Fab Fridays 73: Elastic Thinking

Flexible thinking in uncertain times

Schools are astonishingly bad at teaching us how to think.

But there’s a better way.

Let’s talk about elastic thinking and how we can get better at it.

In many ways, humans are not that special.

Chimps are stronger than us, pound for pound. And some jellyfish are immortal! But it’s the unique way we think that makes us so special.

Our minds empower us to build cities, invent new technology, and go to the moon. Our thinking abilities let us create good explanations.

You might be wondering: “But don’t animals think too? They have brains, after all.

Leonard Mlodinow, physicist and colleague of Richard Feynman, distinguishes between 3 kinds of thinking:

  • automatic

  • analytical

  • elastic

Most animals only use the first kind of thinking: reflexive responses to situations.

Think about the herring gull. When a parent taps the ground, it triggers them to barf, and its chicks run over and start pecking.

That's automatic thinking! They’re following natural reflexes.

You and I use automatic thinking too. For example, we naturally reciprocate generosity. We give to people who give to us.

Salespeople take advantage of this reflex. They might send you a small gift so it’s easier sell you a car.

But you can escape this trap. How? By never accepting gifts from salespeople. If you create this rule and always follow it, you’ll never fall for that trick again.

This tactic is an example of the second kind of thinking: analytical.

We use logic to make new plans and change our automatic behaviors.

Computers use analytical thinking too—and they’re much better than us! For example, the computer Deep Blue beat reigning chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1996.

Now, computers beat chess champions all the time!

Computers perfectly follow logical steps. They do exactly what we tell them to do. However, they break down when they face new situations.

They can’t use the third kind of thinking: elastic.

Elastic thinking helps us solve problems we’ve never faced before. It’s what we do when we don’t have a rulebook to follow. Instead of thinking step by step, we dive into the adventure of exploration and discovery until new solutions click into place. 

In today's world, elastic thinking is more valuable than ever.

Things change constantly. New problems arise faster than we can solve the old ones.

So, how do we get better at elastic thinking?

By doing the opposite of what traditional schools are doing.

Did you ever hear a teacher say, “wait until you get into the real world”? That’s because school makes life seem too simple. They teach kids that success means:

  • following rules

  • memorizing pat answers

  • solving simplified problems

It’s a real tragedy. Schools suck the novelty out of real life. As a result, kids spend their most formative years without practicing elastic thinking.

At Synthesis, we do things differently. Kids compete in teams to win games. They don’t know the rules. They have to explore and experiment to learn. It’s stressful, it’s tough, and kids love it. Just watch them play!

Synthesis games show how kids are natural elastic thinkers. 

  • They love adventure

  • They love challenges

  • They love novelty

Put kids in new situations, and their powerful little brains light up and kick into gear.

To get better at elastic thinking, channel your inner child. Throw away the instructions. Practice discovery, adventure, and exploration. You just might be surprised at what you invent.

Until next week, 

Ana Lorena Fabrega