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How to Develop Your Thinking Ability
Kenneth S. Keyes, Jr.
Taming Your Mind: A Guide to Sound Decisions
Published by McGraw-Hill/NY in 1950

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2003


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How would you like to:

1. Get along better with other people
2. Build a happier marriage.
3. Be successful in business.
4. Find causes for things that worry you.
5. Do your part to build a world free from war and want.

Does this sound like something written for survival in the 21st Century? If so, it's because these five universal wants are still as important today as they were when Keyes wrote this book over fifty years ago. And the answers he gives on how to accomplish these things are based on writings that go back to 80 years ago when a then obscure Polish count by the name of Alfred O. Korzybski first began to write down his ideas in "Time Binding", "Manhood of Humanity", and "Science and Sanity". In his Acknowledgments, Keyes lists Korzybki first and farther down includes Wendell Johnson. Johnson I had encountered back in 1964 through his book, "People on Quandries", whose subtitle, "The Semantics of Personal Adjustments," must have caught my eye as I searched the New Orleans Public Library shelves looking for answers to my quandries and personal adjustments. If I had but read the Introduction of Johnson's book back then in my callow youth, I would have discovered Korzybski much earlier. Instead I found Johnson, an original student of Korzybski, and read his work with interest. In Keyes, whom I discovered fifteen or so years later, I found another student of Korzybski, one who made the understanding of General Semantics much clearer to me than any other writer, including Korzybski and Johnson, on a par with another superb writer and student of Korzybi's, Samuel Bois, who wrote "Art of Awareness."

When I was asked to take over a course in Effective Communication at a nuclear power station in the early 1980s, I pulled out this book because of its common sense tools for thinking and Ted Key's marvelous cartoons(1) which illustrated those tools simply and clearly. I had read Johnson and Bois back in the 1960s, but because I had not yet read Adler's book, "How To Read A Book", I had not yet read a Preface, Foreword, or Introduction and had not yet discovered the progenitor of their ideas, Alfred O. Korzybski. But, unbeknownst to me at the time, I had a direct encounter with a key idea of Korzybski back in 1975 when I was having a discussion with my manager in the Software Research Department of the Foxboro Company, Per Holst. He told me about a section in the Norwegian Boy Scout Handbook on Map Reading that he had memorize when he was a youth. It said, "When the terrain differs from the map, believe the terrain." I smiled and quickly committed that quotation to memory. It certainly makes imminently good sense in Norway, when a single step in the wrong direction might cause a precipitous plunge 3,000 feet into an icy fiord. What I had learned was a variation on the phrase that was to learn, several years later, that was attributed to Korzybski, "The map is not the territory." I was a Senior Software Researcher and I suppose Per was telling me that in research one needs to build valid maps of unexplored terrain and one should be careful to beware of secondhand maps that could lead me into trouble, that a map is not a substitute for using my own eyes. I was looking into a crystal ball at the future of software development and if I had read this book, I would have had six marvelous tools to assist me right away. To understand the value of these six tools, one needs to comprehend six basic obstacles to the truth, whether the truth exists in doing detective work on a past event or projective work on future events (as I was as a software researcher). The cartoon on page 145 illustrates them and lists them for us. In the Tool Box at right, you will find the Six Tools for Thinking that can help you to make adequate maps in the face of each of the six obstacles to truth [Tool in Brackets]:Six Tools for Thinking Clearly

1. You can never know all about anything. [So far as I know.]
2. No two things are identical. [The What Index]
3. Things may act differently in new places. [The Where Index]
4. Thing exist in varying degrees. [Up to a Point]
5. Things appear differently to different people. [To Me]
6. Everything changes. [The When Index]

Let's take them one at a time.

1. When I was working in software research and development, if I had a question about how a piece of computer hardware or software worked, I could usually find the expert in that area and ask my question. I was amazed bt the number of times that even the most knowledgeable expert was unable to answer my question. When they were faced with my question, they would usually give me their best answer followed by a qualification along the lines of "so far as I know." See cartoon and apply this tool: "Nonsense! There couldn't be any whales in this bay, so far as I know."

2. My wife had a cell phone that broke. We went to get an exact replacement, only to find that the model was obsolete. A month later, I decided to get myself a cell phone and went to the same store and requested a phone identical to my wife's brand new phone so we wouldn't have to learn two sets of operating procedures. Again we found it necessary to get a third version of the phone with different operating procedures. Phone(1) was not the same as Phone(2) which was not the same as Phone (3). The What Index is increasingly becoming essential to survival in a technological world. We need to apply the What Index to our verbal maps if we are to achieve clarity and avoid confusion which could lead to costly and time-consuming mistakes. See cartoon where dog(1) is not the same as dog(2).

3. With us each having cell phones, we came to learn about the Where Index quickly. Where we could make calls and where not. Where we could make free calls and where our calls were expensive. This learning process was costly, but soon we learned to keep from making the cell phone equivalence of falling into an icy fiord: the $357 phone bill for a month.

4. Another modern technology is the cable television system. The quality of reception is generally stable, more so than antenna reception ever was, but even in cable systems, reception exists in varying degrees. If it is raining, not where you are watching the cable channel, but at the cable receiving station, then your reception will be degraded until the shower is over. If a leak has appeared in your cable going from the house to box at the curb, then cable channels that are identical to local broadcast channels will have degraded signals due to the cable becoming an antenna for the local broadcast channel which will interfere with cable channel. Your cable system will provide you with stable, quality television images, up to a point. See cartoon for where the driver's "perfect" knowledge of the road stops.

5. When I moved from software to "peopleware" and began doing psychotherapy, I found that the way that people feel about things depend on so many factors that were hard to predict. Each person seemed to have a unique brand of one-sidedness, including me. I had to learn to deal with this by adding the following qualification to any personal statements I made "to me". That is what seemed necessary to me. See cartoon and add "to me" to each character's description of the temperature of the water and see the difference it makes.

6. "The only thing constant is the rate of change," someone used to say to me a lot. Everything changes. Lettuce that was perfect yesterday is wilted today. The chain saw that started right away last fall, may require hours of cranking this spring. When we apply the Time Index, we remember that things change, and this tool can keep us from making egregious errors of judgment, which can be costly. See cartoon where the effect is shown humorously when a married man brings home his wife's former dream man.

In closing this fine book, Keyes sums it all up with this concise statement, "This world needs thinkers -- not parrots." I can think of no better way to close this review but to give you a glimpse at the author' s conclusions. Again, I must remind you that, as much as this seems topical and taken from today's headlines, it was written over fifty years ago.

[page 238] Civilization is just a slow process of learning how to be kind. We must remember with Voltaire that "men will continue to commit atrocities as long as they continue to believe absurdities." And they will continue to believe absurdities until they are taught HOW TO THINK -- and not just pumped full of the local ideas of WHAT TO THINK.
Teaching children to think straight is not the complete answer to the world's ills,
but it is an indispensable starting point. As long as we pipe into the heads of children WHAT TO THINK and fail to train them HOW TO THINK, that long will we have various brands of hell on earth. This is the challenge of today. Can we meet it? It is up to us. It is up to YOU and it is up to ME.

My hope is that you, dear Reader, have picked a few new tools for thinking clearly. With them you should become able to see through absurdities and to avoid perpetuating them in your communication with others from now on.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ footnote ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1. Ted Key's cartoons illustrating the key ideas of Keyes' book used to be posted at this website:, but are no longer there, so far as I can tell. [Click BACK Button to return to text.]


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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