% of the time.

The essence of doing this is to create a model of what you’re trying to work with, measure the relevant variables, and know to what degree of error you can expect in those measurements. From there, you can actually know what will happen, instead of just guessing.

Young and his team applied this recently to a problem we had involving predicting our sales. They decided to make a model of sales numbers based on how long people had subscribed and how often they had been offered a chance to sign up. From there, they will be able to make much better estimates of their sales, whereas their guesses before would often be wildly off the mark.

3. Entrepreneur: Do a Lot of Things; See What Works


Entrepreneurs often have too little money, resources, support or time. Yet they need to scramble together a solution that will somehow make money. They can do this by adopting a set of thinking tools that is often rare for normal professionals.

One major tool is rapid prototyping. Many people see this as a product development strategy. You make something that just barely works to see if anyone wants it. But in reality, it’s an abstract thinking tool that applies to a lot more than product R&D.

The essence of this thinking tool is that you go out and try a bunch of things, without waiting around for a perfect answer. It also requires listening carefully for feedback, so you can get hints as to what to do next. Speed and volume make up for making decisions in a noisy environment full of uncertainty.

Sometimes the right way to solve a problem is simply to do a lot of things and see what works!

4. Programmer: What’s the Pattern I Can Automate?


Programming encompasses a lot of thinking tools, but the most basic one is the algorithm. Algorithms are a set of steps that can be defined precisely, so that they require no intelligence to perform each one, yet the net result is a useful product.

A useful application of this is to look at the things you do and see which could be automated, simplified or refactored. Programmers can spot repeated code and try to abstract out the essence of what is redundant into something that can do what you need automatically.

Beyond just being able to write code yourself, you can think more like a programmer in many other domains of life. What things do you repeat often in your work which could be automated? What ambiguous process could you convert into a foolproof set of steps?

5. Salesperson: Understand Their Minds Better than They Do


Selling often gets a bad rap. People think it’s all about trickery and deceit as you try to manipulate someone into buying something they probably shouldn’t.

Although this is the stereotype, the actual reality is rarely like this. Instead, salespeople work to deeply understand what the customer actually needs, and then match them with products and services that fill that void. This is incredibly hard to do, as you may recognize that you have the solution to a customer’s problem, before they do.

A key thinking tool for success in this profession is to be able to infer what people’s worries and needs are by their (often contradictory behavior). What language do they use? How do their actions differ from their stated intentions? What can you infer about this?

This is a tool you can apply far beyond making an extra commission. What does your spouse really want, rather than what they’re telling you? What about your friends? Your boss?

6. Designer: The Things You Make Communicate For You


One of Young’s favorite books is The Design of Everyday Things. While this book is meant for designers, it is really a book of thinking tools designers should cultivate. As such, it’s something you can pick up and read even if you’ve never made anything in your life.

A useful tool here is how something is made suggests how to use it. A well-designed door handle suggests push or pull, without needing to say it. A well-designed light switch should already tell you which rooms will be illuminated when you flip it.

What if you designed your speeches so that they automatically caused the audience to shift their thinking where you need them to go? What if you designed your habits?

7. Accountant: Watch the Ratios


Money is the blood of a business. Accounting is the work that watches how it flows around, checking to make sure it isn’t getting clogged up.

There’s a number of useful thinking tools from accounting that allow the diagnosis of problems which are hidden on the surface. One of these is the idea of ratio analysis. Ratios are a fraction with a numerator and denominator of two different measurements inside a business. Leverage ratio, for instance, is the debt the company owes to the equity put in by the owners. Get too high, and there’s a greater risk of default. Price-earnings ratio tells you how expensive stock is based on its profits.

This kind of analysis (and many others from accounting) is useful to non-accounting domains. In healthy, BMI is a kind of fancy ratio analysis, in this case it’s your weight compared to your height squared. But you could also imagine tracking many other numbers and their ratios: output per hours worked, bugs per lines of code, dates per hours spent on online dating.

Organizing the data, keeping track of the details and seeing the patterns beneath the surface are all accounting tools you can exploit outside of a spreadsheet.

Final Thoughts on Thinking Tools

These are just summaries of a key tool from different professions. In reality, however, there are dozens, if not hundreds of thinking tools for each domain of skill. Not just professions, but hobbies, subjects and general life skills also develop thinking tools.

At Specialized Staffing, internal hires take the Kolbe personality test to help determine fit for the position and we publish the results for all in the office to see. It helps to know the staff members’ numbers in Kolbe’s 4 action modes to adjust messages to more closely match the recipients’ instincts for problem solving.

The problem is that people often have a difficult time recognizing the skill and abstracting it away from where it was generated. This is a problem of far transfer, and it’s not easy to resolve.

However, if you can state what the pattern is, you can start to see how you could apply it elsewhere. Most of these tools won’t work best in domains far outside their starting zones. A novelist trying to use storytelling to diagnose medical problems will be in big trouble. But often we get so stuck using our favorite tools that we don’t even consider which ones could apply. Creative solutions require divergent thinking, causing us to think of one tool when we need others.

Creative Work Requires Diverse Thinking Tools

classic experiment shows the need for tools like these. Subjects were asked to use a box of tacks to affix a candle to the wall. The solution was to use the box as a base—trying to apply tacks directly to the candle only made a mess. This is hard because we think of the box as a container for the tools, not a tool in and of itself.

Similarly, many of these tools may allow for creative solutions to problems you might not have considered. For instance:

  • If you’re an entrepreneur, what would your business look like if you approached it like an engineer or a programmer?

  • If you’re a programmer, how would your code improve if you took the tools of a salesperson or accountant?

Not every combination will be useful, but many might just give you the solution that will lead to a breakthrough.

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When Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes


We all have had an associate who, besides being a fundamentally smart person, consistently makes poor choices or tries to cover up a poor choice by not completely telling the truth.   

Adam Robinson, chess master and Princeton Review founder, has identified seven factors that make smart people act stupidly. You’ll recognize some of them—being in a rush, for example—and learning about the others will help you avoid more stupid mistakes.

The seven factors, Robinson says in an interview on The Knowledge Project, are as follows:

  • Being outside of your circle of competence

  • Stress

  • Rushing or urgency

  • Fixation on an outcome

  • Information overload

  • Groupthink or concern for social cohesion

  • Being in the presence of an “authority” (including yourself)

In the interview, Robinson discusses some great examples, such as four different celebrity musicians leaving their million-dollar instruments in a cab or on a train. When you put your sweater on inside-out or delete the department’s most important spreadsheet, you are exactly like Yo-Yo Ma leaving his cello in a cab.

If you catch people making the same mistake multiple times, it’s not because they’re not intelligent. It’s probably because they have a recurring case of one or more of these seven factors. To prevent the mistakes from happening again, you may need to help them address the root cause in a face-to-face meeting.

Maybe they’re getting into fender benders because they talk on the phone when you drive (information overload), and because they leave home too late (urgency); maybe they’re only behind on deadlines because you’re taking on too much work, because they don’t want to say no in meetings (social cohesion) because they’re worried about getting fired (stress). So the secret to better driving might be waking up earlier, and the secret to meeting deadlines might be shoring up their feeling of job security, by talking with them about expectations.

Time management doesn’t just affect what gets done, but how well it gets done. Meditation lowers stress directly, but it also reduces the mistake-making that produces stress. Monotasking doesn’t just speed up a task, it increases your accuracy.

Addressing all seven causes isn’t a quick fix. But if you’ve tried quick fixes and they aren’t sticking, check for these seven causes. You might find more than one. Work on those causes, so no one mistakes the associate for someone that doesn’t want to do a good job.