3 Timeless Lessons on Structuring Your Thinking from Sherlock Holmes
“If you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark—nothing happens. You can have all the brainpower in the world, but you have to be able to transmit it.” — Warren Buffett
Much of your progress in your career depends on your ability to communicate your ideas and thoughts in ways that get things done.
If you struggle with this, it’s not because you lack a vocabulary that rivals an author’s. It’s more likely that you cannot convey your thoughts lucidly enough for your listener or reader to understand. This often is a result of being unable to structure your own thoughts.
Structured thinking is about breaking a problem into simpler parts, methodically addressing each of them, and piecing them together to achieve the outcome. It helps you develop clarity in thinking and communication.
Without the ability to structure your thinking, you’ll struggle to recreate your ideas in someone else’s mind. You’ll complicate things to the level that working on them becomes unsustainable. You’ll wander aimlessly, with no idea about what you’re doing or what you want to do.
All this means you’ll struggle to make meaningful progress or create a favorable impression of yourself in the minds of your peers, seniors, or prospects. Can you imagine what this does for your career?
Let’s visualize what structuring thoughts means. Say you get on a call with someone you admire and tell them:
I want to learn from you.
That’s vague. What should they teach you? And will it be useful for you? What if they want to teach you calculus? Or how the limited slip-differential works in a Lamborghini? Or how the derivatives market works when you don’t even know how to read a balance sheet?
When you deploy structured thinking, here’s what comes out:
I want to know how you moved ahead in your career. Which skills do you feel people need to thrive in the present and future? And how would you suggest someone builds them?
The answers to these questions will break a large challenge—your career— into smaller parts—skillsets, network building, productivity habits— and help you figure out how to address each of them. When you piece these parts together, your larger goal gets achieved.
Like any skill, you can improve your structured thinking with practice. Here are three tips to help you do it from the probably the most qualified person on the subject: Sherlock Holmes.
1. Think Backward
Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the results would be… There are few people, who, however, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. —Sherlock Holmes
When Holmes talked about reasoning backward, that’s what he meant.
Backward reasoning involves considering a desirable future and then asking yourself, “What must happen before that?”, over and over again until you reach the present moment.
Say you want to revise your corporate website. The easiest way is to copy your competitor’s template, tweak their content, sprinkle a few keywords, and forget about it.
But when you think backward, you’ll first ask, “What do we want the website to do?” Do you want it to generate traffic and leads? Do you want it to assure your customers that you’re a trustworthy brand?
Once you know the desirable result, you’ll ask, “What must happen before that?” There is no right answer, but here are some examples: Your website should be easy to navigate and answer visitors’ most pressing questions upfront. This means you should know your target audience’s needs, for which you’ll have to speak to customers and run a few Google searches.
Now that you have a fair idea of the steps involved, it’s easier to start working and solve each problem as it comes up.
But figuring out the steps requires prior knowledge of how things work. This is why you must educate yourself.
2. Educate Yourself
“Education never ends, Watson. It’s a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.” — Sherlock Holmes
Education doesn’t end when you get out of college. In fact, it begins after you forget what you learned at school. True education prepares you for challenges you haven’t faced. It exposes you to answers to questions you haven’t even thought of.
True education stocks your mind with powerful tools that make you smarter. At the same time, it humbles you because you realize that everything you know is but a drop in the ocean.
For the world’s most powerful minds like Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Oprah, self-education is a ritual. Make it a part of your daily routine too. If you’re not an avid reader, watch one TED or Khan Academy video, or listen to one podcast each day.
An equally useful approach is to follow Bill Gates’ technique to address problems. Ever since he was a teenager, Gates would ask himself,
“Who has dealt with this challenge nicely? And what can we learn from them?”
He used these two questions to tackle significant challenges at Microsoft and still uses them to search for answers to help overcome the COVID—19 pandemic.
