Sherlock Holmes was the greatest Consulting Detective in the world.
Though merely a fiction — written over a century ago by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — his methods of logical deduction are without equal.
Holmes’s mastery of his craft brought him to the fog-cloaked London doorsteps of the most powerful people of his time.
Correction: he was so good, those clients came to him.
They ran, desperate, to his Baker Street rooms, begging for his help, willing to pay any amount of money for his services.
What can Sherlock Holmes teach us about the craft of writing?
I’ll let you find the wealth of anecdote, advice, and adventure in Conan Doyle’s stories for yourself, but here’s a short list on Holmesian mastery to get you started …
Make a decision
When you watch or listen to an interview with a brilliant and successful writer, something happens deep down in your gut.
Some part of you thinks something like, “Ah yes, listen to her. Her fate was sealed from birth. Some are chosen to create brilliant work, and the rest of us are screwed.”
What you conveniently dismiss from such interviews — if they’re included at all — are the stories of the hours, days, weeks, months, and years of silent practice that the writer has put in.
Somewhere, back there, a decision was made.
On a particular day, at a particular hour, that writer had said, “This is the thing I will dedicate my working life to.”
Sometimes — as in Holmes’s case — there are obvious hints regarding what that “thing” is. Most times, there are none.
The first step on the road to mastery is making a conscious decision about what you will decide to master.
Do not wait for it. Decide.
Focus, focus, focus
Our society tells us from youth that we should become “well-rounded” individuals.
If you want to master your craft, ignore that advice.
Sherlock Holmes focused intensely on a narrow set of criminological skills and subjects that ultimately made him an incomparable detective.
He studied specific disciplines within botany and chemistry — only to the point that they served his needs as a detective.
He learned the science of cryptography in order to swiftly crack the codes of master criminal communication.
He became competent enough in human anatomy to forge the early stages of what would become actual forensic analysis in murder investigations.
He would lie down napping, smoking, and thinking for hours about one minute aspect of a case, not moving until an idea — and sometimes a complete solution — came to him.
Think deeply about the core demands of your craft.
What is needed to advance in mastery of it?
What can be ignored as mere distraction?
Practice brutal focus.
Our fictional detective’s methods are studied even now by very real, working detectives everywhere, because he had the discipline to stay within the arena of his expertise.
Note: For those familiar with Holmes’s methods … No, I am not advocating the use of morphine and/or cocaine.
Become an idiot
Idiocy is the other side of the coin of mastery.
In order to focus your working life on mastering a craft, you’ve got to rule out a lot of the trivia that takes up so much time.
Sherlock Holmes could determine what part of the city you’d been recently walking through, from a quick glance at the type of mud on your boot.
He was a (subjectively) horrible violin player.
Within moments of meeting, he could tell you where you were born, what you’d eaten for lunch, if your brother was an alcoholic, and if you’d served in the war (and where).
He knew nothing about current events or the politics of his day.
He could seemingly predict the future, arriving at correct conclusions that left witnesses believing he was an other-worldly being.
He was utterly oblivious to the basic astronomical patterns of the stars and planets.
Holmes accomplished his amazing ability to see the obvious by … becoming an idiot.
Holmes’s greatness — and ours — is largely defined by what we do not know.
He had one driving professional goal — to engage and best the greatest (and lowest) criminals in the world. He shut out the rest, and he did not care if anyone regarded him as less than “well-rounded.”
All of his considerable mental power was directed at the “elementary” practice of deduction and the few peripheral disciplines that supported it.
Distraction pulls us in all directions
The boredom of repetition drives us to other interests. The pressures of culture make us worry we are missing out on something “important” if we dedicate ourselves to our pursuit of mastery.
If you want to master writing, you are giving up running the 800 meters in the Olympic Games.
If you want to master the cello, you are giving up the ability to talk about what’s good on television these days.
If you want to master anything, you must become an idiot about nearly everything else.
Oddly, you must become an idiot in order to become a genius.
Continue to obsess
This path of mastery is not for everyone, but I believe it is one of the great callings and joys this life has to offer.
You’ll never get all the way there … nobody does.
There is only so much time in one day, only so many days in one life.
As our immortal Victorian detective (and the extraordinary man who wrote him into existence) has shown, mastery is one way to truly change the world.
Choose. Focus. Become an idiot.
Image source: Blake Richard Verdoorn via Unsplash.
Reader Comments (15)
Scott Monty says
Nicely done, Robert. The only issue I have is that Holmes was not a horrible violin player. Quite the opposite, really.
From Watson’s list about Sherlock Holmes’s accomplishments in A Study in Scarlet:
10. Plays the violin well.
Robert Bruce says
His taste in music is unquestionable.
His choice of instrument, impeccable (Stradivarius).
He was even called by Watson a “composer of no ordinary merit.”
But in several stories we read lines like … “scrape carelessly at the fiddle” … and “His powers upon the violin … were very remarkable but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments.” [Italics mine.]
Would you concede that the assessment of his playing is at least divided?
nick pratt says
My daughter is currently studying Sherlock Holmes original books for an English paper (9th Grade.)
She informed me of this quote:
“I see that I have alluded above to his powers upon the violin. These were very remarkable , but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments. That he could play pieces, and difficult pieces, I knew well, because at my request he has played me some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder, and other favourites. When left to himself, however, he would seldom produce any music or attempt any recognized air. Leaning back in his arm-chair of an evening, he would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee. Sometimes the chords were sonorous and melancholy. Occasionally they were fantastic and cheerful. Clearly they reflected the thoughts which possessed him…
Your Sherlock Holmes knowledge is accurate according to a 13 year old argumentive girl.
Autumn Rose says
This is great advice! I really like the advice about becoming an idiot. You really have to be willing to commit fully or it’ll show in your writing. Another really good takeaway from Sherlock Holmes is that people may not always approve or be your biggest fan, but it is important to stick to your convictions.
Michael LaRocca says
I don’t have to choose or focus to become an idiot, but thanks for the great advice.
Luca Todesco says
I really like your take on this subject and especially the bit about “becoming an idiot”. Thanks for the advice, Robert.
Great post! Very powerful and so beautifully written. Thank you 😉
Jitendra vaswani says
You message was very clear in this via Sherlock story Scott. I like the idiot tag here and I think we need to be an idiot to get successful.
You’re very right I think we start off as idiots and eventually evolve and learn, I like how it is presented.
Julie Parry-Jones says
Thanks Robert, great article! I have to say I am in total agreement with you . For years I tried the more rounded approach believing it to be the right thing to do. But I’ve learnt the hard way and now having worked in health generally I now totally focus on positive ageing which is what I am most passionate about, the difference in attracting followers and raising awareness has been amazing! Totally agree with this type of focus if it’s something you truly care about?? thank you for sharing ?
“If you want to master anything, you must become an idiot about nearly everything else.” This couldn’t be more true. Mastery involves the upmost dedication in order to maximize its full potential. There are no part-time masters.
Thanks for the post.
Fahim Akhtar says
Awesome advice 🙂
Julia McCoy says
Excellent post, excellent advice. Although, don’t you mean “become a genius” instead of “become an idiot”? 😉
This is nice. I expect more like this now. “Ants and the Mastery of Writing,” for example. Or “Coconut trees and the Mastery of Writing.” It all relates. Very nice.
Paras Shah says
I really like this article. Especially an advice of focus. Without focus nothing is possible. I actually agree with it.
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