Maria Konnikova is the author of the New York Times bestseller, MASTERMIND: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. She writes the weekly “Literally Psyched” column for Scientific American, where she explores the intersection of literature and psychology, and formerly wrote the popular psychology blog “Artful Choice” for Big Think. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Observer, WIRED, Scientific American MIND, and Scientific American, among other publications. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government, and is currently a doctoral candidate in Psychology at Columbia University. Before returning to school, she worked as a producer for the Charlie Rose show on PBS. She lives in New York City.
Here is an excerpt from my interview of her. To read the complete interview, please click here.
* * *
Morris: When and why did you decide to write MASTERMIND?
Konnikova: It grew our of a series of pieces I wrote for Big Think and Scientific American, called “Lessons from Sherlock Holmes.” I stumbled on the idea of using the Holmes stories to illustrate a few psychological concepts—and it clicked into place. The more research I did, the more convinced I became that it would make for a good lens for a book on the mind.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Konnikova: I never realized before just how frequently I multitask and how often my focus strays from my writing. Writing MASTERMIND made me confront my media-tetherdness, so to speak.
Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?
Konnikova: Surprisingly, it doesn’t. I basically followed my initial outline and proposal.
Morris: What are the defining characteristics of “mindful thought”?
Konnikova: Mindful thought is just a way to describe presence of mind: a mind that is focused on the present moment and is able to both acknowledge and dismiss any internal or external distractions that may arise.
Morris: You suggest that for Sherlock Holmes, “mindful presence is just a first step.” Please explain.
Konnikova: To Holmes, mindfulness isn’t an end in itself. It’s a means toward the type of clear thinking that allows him to tackle problems, solve cases, catch criminals. Sure, he gets all of the benefits of mindfulness—mental sharpness, emotional benefits, and the like—but they are by-products and not the end goal. Mindfulness is the prerequisite starting point for the type of thinking he needs to engage in to become—and remain—the world’s best consulting detective.
Morris: In various films about Holmes, especially those featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the character Dr. John H. Watson’s primary function seems to provide comic relief. Sometimes he asks questions that many of those who watch the film have. In your opinion, what is his primary function in the works of fiction written by Arthur Conan Coyle?
Konnikova: He is decidedly not comic relief—although you must admit, Holmes’s quips at Watson’s expense are fairly hilarious. Watson is a worthy companion; remember, he is a trained medical doctor and not just a random who-knows-what. He helps Holmes clarify and sharpen his thinking, helps him avoid the pitfalls of reasoning to which even the greatest detective is prone, and sometimes even serves as the source of a key insight (or reprimand) that will solve the case.
Morris: What are the most significant differences between System Watson and System Holmes?
Konnikova: For those who have read Daniel Kahneman’s wonderful Thinking Fast and Slow, the difference is simple. Watson is System 1, and Holmes, System 2. System Watson is the fast, natural, largely effortless, reflexive system. System Holmes is the slow, largely effortful, reflective system. The one frees up our cognitive resources for other things; the other, takes them up for deeper reflection.
Morris: Early in the book, on Page 21 to be specific, you observe, “To Sherlock Homes, the world has become by default a pink elephant world.” Please explain.
Konnikova: It’s my way of illustrating a concept that dates back to the work of philosophers like Spinoza and that has more recently been explored by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert. In order to understand something, we must first believe it. Only then can we disbelieve. So, if I say “pink elephant,” you must for a brief instant visualize an actual pink elephant, before your brain jumps in to say that that’s a false statement and pink elephants don’t actually exist. The pink elephant is an egregious case; obviously, it is false. But in real life, false statements get past our correction radar all the time: we believe it and then never take the time to disbelieve. And so, our minds become populated by pink elephants. Holmes is skeptical from the get-go. No matter how innocuous something may sound, he questions it with the same severity.
Morris: I have read most of the research results produced by K. Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University and am aware of the need to supplement mindful motivation with brutal training: deep, deliberate “practice, practice, practice” for (on average) at least 10,000 hours under expert and strict supervision. Here’s my question: Is that what is required to master the Holmes methodology? Please explain.