Most of the problems you face have been solved by someone. Search for those answers instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. You’ll discover that even complex questions have simple, tried-and-tested solutions.
Expand your horizons beyond your field. If you’re a content writer, learn about human psychology, behavioral economics, and keyword research, along with the physics of writing. Your mind will connect seemingly unrelated dots and stretch your thinking.
Careful though. It’s easy to feel complacent after gaining a little knowledge and end up using the wrong tools. Like a hammer on glass, a scalpel to suture a wound, or a permanent marker when you should use a pencil.
This is why a little knowledge is dangerous, and why you should filter your first impressions.
3. Examine Your First Impressions
“The greatest sign of an ill-regulated mind is to believe things because you wish them to be so.” — Louis Pasteur
Most of our first impressions stem from the limbic brain, the part that stores our memories and emotions. The limbic brain served us well during the early days of evolution. Our hunter-forager ancestors fled when they spotted a predator rather than rationalizing their thoughts. They avoided eating poisonous fruits instead of conducting experiments. Thus, the limbic brain played a critical role in the survival and growth of our species.
But if you’re reading this, bright chances are you face no dearth of food and face far less danger than our early biped ancestors. During such times, letting emotions dominate logic and reason is a step in the backward direction.
When emotions run amok, we assume what we want to be true, to be true. Instead of curiosity, we let the fear of missing out and the desire to win others’ approval dictate what we know. And we take knee-jerk steps that make matters worse.
Let’s return to the example of building your corporate website. Say you’ve spoken to customers and collected insights from them to draft better content. But which customers did you speak to?
Did you speak to the loudest and latest customers? Did you only pay attention to what you wanted to hear?
Without examining your own impressions, you could fall in the dangerous trap of thinking your customers are ignorant. Or you could take the easy way out and draft generic website content like your competitors. Or you could put the entire website revision project on hold indefinitely.
But when you put your impressions to the test, you try to interpret the meaning behind your customers’ first impressions. You collect more data to avoid overreacting or overcompensating based on a single surprising response. All this doesn’t just help you collect better insights for your content; it also helps you collect better insights for your business.
This isn’t a call to dismiss your emotions. It’s a request to examine them through the lens of reason and logic. Go deeper. Ask yourself whether your actions will contribute to the desired outcome or whether they might send you down the wrong rabbit hole.
To get better at critical thinking, start by observing and interpreting daily events around you. Formulate “why, what, how, when, where, who” questions. Gather information and apply it. Consider the implications and explore other points of view.
Here’s an example. Most people believe that the government should regulate fuel prices according to global crude prices. Let’s assume the government gives in and slashes fuel prices drastically. In the short term, everyone is happy. But what are the long-term implications?
Reduced fuel prices will lead to more people driving their own cars to work, which will increase not just traffic, but also fuel consumption. To meet the latter’s demand, the government has to import more crude oil, which impacts the country’s fiscal deficit—the difference between its imports and exports. Then, when crude prices skyrocket, it won’t just affect the common man’s pockets; it’ll also bleed the government coffers. This will lead to inflation. Investments will dry up, jobs will disappear, prices will rise.
Thus, in the long term, regulating fuel prices according to the fluctuating global market could lead to disaster.
Don’t learn because you want to believe, learn because you want to know. Stock your library with tools that work in the real world, and keep sharpening them as your thinking evolves.
The ability to structure your thinking doesn’t get built overnight. Like every skill, it takes time. Work on it every day by following three simple steps:
- Think backward from the desired goal. Keep asking yourself, “What should happen before that?”, until you reach the present moment.
- Make self-education a habit. Read books, watch videos, and listen to podcasts to expose yourself to new ideas that stretch your mind.
- Don’t get swayed by first impressions. Put them to the test by passing them through the filters of truth, reason, and logic.
When you can structure your thinking, you get in control of your thoughts. You know how to think, which empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think. One day, it’ll turn into your superpower.
How will you start building this superpower today?
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