Elementary, My Dear Watson*

When you’re trying to solve a complex problem, determine a course of action, or evaluate others’ conclusions, you’ll need to engage logical System 2 reasoning, which is the opposite of System 1’s quick assessments.

I never guess. It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty. —Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four

It can be helpful to understand different types of reasoning, be able to identify the type—or types—of reasoning that are being applied in a given situation, and know how accurate each type is likely to be.

But recognizing and/or applying a reasoning process to your problem or evaluation process isn’t enough to guarantee that the outcome of that reasoning process will be sound or accurate. Skillful reasoning doesn’t compensate for faulty premises or missing or biased information.

The following descriptions (but not the examples) of deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning were provided by Alina Bradford, writing in Live Science (livescience.com).

Deductive reasoning: conclusion guaranteed

Deductive reasoning is a basic form of valid reasoning. Deductive reasoning, or deduction, starts out with a general statement, or hypothesis, and examines the possibilities  to reach a specific, logical conclusion, according to the University of California. The scientific method uses deduction to test hypotheses and theories. “In deductive inference, we hold a theory and based on it we make a prediction of its consequences. That is, we predict what the observations should be if the theory were correct.  We go from the general—the theory—to the specific—the observations,” said Dr. Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, a researcher and professor emerita at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

In deductive reasoning, if something is true of a class of things in general, it is also true for all members of that class. For example, “All men are mortal. Harold is a man. Therefore, Harold is mortal.” For deductive reasoning to be sound, the hypothesis must be correct. It is assumed that the premises, “All men are mortal” and “Harold is a man” are true. Therefore, the conclusion is logical and true.


  • It is dangerous to drive on icy streets. The streets are icy now so it is dangerous to drive now.
  • All birds have feathers and robins are birds, so robins have feathers.
  • Elephants have cells in their bodies and all cells have DNA, so elephants have DNA.

[Caveat: Deductive inference conclusions are certain provided the premises are true. It’s possible to come to a logical conclusion even if the generalization is not true. If the generalization is wrong, the conclusion may be logical, but it may also be untrue. For example, the argument, “All bald men are grandfathers. Harold is bald. Therefore, Harold is a grandfather,” is valid logically but it is untrue because the original statement is false.]

Inductive reasoning: conclusion merely likely

Inductive reasoning is the opposite of deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning makes broad generalizations from specific observations. “In inductive inference, we go from the specific to the general. We make many observations, discern a pattern, make a generalization, and infer an explanation or a theory,” Wassertheil-Smoller told Live Science. “In science there is a constant interplay between inductive inference (based on observations) and deductive inference (based on theory), until we get closer and closer to the ‘truth,’ which we can only approach but not ascertain with complete certainty.”

Even if all of the premises are true in a statement, inductive reasoning allows for the conclusion to be false. Here’s an example: “Harold is a grandfather. Harold is bald. Therefore, all grandfathers are bald.” The conclusion does not follow logically from the statements.


  • John is a financial analyst. Individuals with professions in finance are very serious people. John is a very serious person.
  • Jennifer leaves for school at 7:00 a.m. and is on time. Jennifer assumes, then, that she will always be on time if she leaves at 7:00 a.m.
  • The water at the beach has always been about 75 degrees in July. It is July. The water will be about 75 degrees.
Abductive reasoning: taking your best shot

Another form of scientific reasoning that doesn’t fit in with inductive or deductive reasoning is abductive. Abductive reasoning usually starts with an incomplete set of observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for the group of observations (Critical Thinking Skills, Butte College). It is based on making and testing hypotheses using the best information available. It often entails making an educated guess after observing a phenomenon for which there is no clear explanation.

Abductive reasoning is useful for forming hypotheses to be tested. Abductive reasoning is often used by doctors who make a diagnosis based on test results and by jurors who make decisions based on the evidence presented to them.


  • Given a particular set of symptoms, a medical doctor needs to determine the diagnosis that would best explain most of them.
  • Jurors have to decide whether the prosecution or the defense has the best explanation to cover all the points of evidence although additional evidence may exist that was not admitted in the case.

