life lessons from Sherlock Holmes

When I think about role models/manly figures from history, Sherlock Holmes always finds a place on my list. Though he is a work of fiction, Holmes always seemed very real to me: an educated man, he continued his studies with experiments in his home, constantly noting observations about the people around him, developing an understanding of the human condition, and he always had a book or article that he was reading, looking to engage with the scientific minds of his time. Holmes also thought “outside of the box”. He always noticed the things that other’s didn’t. He could see the connections between two facts or pieces of evidence that were difficult for others to make. He loved puzzles and was invigorated by piecing them together.

He was also extremely restless – whenever he didn’t have a case to work on, he couldn’t contain his melancholy and antipathy. He was an opium addict with a sharp temper. He had his faults. He was human. Even so, Sherlock Holmes taught us many lessons, if only unknowingly, about living life and how to look at the world around us.

we’re never done learning

Holmes had a love for learning. He was constantly experimenting with ways of identifying evidence, the composition of tobacco, chemicals, and residues. he was always reading – literature, philosophy, academic journals, the daily news – he could never get enough information or knowledge. He also loved debate and discussion. He was never afraid to discuss even the most complex topics with those around him and with the experts themselves. This constant learning and discussion made him the well-rounded person that he was, able to discuss almost any topic with anyone and able to use the knowledge he gained in his work and daily life.

“I confess that I have been blind as a mole, but it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all”

We could all take a page out of Holmes’ book, taking more time to read, learn, and experiment. We don’t need to seek out experts to debate, but taking the time to learn something new or expand our knowledge on a subject we enjoy can make life more fulfilling.

In today’s go-go-go American lifestyle, it’s hard to take the time for ongoing education. It doesn’t have to be, though. Ongoing learning is as easy as watching one less episode of your favorite show in Netflix and picking up a book for 20 minutes instead (in fact, your show will still be there tomorrow). Ongoing learning broadens our horizons and gets us thinking critically about the world around us. It also helps us exercise our minds to keep them in shape, just like we try to do with our bodies.

attention to detail is never a bad thing

Sherlock Holmes noticed everything. Whether it was the fact of a case – items brought to him or clues he found during his investigations, a curious detail about a client – their manners, tone of voice, unconscious behaviors, or just the differences in the mud from neighborhoods around London, he took it all in and save that information for later. Nothing was insignificant to Holmes. He also paid attention to his surroundings, keeping track of the people around him, their behavior, and anything that was out of the ordinary.

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

Attention to detail is important. When we’re at work or working on a hobby at home, the details are what shows how much we care about the work we’re doing. In our every-day lives, attention to detail can make driving to work safer, notice the nature and architecture around you, and even keep you from being pick-pocketed in a crowded place! This attention to detail is also referred to as “situational awareness”, where you pay attention to your surroundings and notice the details that you might now otherwise notice. This is generally considered as a way to protect one’s self in public, but it is also a way to uncover clues about the world around us that normally go unnoticed.

And, on that note:

always. be. prepared.

Holmes never left his residence at Baker Street. Unprepared. When he took on a case, he always took pains to plan ahead and prepared for anything that might come his way. Whether it was taking a revolver or an umbrella, he made sure that he wouldn’t be caught off guard.

“Holmes took his revolver from his drawer and slipped it in his pocket.  It was clear that he thought that our night’s work might be a serious one.”

Like the Boy Scouts, Holmes was “always prepared”. This a worthwhile lesson for anyone, no matter what your plans are. Whether you’re taking a walk around the block or camping in the woods for a week, being prepared is as simple as knowing what you’re going to be doing and making sure you take some precautions against uncertainty.

thinking critically

“…when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Holmes’ greatest contribution to us is his intellect. he was always good at reasoning out the problem, analyzing the evidence, and solving the puzzle. Holmes famously famously said that “when you have eliminated all which is impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The meaning behind this is that we need to pay attention to what is going on around us, take account of all the possibilities, and take the time to reason out what makes the most sense. We shouldn’t accept information we’re given as fact or truth until we’ve had a chance to look at all of the possibilities, something that people seem to be doing less and less these days (link to post about scientific belief among Americans).

We all have the capacity to think critically about the information presented to us. Whether it’s something you hear on the news, read in a book, or hear from a friend over drinks on the weekend, we shouldn’t take this information at face value. It’s everyone’s responsibility to themselves to understand our world and to make our own decisions about what is true and what isn’t. We owe it to ourselves to be open minded, but also critical of the information that is presented to us, determining for ourselves what the truth is.


Sherlock Holmes was by no means perfect. He detested downtime, falling into deep depressions and abused morphine and cocaine as an escape from his down time, he treated others as imbeciles for not being able to follow the minute details of cases to the conclusions he was able to see, and he believed himself to be above following rules. Even with these faults, though, Holmes continues to teach us, his readers, many skills that we can use every day. Whether it’s something as simple as being aware of our surroundings or how to thing about a problem, he is an inspiring figure from literary history.