Master-Mind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Mastermind-cover-new-pipeI recently finished reading Maria Konnikova’s new book. It’s called Master-Mind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Konnikova is mostly known for her blog “Literally Psyched” at The Scientific American. Her blog is, for the most part, an exploration and discussion of topics in literature and psychology. So it’s not surprising that her first book is an exploration in psychology and scientific thinking as demonstrated through the mind of Sherlock Holmes, the great fictional character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Konnikova uses the literary character of Sherlock Holmes and his successful thinking methods (for solving crimes) as a model for a particular way of thinking. This method is the scientific method of mind. The central purpose of Master-Mind is to demonstrate how to develop a scientific method of mind and thereby improve your thinking.

There are five basic principles to Konnikova’s scientific method of mind:

1. Self awareness and context matter. The first thing we must realize from the start, before we even begin to evaluate, judge, or reason is that each of us have built in cognitive biases, predispositions, and prejudices that push our perspectives, our thinking and decisions, in ways that we’re not even conscious of. Being consciously aware and attempting to mitigate these stereotyping influences is critical to the scientific state of mind and effective thinking. Related to this is the principle of “mindfulness.” This is another theme running throughout the book. The idea is that we need to be passive (not letting our minds “actively” wander) observers (not just looking but “seeing”) of the phenomenon.

The second part of this principle is “context matters.” This means being mindful of the external (and internal) environment–the whole situation–before you start making judgements. How you initially frame the situation can have a significant impact on whether you succeed or fail. This is important because our intuitions tend to race ahead of our deliberative thinking if we’re not mindful of the need to slow down the process and observe. You need to know if the environment has something to tell you about the situation. Understanding the environment also means understanding your own state of mind. “Remember: specific, mindful motivation matters.” Are you engaged? What are you trying to accomplish? What are your goals? You need to clarify these important points before you start your journey of thought.

2. Be a careful and thoughtful observer. Once you’re aware of your limitations and considered the context you must then truly observe the phenomenon. You must be attentive to details. One needs to be open minded and allow objects, events, and evidence to speak for themselves, without you filtering it through any prior assumptions, preconceptions or expectations.

3. Make room for creative space. Once you have observed and gathered information then it’s time to mull it over, taking the time to ask yourself questions and consider various possibilities and probabilities. In a sense, you’re forming a hypothesis.

4. Deduce. After mulling it over you begin the process of weighing your theories against the known facts and then choosing the best answer. “Objective fact, to a consideration of multiple possibilities, to a narrowing of the most likely ones. No extraneous details, no holes filled in by an all too willing imagination. Scientific deduction at it’s best.”

5. And principle 5 is straight forward: “Learn–from your failures just as you do from your successes.”

These 5 basic principles make up the scientific method of mind. Master-Mind is loaded with a lot of insights gleaned from research in neuroscience and psychology. This brief post doesn’t do her book justice. If you’re interested in improving your thinking and becoming more reasonable and approaching situations more objectively (and scientifically) then I highly recommend her book.

Mark Twain: a simple, straightforward style


I see a friend of mine posted about Mark Twain. We had talked about Twain’s work awhile back and I recommended he give Twain’s writing a shot. He did and posted about it, praising what he calls Twain’s “linear style.” That’s an interesting description of Twain’s writing style. I’ve read a lot of Twain’s work and I don’t recall him ever giving any particular name to his style. I know he was worried about “surplusage.” Twain once quipped: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” I’ve been trying to master that advice all of my writing life.

The closest we come to Twain giving a real byline to his style comes at the beginning of a critical essay Twain wrote about James Fenimoore Cooper. Just before Twain launches into a couple of pages of his trademark skewering, he gives us 18 rules for writing. The first 11 rules cover the rules for writing romantic fiction. Rules 12 through 18 are Twain’s general rules for writing:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

In his last rule Twain exhorts us to “Employ a simple, straightforward style.” I can tell you that if you spend any time reading Twain’s work you’ll “hear” this simple, straightforward style in your head. Having read more than a few biographies of Twain, much of his works, and a number of his letters, I hear that simple, straightforward style through a distinctive southern accent.

My favorite book of Twain’s is Life on the Mississippi. I really can’t say enough about this book. It will always be a book that I tell people they must read. It’s a memoir about Twain’s adventures on the Mississippi River while learning to be a river boat pilot before the Civil War. It’s a book that stays with you. It’s full of humor and pathos and nostalgia. It’s Twain at his very best. It’s the crest of this superb storytellers talent and the embodiment of that very unique and memorable style.

What is the Good Life?

What are the common elements of the good life? In Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s new book, How Much is Enough: Money and the Good Life, they argue there are 7 basic elements that converge to make up the good life.

  1. Health
  2. Security
  3. Personality
  4. Friendship
  5. Leisure
  6. Harmony with Nature
  7. Respect

Part 2 of Interview.
Part 3 of Interview.

F. Scott Fitzgerald on what it takes

fitzgeraldYou’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Modern Library Association voted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, as the 2nd best novel of the 20th century. (James Joyces’s Ulysses was first). The story is superb. The novel is ultimately a meditation on the social and moral decay of the 1920s, that’s brought about by an unchecked desire and greed for money and pleasure. The book was required reading when I was in High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in the 1980s. I’ve read the novel at least three times since then and each time I discover something else interesting or insightful about the book I didn’t see before. I guess that’s the real genius of art. It always speaks to us at that moment in time about something that’s timeless.

For me it’s interesting to hear great artists talk about their craft and how they approach the creative process. The philosopher in me wants to understand how the artist conceptualizes. I want to know how the artist thinks about their craft. For novelists, it’s about how they approach the craft of writing and how they develop their own unique style.

Fitzgerald’s prose and poetic depth are captivating. You may recall these haunting lines from The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

And who could forget the final lines from this novel that was ultimately inscribed on Fitzgerald’s tombstone:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Some of the best insights about writing, philosophy, and life come from the private letters of great writers and thinkers. Below is a specimen from a collection of Fitzgerald’s letters that I found very interesting and insighful. In this letter Fitzgerald talks to Frances about the high price that must be paid for “professional work.”

November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.