While using one of these three types of reasoning is a function of System 2 (conscious) cognition, evaluating them—and their results—is an example of metacognition, which is a higher order of System 2 cognition. Metacognition is a skill you can develop to help you think smarter and improve outcomes in all areas of your life.

I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for? —Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four

*This quintessential Sherlock Holmes quote was never actually uttered in any of Conan Doyle’s stories about him.

Permission to Fail

Here’s a handful of quotes to inspire you to fail and fail again because failure is an essential part of the creative process. It’s also a part of life.

If you’re not failing, maybe it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.

So go out there and fail better, fail faster. Rack up as many failures as you possibly can!

An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail. –Edwin Land

Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. –Winston Churchill

The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything. –E. J. Phelps

It takes sixty-five thousand errors before you are qualified to make a rocket. –Werhner von Braun

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. –Ken Robinson

Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. –Leonard Cohen

I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot… and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s precisely why I succeed. –Michael Jordan

To develop working ideas efficiently, I try to fail as fast as I can. –Richard P. Feynman

Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember, that’s where you will find success. –Thomas J. Watson

Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo. –Jon Sinclair

An inventor is almost always failing. He tries and fails maybe a thousand times. If he succeeds once then he’s in. –Charles Kettering

I failed my way to success. –Thomas Edison

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. –Samuel Beckettt

To be wrong is nothing unless you continue to remember it. –Confucius


The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. –Linus Pauling

If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied. –Alfred Nobel

I’m a perfectionist, which I think is a mistake. –Michelle Shocked

So try not to be too attached to any of the ideas you currently have or to take failure personally. Use the results—good or bad—as feedback not as evidence. And begin again.

Look for Limitations

When Phil Hansen was in art school, he developed a shake in his hand that prevented him from drawing a straight line. He was interested in pointillism at the time, but the technique exacerbated the problem to the extent that eventually he gave up art. The shake in his hand didn’t go away. The neurologist who told him he had permanent nerve damage suggested he “embrace the shake.” So he did.

Embracing the shake meant embracing limitation, which is what led him to discover that working on a larger scale with bigger materials was easier on his hand.

This was the first time I encountered the idea that embracing limitation could actually drive creativity.

In the video below of his TEDx talk in Kansas City, Hansen says:

I realized that if I ever wanted my creativity back I had to stop trying so hard to think outside of the box and get back into it.

He set out to impose all kinds of constraints on the art he created. The image at the top of this post was the result of his intention to create something for under a dollar. (When he asked someone at Starbucks for 50 empty cups, he got them.)

You become more creative by actually looking for limitations.

He’s written a book about creating art aimed at “kids” from 8 to 70 titled Tattoo a Banana: And Other Ways to Turn Anything and Everything Into Art.

Looking at limitations as the source of creativity changed my life.

It’s impossible to create anything, do anything, or just be (alive) without experiencing limitations. The trick is not only to look for limitations, but also to embrace them.

Z Is for Zombie Systems

What could zombie systems (also known as alien subroutines) and blindfolded cup-stacking possibly have to do with behavior change? Quite a bit, as it turns out. But first, what exactly are these zombie systems and alien subroutines? According to David Eagleman in Incognito:

We harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions—from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee—are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems.

Eagleman uses the terms interchangeably. He says the term zombie emphasizes the lack of conscious access, while alien emphasizes the foreignness of the programs.

Some alien subroutines are instinctual, while some are learned; all highly automated algorithms become inaccessible zombie programs when they are burned down into the circuitry.

Cup-Stacking Smack-Down

Cup-stacking, at least as performed by Austin Nabor, is an example of a highly automated algorithm—and thus a zombie system.

Nabor has been practicing all the moves involved in cup-stacking regularly for several years. As a result, physical changes have taken place in his brain to hard-wire cup-stacking. He can now perform it automatically without thinking about it, which is why he can do just as well when he’s blindfolded as he can when he can see what he’s doing.

