The dog didn’t bark.
With that simple observation, Sherlock Holmes solved the famous Silver Blaze mystery.
To call Sherlock Holmes—the famous character written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—one of the world’s most beloved detectives would not be a stretch. Millions of people around the world have read of his exploits, impressed with his amazing intuition and observational skills.
However, the tales of Holmes are not limited to the world of fiction. His theories of deduction can actually be applied in real life. If you wish to improve your detective skills, here are some of the ways you can do that—and no, you will not need a pipe or a magnifying glass.
“You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.” – Sherlock Holmes
Holmes wasn’t just observant. He had the ability to form connections that informed what he saw. Where most people would simply see a matchbox, for example, he might see a matchbox and then connect it with an article he’d read about its production.
Learning to combine your perception with things you already know gives you deeper insights into a scene. You’ll become a lot more mindful. Seemingly simple objects or items will become invaluable clues that could break open a case.
Logic doesn’t work on its own. It requires an analytic evaluation of the facts of the case against the knowledge you have. The more connections you make, the easier it will be for you to solve mysteries.
Never Stop Learning
“I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for?” – Sherlock Holmes
Education is a powerful tool. The more you know, the easier you will find it to disprove certain theories—or come up with new ones. As Holmes shrewdly put it, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Learning more about new things allows your mind to explore fresh possibilities. You will not be as quick to dismiss odd theories. For instance, with the installation of computer systems in cars, it is possible for a “villain” to hack the driving controls of a car and run it into a wall while the driver is still inside.
A good detective from the 1980s might consider this impossible. However, any modern detective would quickly agree that it could happen. Staying up to date with advancements in technology ensures that you will be able to spot things that other detectives might miss.
Be Mindful of Your Surroundings
“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” – Sherlock Holmes
How many people have walked past you in the last five minutes? One of Sherlock’s strongest assets was that he was constantly aware of his surroundings. The man missed nothing. If an innocuous old man walked into a restaurant, Holmes instantly noted the fact.
Far too many detectives fail to pay attention to their surroundings. This makes them less observant of things that are out of place. If you cannot recognize how things appear naturally, you will find it harder to spot when things are missing.
Developing your observational skills won’t happen overnight. But you can start by trying to focus more on the things around you. When you walk into a room, don’t just sit down and switch your brain off. Look around. Observe. Think.
Get a Partner
“Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.” – Sherlock Holmes
Even the best detective in the world needs someone to talk with. Bouncing your ideas off another person is incredibly effective. It allows you to arrive at a conclusion faster.
Pick someone whose opinion you value. It doesn’t have to be a war-scarred doctor (à la Dr. Watson)—those are hard to come by. It could be a fellow detective or a law enforcement officer. It could even be a teacher. Just as long as it is someone thoughtful and someone you trust.
Don’t Ignore Your Gut Instincts
“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.” – Sherlock Holmes
Sometimes, the reason Sherlock knew something was off was not that he knew it, but that he felt it. In recent years, a lot of emphasis has been placed on the use of hard evidence and logical conclusions in investigations. And there’s nothing bad about those things, but it’s still wrong to disregard your intuition.
Sometimes intuition may be the result of your subconscious mind, which has noticed something illogical that your conscious mind has yet to pick up on. This does not mean that you should rely only your gut. It just means that you must be willing to explore the theories and suppositions that your inner mind offers.
Listening to your gut can point you in the right direction on a case. Your subconscious mind also draws from years of your experiences to bring you to a quick solution—so you know instinctively that two plus two has to be four.
Learn More about People
“Holmes loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumor or suspicion of unsolved crime.” – Dr. Watson
Being able to read people is an incredible skill. Holmes could spot a liar from twenty yards away. He could tell when people were hiding something, when they were nervous, or when they were impatient. And he could do all this because he spent time studying people.
The best way to learn more about people is to spend more time listening than talking. Learn to stay in the background, observing. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll pick up that other people miss.
The Bottom Line
Despite his immense skill set, you should not try to emulate all of Sherlock’s qualities. Whenever he was on a case, Holmes would become obsessed with solving it, so much so that he would go for hours and sometimes days without food and with very little sleep.
His habits were impressive, perhaps, but also likely the reason he never got around to solving the riddle of getting married or making many friends. As a literary creation, Sherlock Holmes was obviously an exaggerated character. We’re lucky enough to benefit from his stories while living ordinary lives.