The best way to learn structured thinking is to ask pointless questions.
How much toilet paper is sold in France each year? How many miles of train tracks are there in Germany? What’s the height of the building across the street? If you take one job interview in the consulting industry, you’ll inevitably face such a brain teaser. Most people don’t understand them.
“What’s the point of guessing the answer to a question when I can just google it?” The point is to structure your thinking. To use logic, practice deduction, and build a big answer by asking many small questions.
Structured thinking turns you into a person who methodically breaks down problems — and then solves them piece by piece rather than worrying, guessing, or raising their shoulders in absolute cluelessness.
“You can learn the gist of how to do it in a minute, and you can use this kind of logic for the rest of your life,” Hannah Yang says in a short tutorial. Here’s an example: How many customers visit your favorite restaurant every year?
I live in Munich. My favorite restaurant is called Lemongrass, a Vietnamese place around the corner. I’ll start with big numbers and move into smaller ones, but you could also do the opposite. Starting on either end helps.
Then, you ask one question: What do I know? I know 1.5 million people live in Munich. I’ll assume two thirds live in the city center. That’s one million. Is this accurate? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that making an assumption allows you to further break down the problem. Then, you iterate from there.
- There are about 10 neighborhoods in the city. That’s 100,000 people per neighborhood — and that many live reasonably close to Lemongrass.
- If you eat out every meal not counting breakfast, that’s 14 times per week. Knowing myself and other young professionals, 10 times isn’t a stretch. Older people and families don’t do so as much, however, others don’t eat out at all. A conservative average is 3. That’s 300,000 meals eaten in restaurants in my neighborhood each week.
- There are about 100 restaurants in our area. If meals were spread equally, that’d be 3,000 meals per restaurant. Now, some vetting is necessary.
- Can Lemongrass serve 3,000 people per week? The restaurant is open 12 hours/day, 7 days a week. That’s 84 hours. The place holds 25 people, and the food is served quickly, within 5 minutes on average. At 100% capacity, they could serve 125 meals per hour or 10,500 per week. Even if the place is full only 30% of the time, serving 3,000 customers per week is doable!
- Let’s say Lemongrass is closed 2 weeks of the year, be it for vacation, illness, or else. At 50 weeks, that’s 150,000 customers per year.
Is this answer 100% correct? Definitely not. Is it in the right order of magnitude? Probably. It’s also a question to which you can’t google the answer — which is exactly what makes structured thinking so valuable.
Based only on your limited experience, you can learn from extrapolations. For Lemongrass, we could now estimate their revenue, operating costs, find potential problems — and maybe even solutions to those problems. And this isn’t limited to business. Creative chains of questions work in all areas of life.
Neil deGrasse Tyson once told a story about two job candidates being asked to estimate the height of a building. One happened to know the answer. The other went outside, measured the building’s shadow against her own, and gave a rough estimate. “Who are you gonna hire? I’m hiring the person who figured it out. ’Cause that person knows how to use the mind in a way not previously engaged.”
The word “structure” makes it sound like you’re removing the creativity from your thinking process. Actually, the opposite is true: You enable it. Creativity thrives on rules. Within boundaries, your thoughts can roam freely and then slowly build on top of one another.
Structured thinking isn’t just smart, it’s innovative. As such, you can become an innovative problem-solver in just three minutes — and you’ll benefit from that ability for the rest of your life. After all, as Tyson put it:
“When you know how to think, it empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.”