In the video (link above), 10-year-old Nabor faces off against David Eagleman mano-a-mano, as it were, and hands him a resounding defeat. Eagleman said of the contest that he wasn’t even an eighth of the way through his routine when Nabor finished. During the competition, both were fitted with skull caps to monitor electrical activity in their brains. Instead of burning more energy to complete his complex cup-stacking routine speedily and flawlessly, Nabor’s brain used considerably less energy than Eagleman’s brain used to perform the routine much more slowly. In fact, Eagleman described Nabor’s brain as serene.

Eagleman’s brain burned more energy because he had to think about what he was doing and conscious thought burns more energy than zombie systems and alien subroutines burn.

When a professional baseball player connects his bat with a pitch that is traveling too fast for his conscious mind to track, he is leveraging a well-honed alien subroutine.

Your brain rewrites itself based on the things you repeatedly practice, such has hitting a ball with a bat, driving, or swimming. Some of those things could be classified as skills while others might better be classified as habits. Whether they are skills or habits, once they become “etched into the circuitry of the brain,” you lose conscious control over them. Your brain doesn’t particularly care what skills or habits (good or bad) are turned into zombie systems. The purpose of the process, as Eagleman says, is to free up resources, allowing the conscious you to attend to and absorb other tasks.

Because you lose conscious control of zombie systems and they run automatically, it’s quite difficult to change them—to put it mildly.

Learning to Ride the Backwards Bicycle

Engineer Destin Sandlin, creator of the website Smarter Every Day, was challenged to ride a bicycle that had been modified so that when you turn the handlebars to the right, the wheel turns left, and when you turn the handlebars to the left, the wheel turns right. Watch him try—and fail—to ride the bike, and then offer to pay other people if they are able to ride the bike 10 feet.

“Once you have a rigid way of thinking,” Sandlin says, “you cannot change that, even if you want to.” Riding a bicycle, for most of us, is a hard-wired zombie system. Since we don’t have conscious control over the bicycle-riding algorithm, knowing that the bicycle has been altered has no effect on our ability to modify the algorithm—at least not right away.

It took Sandlin eight months of regular practice to learn how to ride the backwards bicycle. However, he noticed that the old pathway was still there and minor distractions, such as a cell phone ringing, could cause his brain to “jump back on the old road it was more familiar with.”

Sandlin’s young son, on the other hand, who had been riding a bicycle for three years, required only two weeks to get the hang of the modified bicycle.

When Sandlin attempted to ride a normal bicycle again after having more or less mastered the backwards bicycle, he couldn’t do it at first. But after about 20 minutes, his brain slipped back into gear, and he was able to remain upright. Think about that when you’re struggling with changing a habit you’ve had for years or maybe even decades. It takes a great deal of repetition and persistence to master a replacement behavior but very little provocation to revert back to the old path.

Consciousness on the Sidelines

Having the knowledge, information, or even will to change your behavior are all System 2 (conscious) processes. They’re certainly useful and even desirable. But a habit is a System 1 (unconscious) zombie system that is not immediately responsive to your conscious intentions or attentions.

In fact, those System 2 processes can sometimes get in the way. Eagleman says:

Not only do we run alien subroutines; we also justify them. We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our idea. As an example…I mentioned that thoughts come to us and we take credit for them (“I just had a great idea!), even though our brains have been chewing on a given problem for a long time and eventually served up the final product. We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood.

Essentially we come up with conscious explanations for unconscious systems we have no access to. When we think we understand something, but we don’t, we’re likely to also think we know what to do about it. But we don’t.

If your brain is running an alien subroutine or a zombie system you don’t want it to run, you have to make like Destin Sandlin and practice the new routine over and over and over again. And you have to be prepared to have your brain “correct” you back to your old behavior at the least provocation.

When that happens, it’s far more productive to get back up on the horse—or bicycle—than it is to create a story about it.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

O Is for Obstacles


An obstacle is something that blocks your path or prevents or hinders your progress. If there’s one thing that’s certain in life, it’s that things won’t always go the way you want them to or according to your plan. Like many people, you may think that’s always a bad thing. But obstacles and setbacks are part of life. They don’t mean anything in and of themselves. That doesn’t mean they don’t have an effect on you, but you’re the one who imbues them with meaning.

