11/26/2012 10:00 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

Provoking Thought Through a New Year's Opportunity: 5 Resolutions for 2013

I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent. Curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas. -- Albert Einstein

A wondrously romantic belief is that brilliant students are born brilliant and brilliant thinkers magically produce brilliant ideas: A+, the star student aces the exam; click, Edison invents the lightbulb; liftoff, the Wright brothers soar into the sky; abracadabra, J. K. Rowling apparates Harry Potter; yea, the Founding Fathers resolve the Bill of Rights; whoosh, Ralph Lauren turns heads on fashion's runways; eureka, Einstein teases his hair and relativity falls out. We can all marvel at these fanciful visions of leaps of genius, but we should not be fooled into believing that they're reality. Brilliant students and brilliant innovators create their own victories by practicing habits of thinking that inevitably carry them step-by-step to works of greatness. No leaps are involved -- a few basic strategies of thought can lead to effective learning, understanding, and innovation. More importantly, you yourself can master and apply those strategies. So as the new year approaches, resolve that you will embrace some practical, proven methods of effective thinking and creativity that lead to inevitable success in life.

My collaborator, Michael Starbird, and I are teachers and have taught hundreds of thousands of students and adults how to think more effectively. Countless times we have encountered individuals with potential and watched the drama of life's transformation unfold -- or not. Anne and Adam struggle with ideas, understand the basics, learn from mistakes, ask questions -- and thrive. Fiona and Frank, with the same native talent, start at the same place, but they memorize without understanding, fear error, avoid uncertainty -- and do not succeed. It's habits of thinking that makes the difference.

Education does not stop with the end of your formal schooling. Even if your formal school days are long past, you are still a student and, hopefully, will always be one. You can choose to learn habits of thought that will help you to meet the ongoing challenges of life -- personal, professional, and societal.

Imagine Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and William Shakespeare as students. Today we know them as famous geniuses, but when they were in school, they didn't walk around wearing a "FUTURE GENIUS" button. Instead, they just looked at the world differently by applying habits of mind that allowed them to discover and create new and profound ideas. While we can celebrate famous geniuses and be inspired by their remarkable stories, this story is about you -- a real person with strengths and weaknesses -- not a mythologized hero. Look down at your shirt; if you don't see a "FUTURE GENIUS" button, then you too have the potential to innovate. Creativity is not a matter of magical inspiration. There are habits that will automatically cause you to regularly produce new knowledge and insight. Remember: Extraordinary people are just ordinary people who are thinking differently -- and that could be you.

Ordinary students can attain extraordinary heights. Mark was one of our mathematics students whose work at the beginning of the semester was truly dismal. He was so lost that his homework assignments were neither right nor wrong -- they were simply nonsense. He merely recycled math terms that he wrote down during class discussions without even knowing their meaning. It was as if he were writing a poem in a language that he himself did not understand. Although he was genuinely dedicated, Mark appeared to be the textbook example of a lost cause.

By the end of the semester, however, Mark had transformed himself into a different person -- a person who was able to think about mathematics in clever and imaginative ways. As the term came to a close, he devised a creative and correct solution to a difficult, long-standing challenge that no one else in the class was able to resolve. At some point during the semester, Mark had the epiphany that mathematics had meaning and that he could make sense of it. He returned to the most basic ideas of the subject -- ideas that he had seen years before but never truly grasped. He floundered when he viewed learning as memorizing techniques and repeating words. He succeeded when he sought to understand fundamental ideas deeply. With his new mindset, building up a solid understanding of the subject was relatively easy, and his success in the class was inevitable.

The principles of understanding the unknown and finding creative insights that transformed Mark's life can be taught, learned, and applied broadly across disciplines and professions. We have seen these methods of thinking transform otherwise ordinary people into innovative leaders, authors, artists, financial gurus, teachers, film producers, scientists, and, in a number of cases, multimillionaires.

Throughout life we frequently face challenges analogous to taking tests, earning grades, and understanding course material. Instead of taking formal tests, we encounter daunting questions from employers or even family and friends; instead of earning grades, we are judged in the workplace and in social settings; instead of understanding course material, we regularly need to master new skills and absorb new knowledge to keep up with a rapidly changing world. The surprising fact is that just a few learnable strategies of thinking can make you more effective in the classroom, the boardroom, and the living room. You can personally resolve to become more successful by adopting five learnable habits:

Understand deeply:
Don't face complex issues head-on; first understand simple ideas deeply. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be brutally honest about what you know and don't know. Then see what's missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in. Let go of bias, prejudice, and preconceived notions. There are degrees to understanding (it's not just a yes-or-no proposition) and you can always heighten yours. Rock-solid understanding is the foundation for success.

Make mistakes:
Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers -- they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.

Raise questions:
Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding. What's the real question? Working on the wrong questions can waste a lifetime. Ideas are in the air -- the right questions will bring them out and help you see connections that otherwise would have been invisible.

Follow the flow of ideas:
Look back to see where ideas came from and then look ahead to discover where those ideas may lead. A new idea is a beginning, not an end. Ideas are rare -- milk them. Following the consequences of small ideas can result in big payoffs.

These four building blocks are basic elements for effective thinking, and Mike and I devised an easy way for you to remember them. You only need to recall the classical elements that were once believed to be the essential parts of all nature and matter. Those elements, which predated Socrates and influenced Renaissance culture and thought, are Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. So to help trigger your memory and enable you to apply these techniques, we associate each classical element with one of our strategies for effective thinking, learning, and creating:

Earth ↔ Understand deeply
Fire ↔ Make mistakes
Air ↔ Raise questions
Water ↔ Follow the flow of ideas

By mastering these strategies, you can and will change. The classical elements of nature included a fifth special element--the quintessential element -- that was the changeless matter from which all the heavens were made. Ironically, here in our context of thinking and learning, the quintessential element is change.

The Quintessential Element ↔ Change

The unchanging element is change -- by mastering the first four elements, you can change the way you think and learn. You can always improve, grow, and extract more out of your education, yourself, and the way you live your life. Change is the universal constant that allows you to get the most out of living and learning.

In any movie, play, or literary work, media scholars tell us how to determine who truly is the main character of the story; it's the individual who, by the end, has changed the most. Your life is an exciting journey. When you embrace change, you put yourself front and center by intentionally deciding in which direction you wish your life's drama to unfold. In doing so, you become the hero in your own life's adventure.

In our just-published book, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (Princeton University Press), we offer concrete exercises for provoking thought through these five elements that provide you with an intellectual GPS to help you navigate through life. We have seen countless inspirational examples of organizations and people who flourish well beyond their own expectations. These stories feed our optimistic belief that we all are capable of living our lives far more successfully than we generally do. Our hope is that students will find these elements transformative; instructors will use these lessons to enrich their classes; leaders of society, whether in business, science, politics, or the arts, will employ these strategies to become more innovative; and lifelong learners will apply these principles to better live as ever-evolving students of the world. So as you make your list of New Year's resolutions, put "effective thinking" on the top of your list. Here's wishing you a very thoughtful and successful 2013!