1-Sentence-Summary: Clear Thinking is a guide to making better decisions built on recognizing crossroad moments in everyday life, finding the best path forward with a 4-step framework, and then applying it all to what matters most in life.
Read in: 4 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
Every morning when I open my browser, I’m greeted by an important reminder from Shane Parrish: “Focus to Win.” It’s a blog post with a big message: “All of the energy that goes toward anything that is not the most important thing comes at the expense of the most important thing.”
Most of us know that greatness in any form takes focus, but we rarely appreciate how painful practicing that focus day-in and day-out can be. Last year, I worked exclusively on Four Minute Books. My “one mission” approach paid off, but I thought about my next book every day. It hurt to not work on other things I cared about, but Shane’s post helped me pull through.
It exemplifies the kind of level-headed thinking that took him decades to learn, from working for a national security agency to writing a world-class blog at Farnam Street to becoming a successful investor. In his instant worldwide bestseller, Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments into Extraordinary Results, Shane lays out everything he knows about our most important skill.
Here are 3 lessons from the book that will help you make better decisions:
- There are 4 bad defaults that might torpedo your thinking in any situation.
- We need 4 key strengths to keep our wits about us when things get tough.
- If you want to handle your mistakes well, follow a 4-step process.
Let’s learn how to think clearly!
Lesson 1: We have 4 default reactions, all of which prevent us from thinking clearly, especially if they appear together.
One time, while working for an extremely moody CEO, Shane heard him yelling in his office. “They needed to be put in their place,” he later told him. As it turned out, the caller tried to report an important problem. Mere weeks later, the CEO was fired — the problem he ignored had severely hurt the company.
“If he had been thinking clearly, he might still have his job,” Shane writes. Countless books explain how to think more clearly, but first, we must recognize the moments when thinking clearly is most important. “Rationality is wasted if you don’t know when to use it,” Parrish says.
There are 4 primary enemies of clear thinking we fall back on time and again:
- The emotion default is when we react to our feelings instead of reason and facts.
- The ego default holds us back whenever our self-esteem is under fire.
- The social default keeps us in line with what’s considered normal, polite, and appropriate in our larger social circle.
- The inertia default is our natural resistance to change and new information.
Each of these defaults can torpedo our thinking, but when they act together, all hell breaks loose. The angry CEO, for example, fell into all but the social default at once. Someone presented him with new, uncomfortable information, which he didn’t like. Furthermore, how could a lower-ranking person try to tell him what to do? Finally, he let his rage get the best of him.
Willpower alone isn’t enough to combat these defaults, Shane writes. We must create “an intentional environment where your desired behavior becomes the default behavior” — and that requires 4 key strengths!
Lesson 2: If you want to beat your defaults, stay calm under pressure, and make better decisions, you must develop 4 key strengths.
When the phone rings with bad news, we don’t need to throw a tantrum. We need “the pause-and-plan response,” as researcher Kelly McGonigal calls it. But in order to take a breath when things get tough, we already need to be the kind of person who stays calm in such situations.
This is where the 4 key strengths come in, according to Shane:
- Self-accountability means taking responsibility both for your mistakes and the bad stuff in your life that isn’t your fault. A good response can quickly improve even a terrible situation, but complaining is never a solution.
- Self-knowledge is about recognizing and adjusting to your abilities and their limits. Work with your strengths and weaknesses where possible. Don’t try to change everything about yourself.
- Self-control is the ability to endure your emotions without acting on them. Personally, I’ve found meditation the single-best way to develop this capacity.
- Self-confidence comes from being humble yet still talking kindly to yourself. It’s also about honesty, “the strength to focus on what’s right instead of who’s right,” Shane says.
Building these 4 strengths isn’t easy. It takes time, courage, and experience. But they are learnable habits. Raise your standards on all 4 of them, and you’ll fall into the 4 defaults of muddy thinking less often.
Lesson 3: Use a 4-step process for dealing with your mistakes in order to benefit from them.
Even if we do our best to improve our thinking, we’ll still make mistakes. That’s okay, as long as we learn from them, Shane writes. “The biggest mistake people make typically isn’t their initial mistake. It’s the mistake of trying to cover up and avoid responsibility for it. The first mistake is expensive; the second one costs a fortune.”
If, unlike Shane’s kids, who once broke a vase and then lied about it, you want to get more out of your mistakes than a TV ban and a grounding, use this 4-step approach:
- Accept responsibility. Whatever your share of causing the problem, acknowledge it. Even if it’s none, you’ll still have to step up and deal with it.
- Learn from the mistake. Reflect on what, who, and where you contributed to the mistake — if not immediately, then later.
- Commit to doing better. “Formulate a plan for doing better in the future,” Shane writes, for it’s the only way to not repeat mistakes.
- Repair the damage as best as you can. Not all mistakes can be fixed, but plenty can be repaired or somewhat mended, even if it takes time.
Yes, all 4 of these are hard to do. But they’re essential, for some mistakes, if unaddressed, will drag us down forever. Shane mentions a sports team manager who let one bad player trade get into his head. He developed impostor syndrome and stopped making decisions at all. Eventually, he was fired.
In order to get better and better instead of worse and worse, remember the 4-step process for handling your mistakes well. Mind the 4 defaults, continue to build your 4 strengths, and may your thinking become as clear as water!
Clear Thinking Review
Clear Thinking delivers exactly what it promises. Shane’s writing is clean, precise, and packed with interesting stories. In the second half of the book, Shane offers a complete framework for making decisions, how to find out what matters most to you, and a lot more. Read this one first, then browse his collection of The Great Mental Models for regular refreshers.
Who would I recommend our Clear Thinking summary to?
The 17-year-old who slowly understands how much decisions matter yet never learned about it in school, the 54-year-old senior executive who’s never read a self-help book in her life, and anyone who runs a business or aspires to do so.