Category : Think Like

Office Politics Smart Thinking Strategic Thinking Think Like

How to Think Like Harvey Specter

(Originally Published: 31/08/2014, Updated: 03/03/2016)

If you’ve seen Suits, then you know why I’ve chosen to focus on Harvey Specter over Mike Ross. As impressive as Mike Ross’s photographic memory is, it’s not something that can be developed to the extent displayed on the show. Harvey Specter, on the other hand, has a whole bunch of skills and traits which can be learned.

The first thing you notice about Harvey is his incredible confidence and self-surety. He doesn’t apologise for being himself, he’s just Harvey and with that confidence he is able to make people questions their own thoughts and opinions, a valuable skill for a lawyer.

Confidence is quite simply being sure about something. Harvey is sure about himself, his abilities and his opinion – he’s all kinds of awesome and he knows it. Of course, this translates as cockiness in some situations, but most people around him just accept that’s who Harvey is. His confidence allows him to stay calm in troubling situations and Harvey only really shows his true feelings when he’s with Donna, Jessica or Mike, never in front of the opposition or his clients.

What allows Harvey to be so confident? Well, he is a great lawyer, but he has a number of skills at his disposal which make him feel at ease.

Reading People

Chiefly, he is skilled at reading people. I don’t mean the Sherlock Holmes, “I can tell what you had for breakfast last week because of the shoes you’re wearing.” but he is very good at finding doubt, conflict or any other little emotions in a person’s speech, facial expressions or general demeanor. Harvey always knows when someone is bluffing and knowing that makes it easy for him to call bluffs and to bluff himself.

If you know most of the time what other people are thinking and you have a good idea of how they will react, you’ll feel pretty confident in understanding how a situation will play out and you can plan for that.

Luckily, reading people is a skill that can be learned. Expert behaviour investigator, Vanessa Van Edwards, has built a fantastic online course The Secrets of Body Language which will give you a solid foundation in understanding and body language. I also advise picking up one of the following 2 books:

Combined with The Secrets of Body Language course and a little practice, you’ll soon be spotting deception left, right and centre and going all-in with Harvey at his next poker game. Harvey is an expert at watching people and getting inside their heads.

Once he knows what you’re thinking, Harvey will have a plan to use it against you. Time and again Harvey says:

I don’t play the odds, I play the man.

Harvey understands motivation and psychology well enough that he able to use any snippet of emotion or information they give away against them – good lawyers worry about facts, great lawyers worry about their opponents. Once you understand your opponents, you can start using their own actions and emotions against themselves.

Harvey’s skill also serves as a strong foundation for his confidence. Confidence is simply the state of being sure about something. Usually, this is surety about the outcome of an event, for example, an attractive man may be confident that his advances will be welcomed or well-received by the lady he is approaching. Or a marketer may be confident about the strategy he has chosen because he knows how it will play out. This surety comes from experience. When you get home, you’re pretty confident that your toilet will be in the bathroom and not on the roof. Harvey is sure of his skills because they have been honed and tested repeatedly over a long and successful career.


Harvey also has a very strategic mind, Jessica Pearson is referred to multiple times, by multiple characters as the chess master, but Harvey isn’t too far behind. Unless it gives him an advantage or based on a reaction allows him to learn something about his opposition, Harvey will never reveal his strategy or what he knows. He understands how each person thinks and operates and is strategic in who he shares information with – having a good idea of how they will use that information. He knows that sharing your silver bullet, just to wipe the smile off the face of your gloating opponent, while satisfying would be giving away your advantage and cutting yourself off at the knees.

Study of strategy has existed for thousands of years, with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War being one of the earliest written texts. There are a wealth of texts on the subject of strategy, the majority dealing with military, political and business applications. The following books are arguably the best modern books on the subject:

  • Good Strategy/Bad Strategy – While geared toward business situations, this is the greatest (non-textbook) book on strategy I’ve ever read – it looks at what strategy is and how to form them using a myriad of relevant examples.
  • Predatory Thinking – This book by adman Dave Trott teaches strategy through anecdotes and examples allowing you to see real world applications of strategy.
  • The 48 Laws Of Power –  A wonderful combination of political and military strategy, this best-seller by Robert Greene delves into strategy with a number of brilliant famous and lesser-known historical examples.
  • The 33 Strategies Of War – With the success of his first book, Greene penned another manual focusing purely on military strategy. He studied and observed as many facets of the discipline as he could find and grouped them together into 33 strategies.
  • Strategy: A History – At 767  pages, This book is the bible of strategy and gives a brilliant overview of the most prominent strategic theories in history, from David’s use of deception against Goliath – to the modern use of game theory in economics. 
  • It might also be an idea to do some reading up on office politics as the subject tends to explore how to deal with different types of people to get the results you want.

With this combination of qualities, its no wonder he is so successful. But his abilities are only a small part of why he is so respected and why Louis Litt, an excellent attorney himself, is always chasing Harvey’s approval. Why he may be cocky and sometimes viewed as emotionless, he has a certain outlook that gains him the admiration of everyone around him.

Behaviour and Principles

3 things make Harvey stand out straight away:


Harvey has a sense of style; he’s always clean, well-groomed and well-dressed. It doesn’t matter whether he’s at work, at the gym, or at home. Harvey understands that that appearance affects not only how other people see you, but can have a huge impact on your own confidence and mood.

People respond to how we’re dressed, so like it or not this is what you have to do.


Harvey is a smooth talker, he likes innuendo and is a master of sarcasm. Both his confidence and his appearance help him with this, but his flirtatious style is what wins clients and colleagues over. He always manages to tell incredibly cheesy jokes and they hit every time.


Harvey is ALWAYS calm, he always seems to have a plan and his calmness, when the shit hits the fan, inspires others and positions him as the leader everyone looks to. Louis Litt is always trying to impress Harvey, but his ego, short temper and lack of control always derail his efforts to emulate Harvey’s easy-going behaviour.

