By Dorian Grayson
When you think about your problems, how would you describe your process? I used to just give my anxieties free reign, in a way that was more about worrying than productive thought. It’s hard to assess a situation fully if you just sit and ruminate it. Luckily, there are more structured ways to approach thinking about problems. Over the summer, I read “Next Level Magic” by Patrick Chapin, in which he explained these perspectives in improving strategy in the card game Magic: the Gathering, and I found they are useful in analyzing almost any situation.
The first is top to bottom thinking, which is about maximizing the best. This perspective is about asking what the most effective options/actions are within the situation and executing them. For example, a lot of learning a language is about memorizing vocabulary. This makes memorization techniques, such as flash cards, a more valuable study technique than analyzing texts. This approach is often what we default to, since when something works we are more likely to do it, but it is helpful to evaluate how well your actions help you.
Bottom to top thinking is the reverse, minimizing the worst. Where top to bottom is about making sure you’re doing the best things, bottom to top is about cutting out the “bad” things. Whether an option is “bad” is based solely on how much it helps you get to “success” within the situation. If you’re thinking about your whole life, you have to make a lot of those judgements for yourself. If you’re thinking about grades, though, you can draw on experience and logic to understand what helps you more or less.
For example, let’s say you are in a class where five percent of your final grade is determined by weekly essays requiring an excess of three pages. Bottom to top thinking would — assuming that this is an outlier in the effort to grade ratio — encourage you to skip those assignments, take the five percent cut and focus your time on more effective means of getting points in the class. Often doing well is just as much about what you’re avoiding doing as well as what you’re actually doing.
The third perspective is front to back, which is about asking ‘how do I get from where I am to “success?”’ This mode of thinking is useful for projects or tasks, as “success” needs to be clearly defined. After you have established what the goal is, start with where you are now and work through each step to get there. This helps you understand the progression of your success. This is the perspective that is easiest to lie to yourself. Keep in mind that it’s easy to commit to doing all of your research in one six hour library session, but that’s likely an unrealistic plan for your success.
The fourth perspective is back to front and asks ‘how did I achieve success?’ This perspective is useful as a starting point because it forces you to put yourself in a situation where you have succeeded. This makes you understand that you can be successful, and is likely to motivate you, but it also forces you to be concrete about what you’re working towards. After you envision the successful result — the perfect research paper, getting hired in a competitive position or winning a game of Magic: the Gathering — work backwards step-by-step to see how you got there. If there are any moments in this breakdown that rely on luck, brainstorm any ways you might improve your chances. While often the hardest, as it forces you to work out important details ahead of time, it is often very enlightening what is most important in getting to “success.”
For all of these techniques, make sure you’re thinking realistically about what you will do and what is likely to happen. If you aren’t, you are actively deluding yourself and working against your success.
These perspectives aren’t the end-all be-all of strategic thinking, and I encourage you to figure out what works with you personally. These tools help you establish an understanding of a defined situation and work towards a clear end point. I hope you keep them with you as useful tools when figuring out how to approach a situation.