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Engineering Opportunity: Applying Effective Thinking

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LIFE QUESTIONS
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Independent of the "sound-bytes" we read in all the blogs, posts, and tweets that litter the Information Super Highway, there is only one meta-method for truly creating opportunity at all levels and scales. Unfortunately, there is no quick, shot-in-the-arm with which we can inoculate ourselves to have our problems clear up. We have to change by embracing habits that will make us think more effectively.

Recently I co-authored, with Michael Starbird, a tiny but practical guide to better thinking entitled, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking. It offers everyone -- professionals, politicians, students, teachers, parents, and life-long learners -- the opportunity to "make up" their own minds and better tap their creativity and imagination through stories and concrete action-items that can be directly applied to any circumstance and that can become useful habits to provoke thought. In this series of posts, I will briefly apply some of the lessons we developed to offer a straightforward way of provoking thought to engineer opportunity in different contexts. For this first installment, we turn our attention to the upcoming election.

In a few weeks, the U.S. will once again decide its fate by selecting its next batch of national, state, and local government leaders. In 2008, the previous presidential election year, voter turnout was a whopping 57 percent of the voting-age population. Using modern political math, that works out to nearly 8 out of every 10 man, woman, and child. If you happen to be one of those patriotic citizens who plans on doing his or her civic duty on November 6 by pulling a lever, "X"-ing a box, or punching a chad, then the 64,000-dollar question (or with the help of today's Super PACs, the 3.2 billion-dollar question) is: For whom will you vote?

Identify and understand issues that matter. The cost of a candidate's haircut or a particularly fetching outfit's designer might not be on the top of your list of issues that truly matter. Despite the topics on which the media or even the candidates themselves decide to focus, you need to determine which issues are important to you -- whether they be social, national security, or financial issues, or issues that directly impact your community or family. Don't let the media dictate what's important to you. Work hard to deeply understand those issues you identified as well as why you've embraced the views you have. Invest the time to prioritize those issues so you know what matters most to you. Focus on the essentials.

Observe how well the candidates fail. Anyone who strives to be imaginative, creative, or bold will eventually make a misstep. If your candidate has never failed, ask yourself, what -- if anything -- has that person been doing? If your candidate has failed, determine what lessons that person has learned from that experience. Study how the candidates evolved and moved, and decide if you agree with those newly-corrected paths. Failing -- unintentionally or deliberately -- presents one with a great gift: the opportunity to learn, grow, and innovate. Discover exactly what the candidates have done in the past when they've stumbled upon or purposely solicited such a "gift." If failing did not provoke a new insight or change in thinking, then you might want to keep shopping for candidates. Failure is a profound tool for quickly moving forward.

Create the correct questions. Many questions are being hurled at the candidates and it's often entertaining to watch politicians uncomfortably squirm or use the Teflon-approach and dodge those speeding queries faster than the man of steal. But by watching that drama unfold on-line or on TV, you are merely a passive participant. Instead, become an active participant: Create your own questions as you listen to the candidates or as you read their platforms and proposals. Even if you're not one of the lucky few who actually get to directly hurl those questions to those politicians, you still need deliberately raise those questions in your mind. Then discover who addresses those issues and assess their stands. By doing so, you are custom-tailoring the campaigns to your interests, concerns, and values. Become an active listener: Hear what is said, and often more importantly, take note of what is missing.

Determine where we've been and where you think we should go. One of the quotes that inevitably surfaces during a presidential campaign (and already has today) is: "This is the most important election in this country's history." Unless our voting district is Lake Woebegone, every presidential election cannot be the most important ever. A more accurate and less melodramatic statement might be, "This is an extremely important election in this country's future." It is not wise to view an event or issue as sitting alone in a vacuum of a single moment in history (even if it's touted as, "the most important"). You need to examine everything within context: From where we are emerging, to where we are today and where we need to go. With presidential politics, it's essential to look back (both long-term and short-term) and articulate the gains we've made as well as the losses we've incurred. Then you can thoughtfully assess our current state, define local and global directions in which to move forward, and find the candidate that shares that similar vision. Always focus on the flow -- what's past, what's the here and now, and what's next.

Decide how you want to change. By following the four previous modes of thinking, you will be transformed -- you will realize new insights, identify other points of view, uncover unintended consequences, and even generate original thoughts. Through this process, you will not only quietly and clearly discover to your ideal candidate, but you will also discover your ideal self.

Focusing solely on sound bites, political pundits, and commercials is tantamount to flipping a coin in the voting booth or even worse, mindlessly handing your vote over to the loudest voice. Instead, cast your vote effectively and intelligently. As Mike Starbird and I wrote in our chapter on Change:

When the American Founding Fathers imagined a democracy that would reflect the will of the people, the people they envisioned were thoughtful, independent-thinking citizens who would understand the issues of their day and would turn their own clear wisdom to making sound decisions for the benefit of society. Surely more than ever, the world needs thoughtful voices--voices that can ignore the bombast and heat of shallow excitement and focus instead on thinking calmly and sensibly about long-term goals and consequences. These elements of effective thinking will help you to become a quintessential citizen of the world--contributing personally and professionally, locally and globally.

Edward Burger, award winning educator, author, and business and academic consultant. For more information about The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, visit www.elementsofthinking.com or follow @5thinking.

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