Harvey adept at combining all the above, his suave talk, his boldness and knowledge of the other person’s desires to be an excellent negotiator. Most of his initial on-screen negotiations tend to go awry – the show needs to be exciting after all. However the negotiations we don’t see tell us more than the ones we do – because they went so well that there’s no story to tell. Negotiation is a skill and can, of course, be learned from any of the hundreds of books on the subject.

But aside for his confidence, suaveness and eloquence, Harvey is admired most for always taking responsibility for his work and his team.

This is, unfortunately, a very rare quality and I’m sure we can all point to multiple people in our work and personal life, for whom the problem is never their fault. Not so for Mr. Specter.

No matter what the reason, if Harvey fails or messes things up or even if the mistake is not his own (I’m looking at you Mr. Ross), he always makes himself accountable.

When you screwed up that patent and Wyatt went apesh*t on me, I didn’t put that on you, I took it on myself, because that’s my job.

It doesn’t matter whether he’s talking to Jessica, a client or Donna, he holds his hands up and says: “I can fix this.” A person who is able to hold their hands up and say, “I made a mistake, here is my plan to fix it.” is a diamond to have in the workplace. All too often people spend their energy pointing fingers and trying to shift the blame (e.g. Louis Litt) – Harvey spends his energy trying to fix the problem.

While he may seem arrogant and heartless, Harvey Specter is in fact quite an emotional person, but he’s able to channel those emotions into his work; happiness boosts his confidence and his people-skills, anger gives him energy and stress sharpens his focus.

As the series has gone on, it’s clear that even with Mike Ross’s incredible memory and empathy, he is becoming a better lawyer by mimicking and learning from Harvey. By learning to read people, getting a greater understanding of strategy and taking care of your appearance and managing you behaviour, you too could see similar results to Harvey Specter and Mike Ross.

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Strategic Thinking Think Like

Think Like Frank Underwood

(Originally Published: 07/05/2015, Updated: 15/05/2016)

Frank Underwood is a fascinating character and represents the confidence, power, decisiveness and strategic mind that a lot of us, including me, wish we could emulate. Frank Underwood is a perfect example of the modern Machiavellian. For those unfamiliar with the term, it Machiavellian became popular in 1512, after Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, wrote a political treatise called The Prince (Il Principe).

The Prince details a somewhat cut-throat approach to gaining and maintaining power and a Machiavellian values political expediency over morals. They are more than willing to use deceit and fear maintain their authority and carry out their policies. It takes only a few moments observing Frank to see that his behaviour follows Machiavelli’s philosophy. Frank is willing to use any method to achieve his goals, this usually comes down to political manoeuvring bribery, blackmail, intimidation and even murder. Frank is not a nice guy, but he gets things done.

Whether you want to emulate Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian approach, or just achieve the results he does, then you need an understanding of political strategy and of how power works.

For most of us, the brand of politics that most directly affects you is the type that you experience in your social circles and the politics that affect you at work. It’s unlikely that you’re involved in national politics, the so this article will focus on adapting the approach, principles and strategies of Frank Underwood to the rest of us regular folks.

Office politics is particularly unavoidable and affects everyone, whether you get involved or not. You can either be an affected bystander or you can play the game and maybe influence your situation for the better. Most people like to “stay out” of office politics, either for moral or practical reasons, however, this doesn’t prevent you from being included in the games and if you don’t join in, you’ll have no influence over the outcomes.

If you wish to stay out of office politics, you have two choices:

  • Stay out of the “pettiness” but accept that you have little control over your environment and accept the consequences.
  • Understand how politics works and use that knowledge to minimise the negative effects from other’s involvement.

The first step to becoming active in politics is to fully understand your environment and the people in it.

Networks and Hierarchy

Every organisation has a hierarchy and every organisation has a person whose influence and power is much greater than their place on the totem pole. People with great influence also tend to attract followers and form cliques.

If you’re trying to get ahead at work, it’s a good idea to make a map of your office – what are the cliques and who really wields the influence. Just because the employee that’s been there 15 years has the same salary and title as you, don’t think that means they might not be the most important person in the office. There are official and unofficial authorities in the same way that there are official and unofficial job responsibilities.

It’s key to find out who these gatekeepers and influencers are. These are the people who you need to study. Find out who these influencers listen to and who they tend to favour. Next comes the difficult part, no matter how much you hate the action or dislike the person, you have to find a way to get in their good books. Study their behaviour and you’ll soon see the patterns that highlight what is important to that person. Tip: It’s usually feeling important and respected.

You probably have it a little easier than Frank, your office likely holds around 20-50 people. Frank has to deal with hundreds of congressmen and unfortunately, understanding the person is only part of the equation. Given that he must follow the rules of congress (and law), Frank needs a deep understanding of the policies and procedures that govern it. It’s also incredibly important to pay attention to the smallest details such as rules and policies – knowledge or lack of knowledge  can tie you up or it can free you.

Building Your Own Network

It’s clear that while having simple roots, that Frank is well-educated and has a deep knowledge of political and military history and strategy. It’s important to note however that while Frank is intelligent, formidable and a great strategist, he isn’t always the one to put in the legwork.

Cue 2 very important figures; Doug Stamper, Frank’s Director of Strategy and Claire Underwood, his wife and confidante –  at least in season 1 of the show.

Doug is a font of knowledge and seems to know something about everyone in congress and if he doesn’t already know it, you can be sure he’ll find out. Doug isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and he does some pretty sketchy things to support Frank’s bid for power. Why does he do this? Loyalty.


It’s clear that aside from his wife Claire, Doug’s is the only opinion Frank will consider. Which teaches us our first lesson. You can’t do it alone. Do not think that getting support is a weakness. While we glorify lone wolves who achieve great things alone, it’s rarely the case. Steve Jobs wasn’t a genius that built Apple on his own, neither is Bill Gates solely responsible for Microsoft’s huge success. They both had a lot of help from incredibly loyal partners, who worked out of the limelight.

