“Science shows clearly that smart thinking is not an innate quality,” says Art Markman, psychology professor and director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program at The University of Texas at Austin. He claims that the ability to think like the great innovators of our time is a skill that can actually be developed. “Each of the components of being smart is already part of your mental toolbox,” Markman says.
How, you ask?
Here’s the formula: “Smart Thinking” requires developing Smart Habits to acquire High Quality Knowledge, and to Apply Your Knowledge to achieve your goals.” In his upcoming book “Smart Thinking,” (Perigee Books, January 2012) Markman teaches readers how to do just that. He will be at book signing events in Austin at 7 p.m., Wed., Jan. 4 at BookPeople and in San Antonio at 5 p.m., Thurs., Jan 5 at The Twig Book Shop.
He recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to discuss the book and some of his most exciting findings.
In the introduction to your book, Chief Learning Officer for Procter and Gamble Craig Wynett and Dr. Mehmet Oz praise you for developing a unique mix of “leading edge science” and “news you can use.” Why do you think so few books like yours are being published?
This kind of book is a tough one to get right. There are a lot of great scientists who know the research on thinking, but few of them have spent time working with people outside of the research community that would provide experience to guide practical recommendations. In addition, most researchers focus on a narrow area of study. Books like this require drawing from across the discipline of psychology. There are also a number of books by people who have worked in business and executive education settings. These books provide recommendations for more effective thinking, but they are not rooted in the underlying science. As a result, the recommendations are brittle. They work in some cases, but when they fail, it is not clear why.
You are adamant that “smart thinking” and intelligence are not the same thing. What is the difference?
There are lots of tests out there that aim to measure intelligence and aptitude. These tests often focus on abstract reasoning abilities. But, being smart is really about solving problems effectively in real situations. That kind of problem solving requires knowing a lot about the way the world works and having good strategies for applying that knowledge when you need it. Those abilities are just not tested by intelligence tests. As a result, we all know people who “test well” but are not successful in life, and others who are not “book smart” but always seem to find a way to do something interesting.
How and when did you start developing your ideas for “Smart Thinking” and what research did you draw upon to develop the “smart thinking” techniques?
I have always had an interest in how to bridge the gap between research and the application of that research in the world. About seven years ago, I started working with companies to help them bring research into their businesses. For the past six years, I have worked with the people of Procter & Gamble. They asked me to teach some classes to their employees to help them be more effective problem solvers. The information in this book emerged from those classes.
I had to synthesize research from many different areas. One core component of this book draws from work on habits and habit change. You cannot be smart without developing good habits. The second core element comes from work on learning and knowledge. A key to smart thinking is understanding how things in the world function. There is a lot of important work exploring the difficulties of acquiring this functional knowledge and examining ways to improve this type of learning. Finally, many solutions to difficult problems arise as the result of analogies between a problem and a solution from another area of expertise. The book draws extensively on research on how analogies are formed and used.
You have a wonderful anecdote in the book in which you use these techniques to help your son figure out an answer to a tough question on his homework using his own existing knowledge. Have your children begun to embrace these smart thinking techniques? How do you try to incorporate your advice into your own life?
I certainly hope my kids have started to use some of these techniques for themselves, though I’m not qualified to write a book on parenting. I do try to use these techniques myself. I talk a lot in the book about ways to redescribe problems to improve your ability to find good analogies. I spend a lot of time using those techniques in my work as a scientist. In addition, I have used a number of the suggestions for developing and changing habits for aspects of my life including learning to play the saxophone as an adult and changing the way I eat.
In “Smart Thinking,” you emphasize the fact that “smart habits enable us to perform desirable behaviors automatically.” What do you mean by this and why is it important that we perform our daily tasks without much thought?
It is hard to have to think about your behavior all the time. Most of the time, when you are thinking about your behavior it is because there is one thing you would like to do, but you have to fight against your habits to do it, which is exhausting. It is much more effective to structure your world in a consistent way so that the things you want to do happen automatically. After all, who wants to think about the route they take home from work, where to find the trash can in the office or how to flick on the light switch in the kitchen? The more things you can compile away as habits, the more you can focus on what interests you.
Throughout the book you have written little interjections called Instantly Smarter, which are tips that readers can begin employing immediately. What are some of your favorites?
I like the tips on remembering names, because so many of us have difficulty with names. We have trouble with names because they are completely disconnected from every other aspect about a person. We want to learn facts that are connected to the person rather than independent ones. So, our difficulty with names reflects something important about the psychology of memory. There are two other sets of Instantly Smarter tips I really like: One focuses on the importance of sleep in being smart. The other examines ways to help you pay attention when you feel like you’re losing it in a meeting or class.
What is one habit of smart thinkers that you think will most surprise readers?
Most people think that smart thinkers think differently than they do. That message was even brought out explicitly in Apple’s great ad campaign “Think Different.” In fact, even the smartest thinkers are using the same procedures that everyone has. Where they differ is in the range of things they know about and in their ability to find descriptions of problems that enable them to use the knowledge they have when they need it.
What is the primary piece of advice you hope readers take away from “Smart Thinking”?
The main piece of advice is that you can become smarter. A musician improves her skills through dedicated practice and an understanding of music theory. Likewise, by understanding the way you use knowledge to solve problems, you can develop smarter habits to learn more about the way the world works and to describe problems effectively.