How to Think More Effectively by The School of Life

Rating: 9/10

Another book(let) from The School of Life offering a rich blend of philosophy, psychology, self-help and personal development. It inspired me to examine my thoughts more deeply and to contemplate the reasons behind some of my actions. Its practical tips have led me to consider how to improve my relationships as a friend, partner and father.


  • We see good thinking in mystical terms: as a gift from outside forces that we cannot steer or regulate.
  • Our education systems operate with a narrow sense of what fruitful thinking involves; the focus is on facts and formulae, on the capacity to reel off quotes and summarise opposing views.
  • We are taught to obsess about passing exams: that is, trials marked by people who feel confident that they already know the existing truths and are merely checking whether we have learnt to submit to them too.
  • School thinking marks us for life and lends us an ongoing bias towards neglecting our individual perceptions in favour of meeting pre-existing expectations. But genuine adult achievement relies on a capacity for originality and authenticity of thought.
  • [15 types of thinking] to help us identify and hold on to our prime mental moments.
  • We can learn systematically to harvest rather than sporadically to forage our most satisfying and necessary thoughts.

Strategic Thinking

  • There is a fundamental distinction to be made between two kinds of thinking: figuring out what we would like to achieve, and working out how to achieve it.
  • Strategy is about determining our overall aims; execution comprises everything that follows once we’ve decided – the practical activities required to put our plans into action.
  • ‘Why should we study this subject?’ sounds, to most teachers, like an insult and a provocation, rather than the birth of an admirably speculative mindset.
  • If we challenge our acquaintances with any degree of seriousness with questions such as: ‘What is a good holiday?’, ‘What is a relationship for?’, ‘What is a satisfying conversation?’ or ‘Why do we want money?’, we risk coming across as absurd and pretentious – as though such large questions were by definition unanswerable.
  • We concentrate more on making money than on figuring out how to spend it optimally. We put a lot more effort into becoming ‘successful’ than into assessing how dominant notions of success could make us content. At a collective level, corporations are much more committed to the efficient delivery of their existing products and services than on stepping back and asking afresh what the company might truly be trying to do for their customers. Nations are more concerned with growing their GDP than with probing at the benefits of increased purchasing power.
  • tragic consequences to this over-devotion to execution. We rush frantically to fulfil hastily chosen ends; we exhaust ourselves blindly in the name of sketchy goals; we chain ourselves to schedules, timelines and performance targets.

Cumulative Thinking

  • In order to carry off any moderately complicated thinking task, we should understand that, at any single moment, we won’t have access to all the ideas we need. We’ll have to set down what we can, then wait and return with the distinctive intelligence of a new mood.
  • In every office or above every desk there should be an image from the messy early stages of a masterpiece to keep this basic, consoling and encouraging truth where it belongs: at the front of our sporadic, time-bound minds.
  • 1.   The most necessary tool for thinking is also the simplest: the notebook. We need a notebook because we can’t contain what is important within the bandwidth of active memory.

Butterfly Thinking

  • Great ideas may pass through our minds, yet, as Plato knew, it is another matter to persuade them to land.
  • The mind sometimes doesn’t think too well if thinking is all it is allowed to do; it should be given a routine task to distract it and help it lower its guard.
  • The primary obstacle to good thinking is not a cramped desk or an uninteresting horizon. It is, first and foremost, anxiety. The most profound thoughts we need to grapple with also have the most potential to disturb.

Independent Thinking

  • From a young age, we are taught to expect that truly important ideas must lie outside of us; usually very far outside of us in time and place. Someone else – cleverer, wiser and more prestigious than us – will already have hatched the crucial thoughts; it is our task to pay homage to their intelligence, to learn what they had to say, to be as faithful as possible to their words and to align our perspective with theirs.
  • we have met hundreds of people, experienced many places, entertained a vast variety of sensations and perceptions. Our minds are stocked. We have read more than Socrates; we have had as many – if not more – experiences than Plato. We don’t have to go back to university to do yet another degree. We already have the raw material with which to produce valuable insights. We are simply lacking confidence.
  • the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo (1475–1564) had defined his own attitude to his work as a sculptor. ‘The statue is already in the stone’, he wrote, ‘my work is to liberate it.’ Just like Michelangelo’s stone, there are already all kinds of great thoughts in our heads: we merely need to liberate them from the inert block of our own hesitancy.
  • We are taught to admire the minds of astonishing figures such as Michelangelo, Aristotle, Plato, di Lampedusa or Montaigne. We are invited to stand in awe at the achievements of these geniuses, but we are also made to feel that their thought processes must be quasi-magical and their ability to produce the ideas for which we know them ultimately mysterious.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82): In the minds of geniuses, we find – once more – our own neglected thoughts.
  • the genius doesn’t have different kinds of thoughts from the rest of us; they simply take them more seriously.
  • This explains why small children are, in their own way, so much more interesting than the average adult: they have not yet become experts in what not to say or think.
  • We can all be ‘clever’ when we truly attend to what is passing through consciousness. We all have very similar and very able minds; where geniuses differ is in their more robust inclinations to study them properly.