If you can earn the loyalty of your team or colleagues, half the battle has already been won.

Loyalty should be encouraged and cultivated and stems from showing people respect, being consistent in your behaviour, showing trust and ALWAYS having the person’s back. Humans are wired to reciprocate and if you’ve always got someone’s back, even someone you really don’t like, it’s difficult for someone not to return that behaviour, even if it is begrudging.

This leads nicely onto how Frank builds loyalty. Key to Frank’s results is his ability to predict how people will behave and react to particular statements, actions or situations. His knowledge of this enables him to plan a chain of events which culminates in him achieving the results he wants. This doesn’t just come from thin air however. Frank and his team, mostly Doug, do their research and spend hours combing through a person’s history to get an idea of their character, analysing past behaviours and decisions to find patterns that can be used to predict future behaviours.

This works to his advantage with his staff and his adversaries, as a Machiavellian Frank often uses lies, bribery, blackmail and threats to get someone on his side. He knows exactly what buttons to press and when to press them. If used properly, you can anticipate your team’s needs and desires and support them in their endeavours. If not used properly…well, let’s leave that to Frank.

Loyalty, however, doesn’t just work for you, it can work against you and herein lies the heart of politics; influence and alliance.

With that in mind, it’s the time to learn of strategy.

Planning and Strategy

With Frank’s understanding of a person, awareness of political alliances and deep knowledge of policies and procedures, Frank is able to form plans and strategies. There are 2 elements to Frank’s strategies; prior planning and improvisation. In the very first episode, Frank explains:

We’ll have a lot of nights like this, making plans, very little sleep.

Each night Frank is diligently researching and mapping out his options and how each path might play out. He puts a lot of time and effort into trying to anticipate every way his strategy could fail and has backups in each situation. We only see the results on screen, not the days spent researching his opponents and mapping out hundreds of different options. His wife Claire also has a good grasp on strategy and is great at asking the questions which stimulate Frank’s thinking. What we see on screen, makes it seem as though Frank is all-knowing, but, in reality, he spends hour researching, consulting and pulling together an intricate web of actions designed to provoke a reaction and lead a person or group of people right where Frank wants them to go.

It sounds easy, but in his position, with access to the same information, would we be able to form the same successful strategies as Frank? Probably not, but there a wide array of resources that can build your ability to think strategically. Why plan to be one step ahead when you can be five?

The greatest modern book on political manoeuvring and Machiavellian strategy is The 48 Laws Of Power by Robert Greene. This best-seller  delves into strategy with a number of brilliant famous and lesser-known historical examples. With the success of his first book, Greene penned another manual focusing purely on military strategy, The 33 Strategies Of War which is definitely a must-read.

Image and Reputation

While it may seem materialistic and only surface-deep, appearance and demeanour plays a huge role in how people view us and behave towards us. The tie we wear and the way we stand can be the difference between respect and ridicule.

Frank has honed his body language, tone of voice and speech patterns over the years and created a persona of strength, leadership and respect. He pays attention to his physical appearance to always appear polished and in control He knows that he needs to behave in a way that projects strength and confidence, especially when dealing with people who, like him, are constantly on the lookout for weakness and opportunities.

All of the above contribute to Frank Underwood’s power. He exudes power and even those that don’t know him can sense it. (I’ve written about the sources of power in more detail if you’re interested.) Frank Underwood is a masterful politician, with a great understanding of people, policy and strategy who is willing to do anything to get what he wants. Now you know Frank’s methods, what’s stopping you from becoming the next President (or Marketing Manager)?

Recommended Reading:

  • The Ellipsis Manual: Analysis and Engineering of Human Behaviour – Written by Chase Hughes (profiling, interrogation and psychological intelligence trainer) this book is an amazing resource and his Behavioural Table of Elements is genius.
  • Peoplewatching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language – Desmond Morriss is a highly-respected zoologist and his work on body language helped build the foundations for the entire discipline.
  • The Definitive Book of Body Language: How to Read Others’ Attitudes by Their Gestures – Allan Pease has written a series of best-selling books on both body language and human interaction.
  • Good Strategy/Bad Strategy – While geared toward business situations, this is the greatest (non-textbook) book on strategy I’ve ever read – it looks at what strategy is and how to form them using a myriad of relevant examples.
  • Predatory Thinking – This book by adman Dave Trott teaches strategy through anecdotes and examples allowing you to see real world applications of strategy.
  • The 48 Laws Of Power –  A wonderful combination of political and military strategy, this best-seller by Robert Greene delves into strategy with a number of brilliant famous and lesser-known historical examples.
  • The 33 Strategies Of War – With the success of his first book, Greene penned another manual focusing purely on military strategy. He studied and observed as many facets of the discipline as he could find and grouped them together into 33 strategies.
  • Strategy: A History – At 767  pages, This book is the bible of strategy and gives a brilliant overview of the most prominent strategic theories in history, from David’s use of deception against Goliath – to the modern use of game theory in economics.
  • The Right Way to Play Chess – This 240-page book is one of the best-selling chess strategy books and if you can apply it to real-world, is great for teaching you to think 5, 6 and 7 steps ahead.
  • It might also be an idea to do some reading up on office politics as the subject tends to explore how to deal with different types of people to get the results you want.

If you’ve got any insights or opinions on how to use the skills used by Frank Underwood to further your career or success, please share them below – I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Smart Thinking Think Like

How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci

We are fascinated by people who seem to have incredible talents and intelligence and this is obvious by the number of hugely successful TV shows with incredible minds as the main characters; Da Vinci’s Demons, House, Suits, SherlockNumbers, Prison Break and quite a few others. 

