Mastermind – Commonplace Book

Title: Mastermind – How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes
Author: Konnikova, Maria
Genre: Development
Category: Thinking, Metacognition, Deduction, Mindfulness, Practical Psychology, Clinical Reasoning

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No one is more recognizable than the legendary character crafted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Sherlock Holmes. Renowned for his intellect and deductive ability, Sherlock Holmes has always stood out to be an icon in the canon of the detective world and is well known in popular culture. With Mastermind, Konnikova introduces a framework to bridge the mind of the legendary Holmes known on paper to the practical and very real world of today. Though Doyle’s creation is fictional, his abilities, when broken down, are achievable and replicable. With attention and practice, we can strive to apply Holmes’s methods to whatever task lies before us.

Part One: Understanding (Yourself)

  • Begin with the basics: Understand that you bring with you in every situation your past experience and judgement. Thus, focus on your attention and awareness.
    • “…Be skeptical of yourself and of your own mind. Observe actively, going beyond the passivity that is our default state”
  • Beware the distracted mind: Making quick judgements without fully observing can create false impressions. Without awareness, these false impressions can then color any future observations or judgements, true or not. This bias to quick judgements stems from the default structure of you brain and reflects how you traditionally entertain new ideas, form impressions of new people, etc.
    • “…if we are busy, stressed, distracted or otherwise depleted mentally, we may keep something marked as true without ever having taken the time to verify it – when faced with multiple demands, our mental capacity is simply too limited to be able to handle everything at once, and the verification process is one of the first things to go. When that happens, we are left with uncorrected beliefs, things that we will later recall as true when they are, in fact, false.” 
  • Understand the difference between the Holmes and the Watson brain: 
    • Holmes: Skeptical, creates space between initial impulses and judgements
    • Watson: colored by initial judgement, rationalizes contrary observations away to fit in with the initial judgement, habitual
  • How to cultivate the Holmes mind: Mindfulness and Motivation
    • “…Mindfulness, in the sense of constant presence of mind, the attentiveness and alertness that is so essential for real, active observation of the world. Motivation, in the sense of active engagement and desire”