Focused Thinking

  • there is no inner warning system to alert us to this; no intellectual alarm in our brains to shout ‘watch out, you’re being vague! You’re formulating plans with woolly ideas!’ We don’t easily realise how out of focus our minds
  • Vagueness is a problem because it means failing to pick out what really matters to us in any given situation.
  • Aren’t clichés just good ideas that have proved rightly popular? The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. They are, to return to the crux of the issue, vague.
  • getting at our actual sensations.
  • A talented artist is, first and foremost, someone who takes us into the specifics of valuable experiences.
  • The goal is not to become artists or philosophers, but to do something that accompanies these tasks: to move from woolly first impressions to authentic details; to go from vagueness to focus – and therefore to give ourselves the best chance of reaching what we actually seek.
  • The difference between vagueness and focus is what separates great from mediocre art.

Philosophical Meditation

  • In Philosophical Meditation, instead of being prompted to sidestep our worries and ambitions, we are directed to set aside time to catch, untangle, examine and confront them.
  • Key to the practice is regularly to turn over three large questions.
    — The first involves asking what we might be anxious about right now.
    — what lends our worries their force is not so much that we have them but that we don’t allow ourselves the time to know, interpret and contextualise them adequately.
    — Only by being listened to in generous, almost pedantic detail will anxieties lose their hold on us.
    — A Philosophical Meditation moves on to a second enquiry: What am I presently upset about?
    — We are mental athletes at shrugging such things off, but there is a cost to our stoicism. From small humiliations and slights, large blocks of resentment eventually form that render us unable to love or trust.
    — During a Philosophical Meditation, we can throw off our customary and reckless bravery and let our sadness take its natural, due shape.
    — There is a third question we can consider within a Philosophical Meditation: What are we currently ambitious and excited about?
    — excitement points indistinctly to better, more fulfilled, versions of ourselves. We should allow our minds to wonder at greater length than usual about what the excitement (it could be a view, a book, a place, an insight) might want to tell us about ourselves.
  • We each face calls, triggered by chance encounters with people, objects or ideas, to change our lives. Something within us knows better than our day-to-day consciousness the direction we may need to go in to become who we really could be.
  • Two kinds of unpacking we might do around any given anxiety.
    — practical unpacking: talk yourself through the practical challenge.
    — emotional unpacking: Talk yourself through an emotional challenge or set of doubts.

‘Mad’ Thinking

  • We banish many thoughts from our minds on the grounds that they are, as we put it, ‘mad’. Some of them evidently are: too mean, flawed, absurd or petty to deserve further exploration. But it’s one of the tragedies of our thinking lives that, amid the detritus of dismissed thoughts, there are invariably many that could have been of high value if only we had dared to examine them further; if only we hadn’t been so scared of their less conventional and more speculative dimensions; if only we hadn’t been so resistant to an occasional burst of ‘mad’ thinking.
  • we can ask ourselves how we would approach an issue if money weren’t a factor. Maybe we would suddenly see that a particular career deeply suited our nature; perhaps we would concentrate more on beauty or kindness, honesty or adventure; we might end up living in a different country or starting a new relationship.
  • holding our fears aside for a certain amount of time helps us to identify our areas of real enthusiasm, longing and ambition that we would otherwise push out of our minds too soon.
  • it encourages us in something that is logically prior to, and in its own way as important as, realistic solutions: the identification of a particular issue that we would like to see solved or that moves us.
  • Without thinking too much, complete the sentence: If I didn’t have to be sensible, I would…
  • Select a few bits of this madness – and make it your goal.