Most of these TV shows however explain that characters with incredible cognitive skill were almost always born that way. Very little time goes into showing how skill was developed.

One of the oldest Psychological debates is the Nature vs. Nurture question, are we born with certain behaviours and personalities or do we develop them as we grow, influenced by our upbringing and environment.

Intelligence, like confidence is something we all wish we had a little more of, but is there a limit to how intelligent a person can be? Can someone BECOME a genius, or are they born that way?

Unlike the rest of the TV shows listDa-Vincis-Demonsed above however, Da Vinci’s Demons does hint at his learning through experimentation and Sherlock shows the titular character performing various experiments to gain his knowledge.

Historians love Leonardo, he is the world’s most revered and famed genius and there is always something new to discover about his experiences and talents.

Da Vinci however, being a historical figure has been heavily idolised and investigated. Leonardo’s genius will always come under scrutiny. Most people who have encountered Da Vinci’s vast interests and works have wondered how they could think like Da Vinci.

Luckily, Da Vinci left behind a plethora of notes and works for us to examine and and through examining his notebooks and the way he lived, author Michael J. Gelb discovered that there were 7 methods that Leonardo employed, to get the results he is famous for. Gelb calls these the 7 Da Vincian Principles:

  • Curiosita’ (Curiosity) – an insatiable curiosity
  • Dimostrazione (Demonstration) – testing knowledge through experience
  • Sensazione (Sensation) – continued refinement of the senses
  • Sfumato (Mystery) – a willingness to embrace ambiguity
  • Arte/Scienza (Art/Science) – developing a balance between art and science
  • Corporalita’ (Corporeality) – cultivating fitness and poise
  • Connessione (Connection) – recognising that all phenomena are connected.


From a young age, Leonardo was incredibly curious, famously infuriating his teachers will the sheer volume and depth of his questions. Leonardo’s curiosity led him seamlessly from one subject to another and prompted him to ask many questions and then find the answers.

Sometimes the best ideas and innovations come from asking the simple question “What if?” Imagine how the world would be if “What if we take a telephone and make it portable?” was never asked.

This is how we learn as we grow up. We explore anything we’re interested in with energy and enthusiasm. Da Vinci maintained his curiosity throughout his life prompting him to explore and experiment in many different disciplines.

Picasso once said:

All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.



He was a firm believer that everything should be tested through experience before a fact can be fully accepted (within reason). Being the son of a notary, Da Vinci was taught to read and also had access to books. He taught himself Latin and when Leonardo was interested in a subject, he would read accounts from as many field experts as he could find and then proceed to test every theory, not taking their expertise for granted.

This is something we rarely do today, if an expert says something on TV, we almost always blindly accept, because, well, they’re an expert! Obviously we can’t test everything and question every fact or theory, but within reason we should aim to test and explore things for ourselves, before accepting them.

ExperimentFundamental to Leonardo’s discoveries was the belief that all senses should be continually refined and exposed to new experiences. Every once in a while, pause when eating and focus on the texture of your food and the taste.

Do this for each of the senses aiming to expose them to one new feeling each day. Da Vinci would take notes on things that he had eaten, taking down every detail he could. This made his mind deft at noticing the smallest details, an invaluable skill in artistic and engineering pursuits.

New experiences also give our brains new building blocks for ideas, can help break stagnating though patterns. Uncommon and unexpected events promote flexible and lateral thinking.

Imagine that your brain is soil and each new experience adds nutrients to the soil. The more nutrients available and the easier it is for seeds (ideas) to plant, grow and blossom.


Mystery surrounds Leonardo and his willingness to embrace mystery and uncertainty is legendary. Just think of the Mona Lisa, because of the soft shadows around her eyes and the corners of her mouth, we can never be quite sure of what mood she is in.

Is the Mona Lisa a portrait of Isabella d’Este of Mantua as claimed by Giorgio Vasari (30 years after Leonardo’s death)? Is she a composite of all the women ever known by Da Vinci? Or is the Mona Lisa a wonderful feminised self-portrait of Leonardo himself? We’ll likely never know. It is possibly the mystery surrounding the painting that gives it such incredible value.

Did mystery increase Da Vinci’s intelligence and cognitive skill? Likely not, but it mastery control of mysery certainly made him appear to others as far more able and skilled than an ordinary man.


Leonardo is largely famous for 2 pursuits, painting and engineering. He was a huge advocate for the combination of art and science. Even before the suggestions of left-brain and right-brain thinking, Leonardo believed that a balance between the 2, a whole brain thinking method, was the best balance. One way to have use this principle (as suggested in Think Like Da Vinci) is to construct mind-maps, using pictures and words in combination.

When you think of an artist today, usually you picture a painter or a strange sculpture in the Tate modern, but back in Da Vinci’s day, artists were expected to have studied a variety of disciplines. Da Vinci’s study of such a wide range of topics was not unique, but the depth and skill he went to was.
Da-Vinci-FootIt was also using the two in tandem which led Da Vinci to his most famous inventions. He became fascinated by the human foot and it promoted him to say:

The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.

His interest in the foot led him to engineering and studying engineering drove him to investigate flight. He turned to nature  for his inspiration prompting his studying the flight and movements of birds and other animals.

For Da Vinci art and science were the same thing as one invariably inspired and influence the other.


A surprising part of Leonardo’s principles was Corporeality, fitness and grace. Leonardo was reported to have stopped a pair of horses in full gallop with his bare hands by grabbing the reigns. This is demonstrated somewhat in the TV show Da Vinci’s Demons highlighting the young artist’s ambidextrous fighting skill, his grace and his fitness.

Leonardo knew how much physical health affected mental health and was constantly improving his physique. As a skilled and experienced chef, Leonardo nutrition was also excellent.

Hundreds of studies have produced the same results that Da Vinci and countless others have known for centuries, a healthy body supports a healthy mind.

The energy that comes from keeping fit and eating right powered Da Vinci throughout his life.