Part Two: From Observation to Imagination

  • Pay attention: We remember more when we are interested and motivated, however, no amount of motivation will be efficient if the information wasn’t properly stored to begin with.
    • Attention is a scarce resource. Dividing your attention necessarily involves subtracting. We cannot allocate our attention to multiple things at once and expect it to function at the same level as it would were we to focus on just one activity
    • Lack of attention or awareness will let you slip into your default Watson mind
  • The Power of Observation: Observation is not a passive process. It involves attention and effort.
  • Selectivity: Be Selective
    • Being discreet with your attention will allow you to channel your limited attentional resources towards your objective
      • “…whatever the situation, answering the question of what, specifically, you want to accomplish will put you well on your way to knowing how to maximize your limited attentional resources. It will help direct your mind, prime it, so to speak, with the goals and thoughts that are actually important – and help put those that aren’t in the background”
    • Stay flexible. Your goals can become handicaps if you are not able to adapt to changing circumstances. 
  • Objectivity: Be Objective
    • Be naturally skeptical of your observations as they can easily slide into judgements and opinions. Once held, reflecting back could cause you to misremember and interpret your opinion as fact. 
    • Set your goals beforehand and keep the divide between observation and deduction; observation to obtain the facts and deduction to interpret them. Fight the urge to interpret the facts as you see them
      • “…To observe, you must learn to separate situation from interpretation, yourself from what you are seeing”
    • To improve your objectivity: Describe the situation from the beginning, either out loud or in writing…gaps and inconsistencies that weren’t apparent before came to the surface
  • Be Inclusive
    • Use all of your senses to the best of your ability. We are influenced by our environment whether we like it or not. Better to “take control of that influence by paying attention to everything that surrounds us”.
      • “…Attention is about every one of your senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch. It is about taking in as much as we possibly can, through all of the avenues available to us. It is about learning not to leave anything out – anything, that is, that is relevant to the goals that you’ve set. And it is about realizing that all of our senses affect us – and will affect us whether or not we are aware of the impact.”
  • Be Engaged
    • When we are engaged in what we are doing we fall into a “flow state”. This state allows us “to extract more from what it is we are doing” and with this …we derive actual, measureable hedonic value from the strength of our active involvement in and attention to an activity, even if the activity is as boring as sorting through stacks of mail. If we have a reason to do it, a reason that engages us and makes us involved, we will both do it better and feel happier as a result.
    • There is nothing required of you and you can get by with minimal effort, however, if you want to grow and observe effectively you must be engaged this means, take control of your default mode.
      • “…An observant mind, an attentive mind, is a present mind. It is a mind that isn’t wandering. It is a mind that is actively engaged in whatever it is that it happens to be doing.”
  • Imagination:
    • Imagination entails space to allow your mind to create connections between your observations; connections that may or may not exist in actuality.
    • “…It’s not a restatement of the facts, nor is it a simple line from A to B that can be drawn without much thought. It is your own synthesis and creation. Think of imagination as a kind of essential mental space in your attic, where you have the freedom to work with various contents but don’t yet have to commit to any storage or organizational system, where you can shift and combine and recombine and mess around at will and not be afraid of disturbing the main attic’s order or cleanliness in any way”
  • Create Distance to facilitate Imaginative thinking
    • “…all of these distances have something in common: they require you to transcend the immediate moment in your mind. They all require you to take a step back.”
    • Distancing allows you to take a step back and see the problem with less reactivity and an even perspective; the Holmes mind. With a more general perspective you are able to see both the concrete specific pieces and the overall picture distinctly. Seeing how they fit together is the role of distancing. 
      • Distancing Through Unrelated Activity
        • “A Three Pipe Problem” – Switch your attention from the one you are trying to solve to something unrelated. What you attend to must be the right activity – something engaging enough to completely absorb your attention but allow your mind to relax.
        • Take a walk in nature
      • Distancing Through Actual Distance
        • Changing our location cues us to think differently. Our mind slips into habitual modes of thought, stimulated by our associated environments, thus, a change in location will allow us to find a space without these habits in place. 
      • Distancing Through Mental Techniques
        • Use visualization and meditation to imagine different situations/scenarios and create the requisite distance to connect your observations
        • “…the essence of visualization: learning to look internally, to create scenarios and alternatives in your mind, to play out non realities as if they were real”
  • Sustain Your Imagination
    • Don’t fear creativity or dismiss potentially distracting facts and information. Be open minded about learning new information or connecting facts/observations in uncommon ways. Your “brain attic” should never become static.

Part Three: The Art of Deduction

  • Beware the fickleness of memory. Create a question you wish to answer and then work to separate the crucial and incidental facts.
    • “…the first step toward successful deduction: the separation of those factors that are crucial to your judgement from those that are just incidental, to make sure that only the truly central elements affect your decision”
    • Lay out the facts: Restate the facts outloud.
      • “…stating something through, out loud, forces pauses and reflection. It mandate mindfulness. It forces you to consider each premise on its logical merits and allows you to slow down your thinking so that you do not blunder…It ensures that you do not let something that is of real significance go by simply because it didn’t catch your attention enough or fit with the causal story that you have already created in your head. It allows your inner Holmes to listen and forces your Watson to pause. It allows you to confirm that you’ve actually understood, not just thought you understood because it seemed right”
  • Recognize that our own personal past experiences guide our reasoning and what we perceive to be possible. This acts as a prism through which we perceive or anticipate future possibilities.
    • “…Our repertoire becomes an anchor of sorts; it is our reasoning starting point, our place of departure for any further thoughts. And even if we try to adjust from our egocentric perspective, we tend not to adjust nearly enough to matter, remaining stubbornly skewed in a self-directed approach. It’s our storytelling proclivity in another guise: we imagine stories based on the one’s we’ve experienced, not the ones we haven’t.”
  • Proceed slowly, be aware of our natural tendencies of mind, and try to approach each scenario and every decision with a fresh and clear mind. 
  • Beware of complacency and the dulling of the mind that comes with overconfidence
    • “…The best thing you can do is to acknowledge that you, too, will inevitably stumble, be it from stagnation or overconfidence, its closely related near opposite (I say near because overconfidence creates the illusion of movement, as opposed to habitual stagnation, but that movement isn’t necessarily taking you anywhere), and to keep on learning”
  • Keep learning and take every opportunity to learn something new or refine what you have already learned
    • “Our education might stop, if we so choose. Our brain never does. The brain will keep reacting to how we decide to use it. The difference is not whether or not we learn, but what and how we learn. We can learn to be passive, to stop, to, in effect, not learn, just as we can learn to be curious, to search, to keep educating ourselves about things that we didn’t even know we needed to know. If we follow Holmes’s advice, we teach our brains to be active. If we don’t, if we’re content, if we get to a certain point and decide that that point is good enough, we teach them the opposite.”

