What I learned from reading The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes

The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes, The Irregulars, Enola Holmes, Sherlock, Elementary
"How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"

Sherlock Holmes, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of the Four

I’ve read about half of The Complete Sherlock Holmes collection of stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and I now get why Sherlock is such an interesting character that has been duplicated over and over on screen over the last 10 years or so, in Sherlock, Elementary, The Irregulars, and the spinoff Enola Holmes.

Here are what I think to be a couple of the most interesting learnings from the great detective.

Deduction is superior to Induction

I’ve also seen deduction vs induction described as Sherlock vs Lawyers.

Deduction is all about observing the evidence and then coming to some logical conclusion based on that. That’s Sherlock’s style. He “eliminates the impossible to get to the possible”.

Lawyers, on the other hand, use induction, where they start with a premise like, “She is innocent,” and then try to find evidence to fit that.

The thing that makes Holmes’s deduction so powerful is his rational mind, which he keeps devoid of all emotion. He is (most of the time) all logic and no feeling.

In business and in life, when making a decision and creating a business case to back it up, I find it’s helpful to ask if I’m being like Sherlock or a Lawyer.

Am I taking in the facts and then coming up with the best solution, or am I letting confirmation bias or survivorship bias or fear creep in?

When making decisions, it’s important to think like Sherlock and not let lawyerness creep in, until the decision has been made. At that point it’s helpful then to think like a lawyer, and poke holes and try to solidify the argument I’m making.

Sherlock is totally ON or totally OFF

Holmes was either totally on and consumed or almost totally off and lazy. Watson described the switch from 0 to 10 as "extreme langour to devouring energy.”

I’ve thought a lot about this concept since hearing Josh Waitzkin on the Tim Ferriss Podcast, where he talks about peak performance as being at a 10, but we can’t sustain that level over a long period of time. To have the energy and clarity of thought to operate at a 10, we need to be at a 2 at other times.

The problem is, most of us are at this “simmering 6” where we’re always on, but not actually performing even close to our potential. The difference between a 6 or a 10 is huge, and what often separates ‘okay’ from ‘elite’.

I’ll ignore the parts where Holmes is in an opium- or cocaine-induced 10 or 0, but this energy management is one thing I’m working on myself in my own life.

The counter-intuitive thing is that for most of us, simmering along at a 4 or 6 at work is much easier than being at a 2, or other relaxed, low-energy state. When I have those 30 minute gaps between meetings, is it really productive of me to hop into my email and bang out some answers when I'm mentally drained? Or is it better to totally turn off and read some fiction, or take a walk, or go upstairs to hang out with my wife for 20 minutes?

I’m finding that taking that 30 minutes to relax (go down to 2) is better for my energy management than responding to emails or doing busywork (4 or 5ish work), despite not “making progress” on my emails.

Another key here is Holmes’ thinking time. This is where he does most of his work figuring out the case, and then all that’s left is to describe how simple everything is to Watson and Lestrade.

We don’t really see much of his methods, so I don’t know how much of Holmes’s thinking time is active thinking time vs subconscious churning time (the kind where an idea pops into your head while being in the shower or while cooking or on a walk). But I am confident that if Holmes was at his simmering 6 the whole time, he wouldn’t be able to synthesize his thoughts and observations.

What doesn't hold up

I can’t help but think that Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t be as effective in modern times. Sir Doyle’s books have Sherlock figuring things out in a very English world where things were proper and orderly. Englishmen always wore a watch, smoked a pipe and took tea. If one of these things was out of order, why, then, that’s a clue! If someone had a scuffed shoe, that carried much meaning, because everyone knows gentlemen don’t have scuffs on their shoes! An unpolished watch? I knew it! A suntan in winter? He must have been a major in Afghanistan, because where else would an Englishman with that sort of posture go to get a suntan?