The final principle is the one I believe contributes most to intelligence; Connection. The ability to see the connection and relationships between different situations is incredibly important and some people have become great simply from their ability to connect to previously unconnected ideas (e.g. Jeff Bezos with

One definition of an idea is “the new combination of existing ideas”. In marketing, the ability to create connections can separate a good marketer from a marketing maverick.

Connection is invariably linked to sensations and having new experiences, the more stimuli you take in, the more components you can connect together to produce ideas. I explore this in my post How to Think Like Don Draper.

If you want to think like Da Vinci, embodying his principles will certainly get you on the right path:

  • Curiosity
  • Demonstration
  • Sensation
  • Mystery
  • Art/Science
  • Corporeality
  • Connection

Further Reading:

If you enjoyed this post, you should definitely pick up Michael J. Gelb’s book Think Like Da Vinci: 7 Easy Steps to Boosting Your Everyday Genius, it’s a wonderful book and can really open your mind. Also, if you want to gain a better understanding of Da Vinci himself, you can pick up translations of his Notebooks for less than £10.

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Lateral Thinking Think Like

How to Think Like Don Draper

So how do you actually get ideas?

The worst thing you can do is to just sit and wait for an idea to come to you.

If your job depends on have a steady stream of ideas, you cannot wait for inspiration to hit you, you really don’t have time for that; you’re getting paid after all.

Most people believe that ideas are something that appear of their own will and that some people are naturally gifted at getting ideas. WRONG.

There is a scientific formula to getting ideas and contrary to how you would imagine – it’s pretty easy to follow.

To look at how to create ideas you first have to know what an idea is. An idea is a new combination of old components.

Ok, that’s all good and well, but how to you achieve a new combination of old components?

The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

Young believed that the ability to see relationships between facts is the key element when coming up with ideas. The ability to see relationships IS something that can be learned. And anything that can be learned can be turned into a habit.

How do you develop that ability? By living; taking an interest in your colleagues, the news, spending more time at the library, better observing your world.

I said that there was a scientific formula for creating ideas, so what is the formula? Young outlined in his book “A Technique For Producing Ideas” that it is a 5 step process. However, since he wrote that book in the 1940s, I have observed 2 additional steps which will allow you to create a feedback loop to hone your creativity. This is my:

Seven-Step Formula for Idea Generation

Step 1 – Gather information

To produce ideas, you need information. It is the main ingredient from which you make your ideas. There are 2 types of information which are relevant to this process: general and specific.

As you can guess, general information is everything you ever hear or see or read. It is the information you have collected about the world and people since you were born. This information can be referred to as general knowledge and naturally can be built upon by reading and focusing on the world you live in. Your friends, family and colleagues are the best source of general information. You will find it easy to observes their habits, how they think, behave and live.

Specific information is directly relevant to the topic about which you want an idea. This is the part that most people skip, out of boredom or whatever, but it is the most crucial part. You need to go out to the library and read all the books you can on the subject, search the internet, ask any experts you can find. If you are working for a company and they are providing you with information, that is a good start, but ALWAYS do your own research. If you are advertising a product for example, spend 1 week using that product and you will probably have all the information you need to write about it.

If you’re writing an article for a blog or magazine, you will need to collect your information from much further afield. The internet is a fantastic source of information, but be careful not to collect TOO much information otherwise step 2 will be needlessly tiring.

Step 2 – Think About It

The most common mistake people make when trying to come up with ideas is starting with step 2 instead of step 1. Step 2 is simple; think about it. Every waking second, think about how you can get all the elements from the information you have to fit together. Will a piece of specific information fit together with some general knowledge to produce a new idea? Try many different combinations using all the information you have gathered.

You will produce lots of tiny ideas, which on their own seem pretty useless. Any ideas you get, no matter how small or insignificant they might seem, write them down in a notepad. This notepad will be an archive of ideas and a wonderful reference for future projects.

Twist and turn it in your mind until you are sick to death decide you never want to hear any word that even vaguely reminds you of the subject. Now you are ready for the third step. You’ll like this one, trust me.

Step 3 – Have Fun

The third stage is to simply not think about it anymore. Let your unconscious mind work on it for a time. Go and see a film, read a good fiction book, listen to music, go for a walk, go for drinks with your friends. Do something that allows you to relax and forget the intense thinking session you just had.

The reason good ideas tend to come to people in the shower, or while shaving, are because you’re simply not thinking about it anymore. You’re concentrating on not cutting your face or washing and your subconscious mind is free to wander.

Step 4 – Eureka!

Step 4 is the stage where ideas will start to spring out of nowhere. People who you see having good ideas all the time, are just the ones that have their eureka moments in public, they have already been through the previous 3 steps.

This is the exciting time where idea will jump out at you; remembering to write them all down! The average human memory is not really that brilliant.

OK what if the brilliant ideas just don’t appear? Don’t worry, just write down any ideas you do get. Keep going, 2 of these smaller ideas might fit together nicely to make a big idea.

Step 5 – Shape and develop your idea

Now you have your basic idea, it needs to be formed, built into something real. This where your own talent is key, considering how best to present your idea – in writing, a presentation, a video etc.

Step 6 – Share your idea

Sharing your idea with your friends and colleagues will illuminate any holes in your idea and probably provide the solution in the same breath. Their comments may spark more ideas which help you further develop your idea or they may have great ideas of their own and were inspired by your original idea.

Step 7 – Rinse and repeat

Once you have your feedback, go back to step 2; using all the new information you’ve just received and add it to the information you gathered in step 1. Repeat step 2, sifting the new information with the existing. Then repeat steps 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Keep following this cycle until you have an idea you are happy with or until you hit your deadline, and have to use whatever you have created so far.