Part Four: The Science and Art of Self Knowledge

  • Know Yourself – And Your Environment
    • What am I bringing to the table? What default mode of thinking am I likely to fall into?
      • Pause and reflect and frame specific goals.
      • “What do I want to accomplish? And what does that mean for my future thought process?”
  • Observe – Carefully and Thoughtfully
    • Take in all the details but refrain from judging or jumping ahead to deduction
  • Imagine – Remembering to Claim the Space You May Not Think You Need
    • Take a step back from the situation whether distancing yourself mentally or physically. 
    • Take time to reflect and use your imagination prior to moving forward. Allow your mind to associate details and facts that may not be apparent in the immediate situation.
  • Deduce – Only from What You’ve Observed, and Nothing More
    • Do not deduce past what the evidence suggests. Keep it simple and replay the facts outloud.
  • Learn – From Your Failures Just as You Do from Your Successes
    • Reflect and recognize what default thought processes may have lead to a failure.
    • Record your decisions to illustrate this process further
  • “…The most powerful mind is the quiet mind. It is the mind that is present, reflective, mindful of its thoughts and its state. It doesn’t often multitask, and when it does, it does so with a purpose”
  • The Mindset of a Hunter
    • Ever-ready attention: “…always being ready to go on alert, when the circumstances warrant it, but not squandering your energy needlessly when they don’t”
    • Environmental Appropriateness: Know which methods fit the circumstances. There is no one size fits all.
    • Adaptability: Change your approach when necessary
    • Acknowledging Limitations: Recognize your limitations and adapt to mitigate them
    • Cultivating Quiet: Guard your attention in order to keep it sharp. 
    • Constant Vigilance: Beware of routine and complacency

Diving Deep

Let this serve as a reminder for myself to fill “the unforgiving minute” with sixty seconds worth of distance run.

Diving Deep means layering my experiences, learning deeply about topics, and researching things and places I wish to explore. Chronicling this experiment could help others but personally it will reinforce my decisions and galvanize me to adhere to my own principles of living fully.

Now, how can I Dive Deep?

  • Where are you?
    • Can you read about your location’s history?
    • Is your family connected to it?
    • How was it formed?
  • Who am I?
    • Where are my people from?
    • How did they impact the land that I currently inhabit? The country I live in?

Sitting with simple questions like these can propel you to learn more, instantly. The knowledge gained is never wasted and will serve to add another layer to your experience.

Blessing the Totem

What makes this totem special?

By itself, the totem was nothing. Neither an ancient relic, nor a divine tool.

Like before, the boy searched for the tutor for guidance but remembered he was on his own.

The totem and the significance of it rested on him.


What could make this significant? How could I make this strengthen me in times of trial?



The mountain trail extended in front of the boy. He knew trials lay ahead and he was confident now but the speed with which he fell into darkness frightened him.

“How can I go on when it is so easy for me to fall?” The boy thought to himself.

The totem, a familiar weight now, sat in the boys pocket. The boy began to walk again.




The Totem

Fire burned in the boy’s eyes as he descended the mountain path.

