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Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova


I am grateful for this book.  It helped me to think better.  I realized I had a problem thinking until I read this book.  And it has helped me become a better writer which should be clear by the end of this entry.

Some examples:

a) When my doctor prescribed one medicine for my migraines, I thought “what a jerk” and told his assistant that this medicine was all wrong and he needed to give me a migraine-specific medicine.  They told me they would change it at our next appointment and try it still then. Grudgingly I did.  Only ten days later, I noticed no migraine. Oh…

I think I would have pushed this out of my mind instead of apologizing next week when I see him.

I notice I have opinions about bands I‘ve never heard, books I’ve never read, movies I’ve never seen.  Who needs facts when you have opinions? As insane as this must be– it never

What Konnikova got me thinking about is “what facts do I have?  What conclusions have I drawn from the evidence.  Does this really follow?” Most importantly is the question:  Is there another way to see this?

One example when it really helped me recently:

When I couldn’t keep anything down after the operation, I went almost nine days without food.  When I stopped lamenting that “I shouldn’t be sick this long after the surgery,”  I realized I was sick, whether or not I “should” be.  I asked if there was some other way to look at this situation, rather than the medical, since I had not gone to medical school.  A short time later I realized that if I saw this as a nine-day fast I could easily find a way to end the fast safely.   I did and slowly, following the plan, I am starting to feel much better.  After six days, I’ve actually eating regular food again. A week ago, I wasn’t sure.

I second example about a resentment I’ve had:  I have had problems with a friend I celebrate Thanksgiving and birthdays with– for twenty years. S– a 70 yr old friend who gets on me about my religious faith.  He doesn’t see how someone intelligent could have the beliefs I have.  He doesn’t let go.  I thought he was a jerk and dreaded going to Thanksgiving with him. I asked myself if there was another way to see it.  Then I saw it.  He lost two wives, had conflicts with a daughter he helped through the years with kidney disease and who sadly died this year after long dialysis.  He kept her alive by self-less giving.  But he had given up most of his friends years earlier and only gradually found a few news ones.  But when he lost his daughter he could not share that with them.  Is his beef with me personal?  Not at all.  Is he going to change just because I am sitting next to him at the next birthday celebration?  No.  Is that OK with me?  Yes, suddenly it is.

In both cases, I am going to ask him what he is reading, what has excites him and what they see stirring on the political horizon.  I am not going to get into defending any position of mine, mostly not well-reasoned anyway. 

The truth is I’ve developed some dreadful thinking tools.

  • I’ve learned that I can be absolutely certain of things– and 100% wrong.
  • I jumped to conclusions with a speed that could a Olympic medal.
  • I almost never reason out anything– unless I stop myself and back up– something I do that I learned in this book, not really before.
  • Intuition is terrific but without reason,  can lead one in deeper error.

I could go on.  In a world of campaign slogans, advertising jingles and people divided over nearly everything.  On gay marriage alone– twenty years ago I thought the idea ridiculous, without thinking it through.  Now I think it’s a civil rights necessity, without thinking about it. 

So what does this happen to do with creativity?


Some of her ending advice on handling your brain:

1. Know yourself and your environment— a good reason to meditate and keep on writer’s journal.  How do you know what you’re going through if you don’t keep track of it? 

2. Observe carefully and thoughtfully– not just the once over and you’re back to your ongoing daydream. 

3. Imagine— step backwards and reflect on what you’ve seen and observed. 

4. Deduce only from what you have observed and nothing more.  

5.  Learn from your failures just as you do from your successes. 

She wisely outlines a way of keeping a diary that makes a lot of sense to me (I’ve kept a journal for 50 years).  After an entry:  was I happy? Did I wish I had done something differently? Is there anything that is clear to me in retrospect that wasn’t before?

For other choices:  What was I considering?  What did I base my decision on?  What was I feeling in the moment? What was the context (was I stressed? emotional? lazy?  was it a regular day or not? what, if anything stood out?)  Who else, if anyone, was invooved?  What were the stakes? What was my goal, my initial motivation? Did I accomplish what I set out to do? Did something distact me?

The reason this is so useful that the better I know myself, the better I can describe my characters.  Also when we finally drop the projections we stick on others, we begin to see them clearly.  I do from resentment to being able to use what I see in the characters I am developing.

The book is not for everyone.  I have a couple of friends who found it light-weight and even contradictory.  This isn’t Einstein.  But I do think that this book is profound– at least it was for me.





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