To summarise the process:

  • Gather the information
  • Think about it
  • Relax
  • Let the ideas flow
  • Shape the ideas
  • Share your ideas
  • Use the feedback to better improve your idea

You may not believe me, but not the easy part is over. You have to find something to DO with your idea and that is where your talents, skills and profession come into play.

I’d love your feedback on this process and I hope it helps you as much as it has aided me!

Further Reading:

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Logic & Reasoning Smart Thinking Think Like

How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

My first real introduction the famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, was in English class at the age of 15 with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Speckled Band. This was followed quickly by The Adventure of the Yellow Face and A Case of Identity.

I was one of the few who were completely enthralled with the detective and have maintained my interest in his methods ever since.

In 2004, Sherlock Holmes (or his skills and attitude) were revived in the form of Dr. Gregory House. Not only does House show the same deductive powers, often diagnosing patients at a glance, but he also has his trusty confidant Dr. Wilson and displays a strong belief in his own intellectual superiority. To top it off, House lives at apartment 221B.

More recently, the excellent BBC series Sherlock was broadcast in July 2009. This modern retelling featured Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson. The film Sherlock Holmes featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law followed 6 months after.

With the recent reintroduction of Sherlock Holmes into modern culture, more people than ever want to know How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

The quick wits and sharp observational skills of Sherlock Holmes are nothing short of legendary and even though he often expresses a need for his investigations to stick with facts, he would often display a remarkable reliance on his intuition. It was obvious to him that logic and intuition played an equal part in solving the mysteries presented to him.

I wouldn’t be surprised if doubt had creeped into your mind. Can a person really learn to think like Sherlock Holmes? After all be was a fictional character and the stories including all their clues and evidence were planned in advance. Of course Sherlock knew the cause, because the author did. So let’s take a look at the famed author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

He didn’t pluck Sherlock out of thin air. His creation of the beloved detective was heavily inspired by one if his mentors, surgeon Dr. Joseph Bell. Dr. Bell constantly challenged his students to use their powers of observation and demonstrated his own prowess when he was able to tell at a glance that a patient was a former NCO (non-commissioned officer) in the Highland regiment who had recently returned from service in Barbados.

You can see the influence of Dr. Bell on Sherlock as when he meets John Watson for the first time, this scenario plays out very closely. Sherlock is able to see that Watson is a former army doctor who was recently injured during service in the Middle East.

While Sherlock’s skills were slightly exaggerated for the sake of drama and impressing the reader, it IS possible to emulate these methods as they were inspired by a real person.But if one example alone isn’t enough to convince you, think about Arthur Conan Doyle himself. Doyle used the skills he wrote about to overturn the wrongful conviction of George Edalji, which was instrumental in driving the formation of the first court of appeals.

However, there are something we can’t ignore about Sherlock. Firstly, he’s a fictional character and so he abilities and the frequency in which he uses these abilities are highly exaggerated to make for a more entertaining read.

Secondly, a large part of Sherlock’s abilities is genetic. How do we know this? His elder brother Mycroft. Mycroft Holmes shows the same extraordinary talents that Sherlock does, identical in fact. Such a way of thinking and observing would be difficult to teach two children and would be acquired over a few decades.

It’s been theorised by multiple studies that intelligence is inherited and not a product of upbringing. Studies on adopted siblings who were raised in the same environment show no similarity in their levels of intelligence, whereas related twins and related siblings show much closer levels of intelligence.

Does this mean that you can’t learn to think like Sherlock? Absolutely not. Greater intelligence provides a much better opportunity for learning and using the skills, but doesn’t determine whether or not you can.

Being realistic, you won’t be solving crimes at a few glances like Sherlock, but through the eyes of your friends and colleagues, your methods will be just as impressive.

It’s also worth noting that we’re in a much better position to develop these skills than Doyle. When Doyle first created Sherlock many of the disciplines on which Sherlock’s knowledge is based were in their infancy and some things which are written in the books have since been disproved or revised.

This article has the advantage of being based on the hundred years of research and development that have occurred in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and analysis since Sherlock made his first appearance.

Here are the qualities you need to hone if you want to think more like the great detective:

  • Intuition
  • Observation
  • Listening
  • Logic
  • Humility
  • Open-Mindedness

Develop Your Intuition


There is an evolutionary advantage for being able to spot at a glance who is friends with whom and what a person’s emotional state is. Intuition can be developed by practice and perseverance. Although it isn’t possible to use intuition to solve everything, there are times where listening to our intuition is a useful technique. When drawing conclusions about more “human” things; relationships, connections with others and emotions intuition can be extremely helpful.

Daniel Kahneman’s international bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow, deals heavily with intuition and is a great primer on the subject.

The book focuses on the 2 states of thinking, which Kahneman labels as systems. System 1 (intuition) is rapid, instinctive and based on emotion. System 2 is slow, deliberate and more logical.

Holmes summarised his intuition like this:

It was easier to know it than to explain why I know it. If you were asked to prove that two and two made four, you might find some difficulty, and yet you are quite sure of the fact.

Interestingly a large number of people who think of themselves as “logical” thinkers generally prefer system 2. These types of people are generally reliant on facts and evidence, but are quick to dismiss intuition and gut-feelings as unscientific and unreliable. System 1 can be in this situation be referred to as intuition.

Intuition is developed through years of practice and experience with a subject until the knowledge has been internalised, similar to learning to drive a car. We all have instinctual feelings and thoughts based on previous experiences we’ve had. Most of this is unconscious and the reason behind a particular feeling or hunch is not easily explained. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, highlights how quickly our brains are able to take in multiple stimuli and in milliseconds come to a conclusion before we’ve consciously examined the situation.

In his book Mastery, Robert Greene explains how after intense focus in a discipline (the 10,000 hour rule popularised in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) a person’s brain is physically altered, to the point where instinct and intuition opens up a whole new level of thought. With enough study a person can reach a level where what used to take hours of consideration can be achieved in mere seconds as a feeling or hunch. Sherlock’s great skill can be attributed to his intense focus on the study of people and circumstances.

