Whether you think of him as the quirky young gentleman from 19th Century Britain or the high functioning sociopath with a drug problem from present day London, Sherlock Holmes’ genius is undisputed. The question is, how did Arthur Conan Doyle develop his legendary character’s powers of deduction? An excellent formal education? Natural skill? Well, natural skill certainly had a lot to do with it, but the secret ingredient is a healthy dose of autodidacticism.
Lots of Reading & Background Junk
Sherlock Holmes was always reading something new – whether it was in Doyle’s books, one of the several subsequent movies, or the most recent Sherlock series, Dr. Watson mentioned the stacks of papers and books all over Sherlock’s work space and apartment several times.
Naturally, with all this reading came a wealth of background knowledge. In his most modern adaptation, Sherlock is seen conducting research and tests that only trained professionals are able to do. Yet, Sherlock Holmes is known to have attended college only briefly and never finished his undergraduate degree. His natural talent and ability to learn quickly opened him to information that a formal education never provided.
This extensive background knowledge is integral to Sherlock Holmes’ powers of deduction. After all, to deduce something, you must be able to rule out options which is only possible if you have enough information about it to make a decision.
Anyone who has seen the most recent, highly acclaimed Sherlock series can attest to the the fact that the apartment the detective shares with Dr. Watson is not only messy, but straight up gross. There are disgusting eyeballs in the fridge and human skulls on the mantle of the fireplace. In one scene, one such eyeball even falls into Sherlock’s tea – which he continues to drink contemplatively.
Such chaos (except maybe a bit more hygienic) is characteristic of a number of creative geniuses. Mark Twain always had the messiest desk that spawned some of the best loved literature of all time. Albert Einstein was cool with a crazy workspace too, saying, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
So basically, keeping himself surrounded by chaos kept Sherlock’s mind in a chaos as well, with everything zooming around in disarray. Often, things lined up in the right order, and the result was Arthur Conan Doyle’s infinite success.
It is contradicting to say in one breath that Sherlock’s mind was full of chaotic creativity, and in the next that he had an amazing level of focus. His ability to focus on certain parts of the chaos is what allowed him to zone in on the things that had lined up in the right order. Clearly focus is important.
But Sherlock Holmes’ biggest strength was not his ability to concentrate on something in particular – rather it was the organization with which he quickly refocused on detail after detail. The infamous scene where Sherlock deduces that Watson had been in a war, for example, required him to zoom in and out with his observations very quickly (considering he deduced this after a mere glance).
Even without an extensive formal education, Sherlock Holmes was able to teach himself what the average person would require several formal degrees to learn even a fraction of. Why? Because he learned for the sole purpose of knowing and utilizing information rather than with the specific goal of obtaining a degree or job.
The beauty of how things work today is the sheer number of free resources available to all aspiring autodidacts. From MOOCs to free online books to YouTube tutorials, it’s all there – along with tools like Accredible that can help focus and organize your learning process. So do you want to be as smart as Sherlock Holmes? Go do some reading, drive your mind to crazy chaos, and then focus and organize it. Easy as pie.