The Tutor had mentioned an item, an item that would protect the boy in times of trial. This item is what the boy was searching for now.

But alas, the boy sought and sought to no avail and the boy began to lose hope. With his hopelessness came fear and with fear apathy. Soon the boy stopped in his tracks and would not descend any further. Time inched by and no tutor appeared to help the boy.

The boy inched slowly towards defeat. Clouds moved in over the mountains. A familiar grey started to creep towards the boy.


I feel lost sometimes and sometimes the night is especially dark. I am lucky to have found someone who brings light to my life. But I also need strength, strength to fight the shadows on my own.


A wind rustled the green grass against the boy’s feet. His gaze turned and before him the token appeared.

A simple object.

The token serves as a gentle reminder:

  • Remember the tutor: You are not alone and someone is always watching.
  • Remember your mission: Are you living fully?







The Tutor

Who was the man? What had he said to the boy?

The boy walked down the path, leaving the trees behind. An emerging sunlight still illuminated the tops of the trees ahead. Warm colors of red, yellow, and orange transformed a green canopy into a golden ceiling.

The boy marveled at the sharp contrast the image before him made compared to the dull grey of his life before.

He thought back to the world he left, to the life he left. A life with no color and no sound.

Memories flooded back. Memories empty of joy or sorrow.

He shook his head and he emerged back on the mountain path.


“The man in the woods – why had his words moved me so?” The boy thought to himself. “The ideal the man spoke of, how shall I reach it?”


On the path, the boy noticed a figure wrapped in aged rags.

As he drew closer, the man stood up and the boy recognized him; the tutor.


Before he could speak the man held up his hand. He pointed down the path to the mountains beyond and he spoke again of an ideal.

The boy was ashamed of his doubt and drew closer to the man.


Do not doubt yourself” he said. “What you seek is down this path. Though you cannot see it’s end, you draw nearer with each step.”

But me, a knight?” the boy sighed.

Yes, you have died once. You are now tasked to live purposefully. The ideal you seek must be worked for. It requires dedication and sacrifice.”

But how can I do this? I do not know the way”

I shall guide you. I am always watching. Think of me in moments of doubt and I shall appear.”


The tutor stepped back from the boy and once again pointed down the mountain path.




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Obituary and Origin

“Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path…”

Dante Alighieri


The boy had lead a shadow of a life. A life of sloth and idleness. No breeze ever shook his sails; caught in an everlasting doldrums. He wanted more but could never muster the momentum to get where he wanted to be. A life lived in shadow.

So he died. No ceremony, no tears. Just death.

With his death, the shadow disappeared and the boy awoke in a familiar woods; surrounded by tall trees and a carpet of green moss. The boy looked up and noticed a shaft of light peaking through the trees.

A golden light.

He had been in this woods before but the light had never been so brilliant. It danced across the tree trunks, pooling in scattered splashes across the moss floor. A smile crept across the boys face.

Then he noticed it. Tucked gently against the base of a large tree was a small stone. The boy’s name was scratched across the top and the bottom read “Remember that you have to die.”

He got up from the floor to inspect the stone when a voice pierced the silent woods.

He called himself the tutor. The boy couldn’t make out his image but immediately respected his presence. Whether it be the words he spoke or how the man held himself, the boy knew to listen. The boy had found what he desperately needed; a teacher.

As the man talked he helped raise the boy to his feet. Each word resonated with the boy and they began walking together. Before they left, the man pointed at the stone and again the boy read the words “Remember that you have to die.”

Memento Mori

The man talked for what seemed like days and all the while they walked until they came to a clearing. The light still filtered through the trees when the man stopped talking. He nodded once and turned to return to the woods.

The boy was on his own again but knew what had to be done.

The tutor had spoken of a legend and an ideal. An ideal that burned brightly in the boys heart now.

Ahead of him were mountains and a path. The boy knew he was to take the path on his own and this caused him to stop. Doubt began to flood his mind when he stopped and remembered the image of the stone. A stone that read his name.






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