Eventually his study would have hit a tipping point where his intuition kicks in and takes over. Holmes summed this up when he stated: “From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps”. This happened in an instant and with no effort required from Holmes, which helps to explain why he is so surprised and disappointed that everyone doesn’t see the world the way he does.

Intuition can be a powerful decision-making process if used in conjunction with the facts and evidence available. Almost everyone has made a decision based on a gut-feeling and often the outcomes of these decisions are positive and in some cases, life-saving.

A good way to look at intuition is as an “educated counsellor”. It is our subconscious that powers intuition and the subconscious has access to all our experience and observations (from being born to right now). Our subconscious can see patterns and connections long before we even realise, these connections often manifest in the form of “a gut-feeling.” Although intuition cannot alone be relied upon as the sole source of decision-making information, when your hunches and gut-feelings are cross-referenced with the facts, startling conclusions can be drawn.

Learn to deduce facts from studying a person

Just by watching a person, it is sometimes possible to learn how they are feeling. Some people are naturally more skilled at this, most women are better than men as natural selection has favoured women who can quickly read a person’s emotions and intentions.

Luckily, body language can be learned and there a great number of resources for this including thousands of blogs and articles online on the subject. However, if you want to learn from the experts, my recommendations are:

A fantastic way to hone your skills, is to a little time every day simply watching people as they go about their day. Good observation can tell you a great deal about a person’s habits, mannerisms and personality. Although there is a lot of guesswork involved in people watching (deliberately, because that’s what makes it fun), you can also try to hone your guesses down to identifying specific behavioural traits and mannerisms that can serve as future reference for you. Zoologist Desmond Morriss wrote a fantastic book on the subject – Peoplewatching.

Just be mindful that reading body language does have its limitations as some people are good actors or deceivers. Sometimes, particularly early on, you will make terrible mistakes, missing and misreading the signals. Make sure that what you are learning from body language is congruent with your other evidence.

Improve your power of observation

Possibly the most remarkable ability Sherlock Holmes possessed, was his observation of things that other people missed; he often stated “You see, but you do not observe.”

Being observant is about slowing down and taking the time to look at the small details which are often overlooked. Increasingly, people rush around, spend little time observing and make assumptions based on obvious things, without considering the fine details.

You can increase your powers of observation using several methods, each of which requires practice:

The Senses

Focus on improving your sight, smell, and sound, the most commonly used senses. Because we are so used to using these senses, we often take them for granted and make assumptions about what they perceive. Fine tune and refine these 3 main senses, before focusing on touch and taste. Highly-attuned senses will give you a greater variety of information to consider.

Learn to discriminate against details that have no value. Focus on details that are relevant and significant “It is the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which are vital.” However, make sure not to ignore the smallest details, Holmes makes it clear that “The little things are infinitely the most important.”

Practice with spotting style puzzles. Puzzles that ask you to find the difference between different images, puzzles that ask you to find hidden words and images, and puzzles that require you to navigate through mazes are all ways of honing your observation powers. Practice these frequently and time yourself to find things faster and faster without panicking.

Quick quiz yourself and start learning to pay more observational attention to your surroundings. An example of such observations “Think of your grandparents’ house. Is it a two-floored house? If so, how many steps are there? How many bedrooms? Which floors are the bedrooms on? How many beds are there in the house? Which rooms are the beds in?” If you don’t know, you see, but don’t observe; in short, teach yourself to take in all the detail you can.

Additionally, if you can stay calm and think clearly under pressured, you already have an advantage over others.

Good-ListenerBe a Better Listener

Most of us don’t listen because we are too arrogant, selfish, lazy, preoccupied or think we are sure what the speaker is trying to say.

Listening is an art and its importance can never be overestimated. Sherlock Holmes was a master artist. When a person you’re speaking to recalls everything you’ve said to them, you feel like either they possess an incredible memory or they care a great deal. Either assumption has good results for the listener.

What can sometimes seem like a great feat of magic is often a result of a great combination of concentration, courtesy and memory.

A good listener will hear not only the words that the person is saying, but the meaning behind them and also the meaning behind what is not said. For many reasons, politeness, social pressure etc. people often disguise their true meaning in metaphor or simply omit the message altogether. What is left out often holds more details that what is verbalised.

Never underestimate anyone. People often assume that their thoughts are more connected and complex than others. Holmes was quick to recognise and acknowledge the complexity of others –

A complex mind. All great criminals have that.

Never try to over simplify the motivations of another person and give credit to where it is due.

A lot of good information can come from “simple” sources e.g. magazines, tabloids, gossip. Do not let your ego get the better of you. Such simple sources are a gateway to how the majority of people think.  Sherlock Holmes was an avid reader of Agony Aunt columns in the paper and clearly used this as a source of information about how people tick!  Soak up and consider everything and don’t be an intellectual snob or you’ll be throwing away a great deal of usable information.

Understand How to Read a Situation:

  • See. What is happening?
  • Observe. What do you notice that is different; a stain, a crease?
  • Deduce. What does this imply?

Use LogicIf-Then

Simple defined, logic is the study of valid reasoning. Logic is drastically underused and combined with fine observation and skilled listening, will allow you to gather information and come to accurate conclusions.

As mentioned earlier, intuition is incredibly useful but should always be supported by logic and factual analysis. Sometimes, just going with your gut feeling and ignoring facts will lead to mere speculation.

Holmes advised

It is a capital mistake to theorise before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement

Pay attention to his warning and be sure to apply evidence to your theories.

For example: You observe stain in your friend’s shirt. What kind of stain is it? Food? Logically that means he’s careless. What? You know for sure that he’s very tidy and neat? Then logically he was in a hurry to get out of the house. Why? Is he on time for every class or meeting? Of course he is, since he’s very tidy and neat, so what happened? Maybe he overslept. So you go to him or her and ask, “Did you oversleep today?” If you’re right, have fun with the reaction! So, the train of thought is: stain – food – he’s tidy – hurrying – oversleep.