Obstacles can be external or internal. The external ones can range from a traffic delay on your way to an important meeting to an uncooperative family member or co-worker to serious illness or a natural disaster. My temperament is such that it’s easy for me to experience life itself as one giant obstacle. In Enneagram terms, I resist impact from the environment and there’s a lot of environment to go around. So I have considerable experience coming to terms with the nature of obstacles, including the fact that my attitude is not always helpful. Maybe you can relate.

A few other ways you can be your own biggest obstacle are by:

  • failing to get all the information or acting on unverified assumptions
  • dropping the ball (not following through on something)
  • communicating or behaving in a manner that results in an undesirable outcome
  • having unrealistic expectations of yourself and others

Of course the major obstacle, at least when it comes to behavior change, is your own brain, which is intent on maintaining the status quo. If you fail to recognize this particular obstacle, you’re in for a rougher ride than you need to be as you try to figure out why you keep doing what you’re doing when what you want to do is something entirely different.

One Interesting Thing about Obstacles

Imagine reading a story or watching a movie in which the protagonist faced no obstacles. Would you read a novel or enjoy a movie like that? People who write for a living are betting you wouldn’t. A rule of thumb for writers is there should be some element of conflict on every page. The more conflict, the better. The more obstacles the characters have to deal with, the better.

When something goes wrong in your life, just yell: “Plot twist!” and move on. —Anonymous

Conflict and obstacles make things interesting because they’re unexpected. They also force you out of your comfort zone. You can be proceeding through life on autopilot (System 1), driving along a familiar route, when suddenly you notice a mudslide has closed the road ahead. System 1 calls on System 2: What should we do now? If what’s on the other side of that mudslide is something you really want or someplace you really want to go, you’ll try to figure out another way to get there. Which brings us to…

One Useful Thing about Obstacles

I’m not going to claim obstacles are opportunities or tell you they’re gifts or blessings in disguise. You can interpret them that way if you like, but obstacles are just obstacles: things that get in the way of what you want to do or where you want to go. I’m also not going to insist that obstacles (or overcoming obstacles) make you stronger or tougher because maybe they will and maybe they won’t.

There is one significant benefit obstacles can provide, however, although not everyone benefits equally. Experiencing an obstacle can help you think globally—step back and see the bigger picture—not just about the obstacle you’re facing but in regard to other unrelated situations or unrelated tasks. As a result, you’re more likely to come up with creative solutions in a variety of different settings.

The basic cognitive processes elicited by obstacles help people to find more creative means towards their goals. —Janina Marguc, University of Amsterdam

But there are two caveats.

First, in order to reap this benefit, you have to be motivated to follow through with what you’re doing. If you’re not already motivated, you’ll be more likely to see an obstacle as an excuse for slacking off or giving up than as a spur to action or invention.

Second, you’re more likely to think globally as a result of encountering an obstacle if you have what is referred to as low volatility. Art Markman, Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today says:

People who are not that volatile tend to engage with a task and stick with it even when it gets difficult. Those people who are highly volatile tend to skip from task to task to task.

For the latter group, encountering an obstacle does not make them more likely to think globally. That makes sense, given that volatile means excitable, unpredictable, or irresolute. If you’re highly volatile, you prefer to move on rather than stick around feeling uncomfortable or temporarily discouraged.

But even if you tend toward high volatility, you can make it more likely you’ll achieve a goal or create or change a habit if you do the legwork up front to make sure you really want what you’re going after—that your desired outcome is extremely desirable. The more motivated you are, the less likely you’ll be to give up in the face of an obstacle.

The most practical and realistic approach to take when you want to achieve something is to assume the path ahead won’t be a smooth, straight line. Then you can figure out ahead of time how to respond to the twists, turns, and bumps you’re bound to encounter.

If you get as many of your ducks in a row as you can, you’ll be in a better position to deal with the obstacles you will inevitably encounter. And if you encounter one that’s an actual deal-breaker, it will be easier for you to identify it as such, stop beating your head against that particular boulder, and scrap your plan without guilt or regret. That’s worth a little upfront effort, isn’t it?

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.