Friend Thinking

  • What helps in our attempts to know our own minds is, surprisingly, the presence of another mind.
  • The application of a light pressure from outside us firms up the jumbled impressions within.
  • Good listeners fight against this with a range of conversational gambits. They hover as the other speaks; they offer encouraging remarks; they make gentle positive gestures: a sigh of sympathy, a nod of encouragement, a strategic ‘hmm’ of interest. All the time, they are egging the other to go deeper into issues.
  • The good listener takes it for granted that they will encounter vagueness in the conversation of others. But they don’t condemn, rush or get impatient, because they see vagueness as a universal and significant trouble of the mind that it is the task of a true friend to help with.
  • We need someone who will say two magic words: ‘Go on…’
  • The good listener (paradoxically) is a skilled interrupter.
  • It is only too easy to end up experiencing ourselves as strangely cursed and exceptionally deviant or uniquely incapable. But the good listener makes their own strategic confessions so as to set the record straight about the meaning of being a normal (that is, muddled and radically imperfect) human being.
  • They confess not so much to unburden themselves as to help others accept their own nature
  • being a bad parent, a poor lover or a confused worker are not malignant acts of wickedness, but ordinary features of being alive that others have unfairly edited out of their public profiles.
  • try to direct them towards a more emotional layer.
  • We often suffer from shame; that is, a feeling that we’re not good enough, that we are bad people, that we don’t deserve things, that we’re boring, ugly or unintelligent. It can be helpful to encounter a more forgiving, kindly, receptive person, who can hear us in our suffering and make us feel less alone.

Reading Thinking

  • reading provides us with the chance to unearth and put into focus what we happen to think. It’s through contact with the books of others that we might come to a clearer sense of our perspectives and ideas.
  • when we find a book on the subject we care about but are lonely with, we have evidence of an extraordinary commitment made by a serious stranger, which bolsters our sense of the legitimacy of the thinking challenge we face.
  • this is proof already that the thinking task is in principle a serious one;
  • We are encouraged to start our own brains by evidence of the developed thoughts of another person.
  • just a few paragraphs or even parts of sentences can be sufficient to provoke our minds and can nudge us to stop, daydream and reach for a notebook in which we jot down not the thought that we’ve read but the thought that it prompted inside us, which might be quite different and more significant.
  • When considered as a tool for thinking, socalled bad books might be just as effective as the acknowledged good ones – and sometimes a lot better; as we turn their pages, they allow us to imagine our own, superior versions of what we are taking in.

Envious Thinking

  • The problem with envy is its inaccuracy. Our impulse is to want the precise thing that another has, desire. The problem with envy is its inaccuracy. Our impulse is to want the precise thing that another has, while in reality it is almost always only a bit that we need.
  • Use the bits of others’ lives you truly seek to guide your next best efforts.

Analogical Thinking

  • seems as if the universe is inherently structured as a set of motifs that repeat themselves across fields:
  • This pattern repetition means that if we properly understand one aspect of one area, we already possess important clues for making sense of other aspects of other areas.

Empathic Thinking

  • What goes wrong in many attempts to read other people isn’t that we’re too focused on ourselves, but that we aren’t bringing enough of our own experience to bear on another’s unstated thoughts and feelings.
  • We assumed, from humility, that our fears and doubts, our silly moments, our hesitations and anxieties, our weirder thoughts and night-time desires had no corollaries in the minds and hearts of those older, wiser and cooler.

Death Thinking

  • To overcome our tendencies to delay and evade, we need to bring another, even greater, fear to the situation. We need to scare ourselves with something very large in order to spur ourselves to think with greater energy about the myriad challenges before us.

Love Thinking

  • Imagination; Hurt, not bad; A story, not a headline; The child within; The possibility of tragedy; Patience; Redeeming features; We are sinners too
  • When we are around small children who frustrate us, we don’t declare them evil; we don’t bear down on them to show them how misguided they are. We find less alarming ways of understanding how they have come to say or do certain things.
  • This is the reverse of what tends to happen around adults;
  • imagine that others have deliberately got us in their sights. But if we employed the infant model of interpretation, our first assumptions would be quite different.
  • Moralistic thinkers reach their certainties swiftly; love thinkers take their time. They remain serene in the face of obviously unimpressive behaviour:

Sceptical Thinking

  • We take the first steps towards effective intelligence by determining some of the ways in which our minds deny, lie, evade, forget, obsess and steer us towards goals that won’t deliver the satisfaction of which we’re initially convinced.
  • The non-sceptical person has a high degree of faith in their ability to judge relatively quickly and for the long term what is right and wrong about a given situation. They feel they can tell who has behaved well or badly or what the appropriate course of action should be around a dilemma. This is what gives them the energy to get angry
  • The sceptical person has learnt to be careful on all these fronts. They are conscious that what they feel strongly about today might not be what they think next week.
  • Their behaviour is symptomatic of a nuanced and intelligent belief that few ideas are totally without merit, no proposals are completely wrong and almost no one is entirely foolish. They work with a conception of reality in which good and bad are entangled and in which parts of the truth are always showing up in unfamiliar guises in unexpected people.
  • Their politeness and hesitancy is a logical, careful response to the complexity they identify in themselves and in the world.