Analyse Situations Using a Step-by-Step Process

Holmes was good at a process of elimination, a process by which he would dispose of the unlikely, the illogical, the uncertain, and cut narrow theories to reach what he believed to be the only logical conclusion.

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

The process used goes like this:

      • Twist theories to suit facts and instead of facts to suit theories. Use established, measurable and proven facts to develop your theory. If the facts mean that parts of your theory are no longer suitable, discard that part of the theory. If you ignore the fact and persevere with you existing theory, you will inevitably come to a false conclusion.
      • Who is benefiting? Find a motive; greed, anger, jealousy, lust etc. Don’t forget to include positive motives too – protection of another, guarding of a reputation, generosity etc.
      • How did they do what they did? E.g. How did the he enter the building without leaving a trace? How did she manage to move the box on her own? How did she get to the meeting first even though she doesn’t drive?
      • As mentioned, keep working on the details; most people, be they criminals, detectives, or the average person, do not observe all the details and this is how they are caught or found out.
      • Go through who, when, what, where, and why facts.

Holmes’s straightforward principles largely follow:

“If ‘P’, then Q’.”

‘P’ is observed evidence and ‘Q’ is what the evidence indicates.

But there are also, midway steps. In “A Scandal in Bohemia” Holmes deduces that Watson had got very wet lately and that he had “a most clumsy and careless servant girl”. When Watson asks how Holmes knows this, Holmes answers:

It is simplicity itself … My eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant boot-slitting specimen of the London slavery.

In this case, Holmes used several connected ideas:

      • If leather on the side of a shoe is scored by several parallel cuts, it was caused by someone who scraped around the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud.
      • If a London doctor’s shoes are scraped to remove crusted mud, the person who so scraped them is the doctor’s servant girl.
      • If someone cuts a shoe while scraping it to remove encrusted mud, that person is clumsy and careless.
      • If someone’s shoes had encrusted mud on them, then they are likely to have been worn by him in the rain, when it is likely he became very wet.

By applying such principles in an obvious way), Holmes is able to infer from his observation that if P – “the sides of Watson’s shoes are scored by several parallel cuts” then Q – “Watson’s servant girl is clumsy and careless” and “Watson has been very wet lately and has been out in vile weather”.

This method is however, not infallible. At the end of “The Adventure of the Yellow Face”, Holmes tells Watson;

If it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.

As with everything, never use one method or piece of evidence in isolation.


Humility is an attractive quality in anyone and if you master deductive reasoning, jealousy will surround you, so don’t brag about your methods. The common cliché “A magician never reveals his secrets” fits wonderfully into this scenario.

In ”A Study in Scarlet”, Holmes explained “You know a conjurer gets no credit when once he has explained his trick; and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.”

Sherlock didn’t believe that knowing the methods of his deduction brought benefit to anyone. In fact, he understood that revealing the manner of his deduction would dispel the effectiveness and entertainment of what he did.

Sherlock-HolmesWalk a Friend/Colleague Through Your Conclusions

This practice is another feature that Holmes and Dr. House have in common. Holmes has Watson and House has Wilson (even their names are similar!)

Both Dr. House and Sherlock Holmes trusted only a few people, and only once they have proved their trustworthiness and loyalty.

Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person. Make sure you talk through your conclusions with someone you trust. Dr. House would use both Wilson and his “team” to bounce ideas off of each other.

In almost every case, some irrelevant phrase spoken by one these trusted people would trigger a thought which would lead to the right conclusion, or diagnosis in Dr. House’s case.

Keep an Open Mind

It may be that talking your theory through with another person will spark new ideas that can be incorporated into your conclusion or may even replace your original theory.  It’s also possible that another person may disagree with your inferences and proposes a different equally logical theory.

While it may seem that what you see before is incredibly simple and clear, appearances can be deceiving. Sherlock Holmes was well aware of this and used it to his advantage in unscrambling a myriad of possibilities which cannot be explained solely by what you can see and hear.

Holmes knew to balanced intuition with logic, he drew conclusions from details and he listened carefully.

Yet, he also kept an open mind, and accepted that some possibilities may yet be unexplained

Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.

Some things exist that are difficult to explain and it pays to open to all manner of possibility in this scenario (e.g. the existent of one or more deities).

Make Sure You Have Fun

One of the key factors people tend to forget when trying to solve a problem or come up with an idea, is to STOP thinking about it. Holmes worked incredibly hard when investigating, but he understood the important of leisure and relaxation. Often, Sherlock would take Watson to an opera half-way through an investigation. When you relax, your subconscious begins to whir away behind the scenes, creating connections between your subject of study and other aspects of your knowledge and experience. This is why some of the greatest ideas can come in the shower or when going for a walk. Constantly thinking and pushing your intuition can be exhausting, so taking time to recover is essential to ensure you can remain sharp and focused.

Key Points

      • Observing body language is a great way to learn more about a situation, but 20% of the time body language will be misleading. Trust it too much and you’ll likely make some big mistakes.
      • Don’t rush into making decisions before you’ve considered all available evidence. Reflect on the facts multiple times. Fast decisions often come from instinct and past experience or training. Give yourself plenty of time to analyse all the facts and come to a conclusion.
      • Don’t share your ideas until you are a 99% sure you’re right. If you end up making an odd prediction based only on intuition and no evidence and the situation ends up being completely different, you may be seen as unreliable and too quick to judge
      • Most importantly, try not to overlook anything, no matter how small. Also ALWAYS use a combination of evidence, intuition and logic to come to a conclusion. Never rely on a sole source of information or an isolated method.

Further Reading

If you want to learn more about thinking like Sherlock Holmes, these 3 books are probably the best next steps you can take:

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