Mastermind Book CoverThe past few months have found me swamped with work. And then I had a severe seasonal allergy attack that left me without energy for a few days last week. I can’t believe it’s Thursday afternoon already this week.

I’m just not seeing a lot of news lately. It was so bad that I asked a friend at a PR agency if I had dropped off their list. “No,” she said, “there just hasn’t been much news.”

A lot of training I’ve had in manufacturing is about how to think. Take a look at some of the facets of Lean training: getting away from your desk and observing; asking “why” five times; imagining the process.

That intrepid character from the fertile mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of the nineteenth century has suddenly become popular again showing off his unique skills of thinking. There have been a couple Sherlock Holmes movies, some BBC mini-series, and an American TV drama, “Elementary.”

Science/psychology writer Maria Konnikova has leveraged the resurgence of popularity with readable, yet deep dive, into Holmes’ mind. “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes” should be the essential reading of today’s young engineers much like “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was for a previous generation. It’s a guidebook on thinking and problem solving.

She talks about how we start out “thinking like Watson”, that is, seeing but not observing. “What Holmes is really telling Watson when he contrasts seeing and observing is to never mistake mindlessness for mindfulness, a passive approach with active involvement.”

Just like we would train an engineer to pay attention to facts and processes when troubleshooting a manufacturing problem, Konnikova says, “Choice of attention–to pay attention to this and ignore that–is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences. As Ortega y Gasset said: ‘Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are.’ ”

So how can we train our brains to think like Holmes? This question occupies Konnikova’s book, and her answer can be summed up in one word: mindfulness. Mindfulness is “staying in the present moment and learning how to concentrate and how to focus your mind so that it really can avoid any distractions, can avoid anything that might kind of get it off track.”

This “scientific method of mind” makes use of the brain as an “attic” in the sense that the space in the brain is a finite resource. To think like Sherlock you need to optimize your mental resources and then figure out how you can take the things you’ve stored and access them in a way where you can “see the bigger picture and not just these random components” that you put there.

Sherlock Holmes is what you would describe as a lifelong learner. The scientific method doesn’t have an end. “It’s going to be a constant feedback loop,” Konnikova tells us. Sherlock approaches a situation with a prepared mindset, but his method requires thousands and thousands of hours of practice. Our brains have an extraordinary ability to grow and expand. The key to thinking like Sherlock is to train your brain in ways that expand your imagination.

But this whole process is much more than attention to detail (the right details) and accessing your “attic” storehouse of information.

To make everything work, you must have powers of imagination. You must quiet the mind and let the imagination go to work weeding out the obviously bad answers and then combining the remaining facts into new ways that eventually lead to a solution.

Konnikova concludes with this very important thought, “If you get only one thing out of this book, it should be this: 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.”

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