Konnikova: Yes, that is certainly part of it, as I say repeatedly. Nothing comes without practice, and Holmes has been honing his methodology for years and years. We can’t expect to catch up right away. That said, no, we don’t need 10,000 hours to begin to change the way we think and approach the world. We don’t have to become first-class detectives; just more mindful thinkers.
* * *
To read the complete interview, please click here.
Maria cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
Her blog at Scientific American
Her Amazon page
Here is a brief excerpt from an interview of Chip Heath co-conducted by Lenny T. Mendonca and Matt Miller. It was featured in The McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete interview, check out a wealth of free online resources, and learn more about the firm, please click here.
* * *
The key to effective communication: make it simple, make it concrete, and make it surprising.
The ability to craft and deliver messages that influence employees, markets, and other stakeholders may seem like a mysterious talent that some people have and some don’t. Jack Welch, for example, created ideas that inspired hundreds of thousands of GE employees. But many other leaders are frustrated to find that key messages sent one day are forgotten the next—or that stakeholders don’t know how to interpret them.
Why do some ideas succeed while others fail? Chip Heath, professor of organizational behavior in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, has spent the past decade seeking answers to that question. His research has ranged from the problem of what makes beliefs—urban legends, for instance—survive in the social marketplace of competing ideas to experiments that show how winning ideas emerge in populations, businesses, and other organizations. Earlier this year Heath published his findings in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, written with his brother, Dan, who founded a business that specializes in this very subject.
In July 2007 Chip Heath spoke with Lenny Mendonca, a director in McKinsey’s San Francisco office; Matt Miller, an adviser to McKinsey; and Parth Tewari, who was then a Sloan fellow at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, about the key principles for making an idea “stick” and how executives can use them to communicate more successfully. The conversation took place at Stanford.
The Quarterly: Let’s start by defining success. What is a sticky idea?
Chip Heath: A sticky idea is one that people understand when they hear it, that they remember later on, and that changes something about the way they think or act. That is a high standard. Think back to the last presentation you saw. How much do you remember? How did it change the decisions you make day to day?
Leaders will spend weeks or months coming up with the right idea but then spend only a few hours thinking about how to convey that message to everybody else. That’s a tragedy. It’s worth spending time making sure that the lightbulb that has gone on inside your head also goes on inside the heads of your employees or customers
The Quarterly: Give us an example of a sticky idea.
Chip Heath: John F. Kennedy, in 1961, proposed to put an American on the moon in a decade. That idea stuck. It motivated thousands of people across dozens of organizations, public and private. It was an unexpected idea: it got people’s attention because it was so surprising—the moon is a long way up. It appealed to our emotions: we were in the Cold War and the Russians had launched the Sputnik space satellite four years earlier. It was concrete: everybody could picture what success would look like in the same way. How many goals in your organization are pictured in exactly the same way by everyone involved?
My father worked for IBM during that period. He did some of the programming on the original Gemini space missions. And he didn’t think of himself as working for IBM—he thought of himself as helping to put an American on the moon. An accountant who lived down the street from us, who worked for a defense contractor, also thought of himself as helping to put an American on the moon. When you inspire the accountants you know you’re onto something.
* * *
To read the complete interview, please click here.
Chip Heath is a Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. His research examines why certain ideas – ranging from urban legends to folk medical cures, from Chicken Soup for the Soul stories to business strategy myths – survive and prosper in the social marketplace of ideas. His research has appeared in a variety of academic journals, and popular accounts of his research have appeared in Scientific American, the Financial Times, the Washington Post,BusinessWeek, Psychology Today, and Vanity Fair. He lives in Los Gatos, California. He has co-authored two books with his brother Dan: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die and Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.
Lenny Mendonca is a director in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, and Matt Miller is an adviser to McKinsey. The co-authors wish to acknowledge the contributions of Parth Tewari, who helped initiate and shape this interview. Tewari recently left Stanford to become the India director of TechnoServe (a nonprofit organization that helps create business solutions to fight poverty), where he is using these ideas to shape his communications.