by Daniel Farber Huang
June 28, 2020
If there was one job in all the world I could have, it would be the one Mycroft Holmes created for himself. Sherlock Holmes, the temperamental but brilliant (it’s amazing how having a “but” in one’s tagline allows people to get away with so many character flaws) London detective had an older, smarter brother with even greater powers of deduction and investigation. Mycroft was generally brilliant but (see what I did there?) also terribly lazy, so he could have been so much more had he gotten out of the house more often. Nevertheless, he was one smart cookie.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a man with an awesome middle name, created the Sherlock Holmes stories with Watson, Mrs. Hudson, Detective Lestrade and a spider web of criminal activity spanning four novels and 56 short stories before burning out his creative Holmsian juices. He also created Mycroft, seven years older than Sherlock, who appeared in only four short stories, but I envied him since the first time I met him.
Sherlock, who never hesitated to acknowledge his own high-functioning capabilities, first mentions the existence of his older brother to his sidekick Dr. John Watson in “The Greek Interpreter.” Sherlock said, “When I say … that Mycroft has better powers of observation than I, you may take it that I am speaking the exact and literal truth.”
We learn more about Mycroft’s area of expertise in “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” in which Britain’s national security was on the line, potentially being pushed into a war it didn’t want to enter.
“Well, his position is unique. He has made it for himself,” Sherlock told Watson. “There has never been anything like it before, nor will be again. He has the tidiest and most orderly brain, with the greatest capacity for storing facts, of any man living. The same great powers which I have turned to the detection of crime he has used for this particular business. The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange, the clearinghouse, which makes out the balance.
“All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience. We will suppose that a minister needs information as to a point which involves the Navy, India, Canada and the bimetallic question; he could get his separate advices from various departments upon each, but only Mycroft can focus them all, and say offhand how each factor would affect the other. They began by using him as a short-cut, a convenience; now he has made himself an essential. In that great brain of his everything is pigeon-holed and can be handed out in an instant. Again and again his word has decided the national policy. He lives in it. He thinks of nothing else save when, as an intellectual exercise, he unbends if I call upon him and ask him to advise me on one of my little problems.”
Basically, Mycroft was both observant as heck and extremely knowledgeable about many things. Much of it came naturally but he also presumably worked to hone his skills so he earned it.
Talent is a nice thing to have, but I believe hard work, discipline and focus can equal or even surpass talent. A person can have half the natural talent of their rival but if she works twice as hard she can be an equal.
Some people’s knowledge is “an inch deep and a mile wide” meaning they know a little about a lot. Others are an inch wide and a mile deep -- subject matter experts on one thing. Mycroft was both, and he trained himself to put the two skills together to be a valuable contributor to others’ needs.
Albert Einstein was said to have been the same way. John M. Barry in his riveting, exhaustive book The Great Influenza claimed Einstein once said that his own major talent was his ability to look at enormous amounts of data (such as experiments and journal articles), recognize the small number that were both correct and important, ignore the rest, and then build a theory on the right pieces of information. Barry said, “Part of his genius was an instinct for what mattered and the ability to pursue it vertically and connect it horizontally.”
Barry artfully describes the difference between looking horizontally versus vertically. “Horizontal vision allows someone to assimilate and weave together seeming unconnected bits of information. It allows an investigator to see what others do not see, and to make leaps of connectivity and creativity. Probing vertically, going deeper and deeper into something creates new information. Sometimes what one finds will shine brilliantly enough to illuminate the whole world,” Barry wrote.
How does one improve their observation skills? By the visual equivalent of active listening. Pay attention to what’s actually around you, not just assuming you know what surrounds you. Because most people’s days are spent in some type of routine - waking, working, eating, relaxing - it is easy to assume what goes around us it also routine. The more one stops to absorb, however, the more it becomes clear that things around us are changing continually.
As article from the useful website Lifehacker.com on boosting observation skills suggests, among other exercises, people watching. “If the first thing you do when you sit down in a crowded place is pull out your phone, stop. Spend some time taking it all in and watching people. Look at how they act in crowded spaces, how they interact with others, and how they navigate the rush of it all,” it suggests. The more you look, the more you see.
Although I’d love to be a Mycroft battling London’s nefarious instigators, I still have a long way to go. The last time I was with the London Underground (the subway, not the revolutionaries), I was deeply engrossed in reading my pocket-sized map of the different tube lines when someone stole my wallet. Picked it right off of me. What’s more annoying than losing my wallet was the fact that I actually felt the person pressing on my cargo pants pocket and I did not take action and either move away, slap their hand away or make a scene. Instead, I moved too slowly and - voila - no more wallet. Maybe I observed a little, but I certainly did not act.
So, in the end, my minor observation that a stranger was standing too close to me in the subway was worthless. Actually it was expensive. That lesson cost me about US$150 in cash not to mention my press pass, drivers license, credit cards and my nifty RFID-blocking wallet, made for traveling.
I dread to think of what Mycroft would say. Clearly I need to keep working to hone these skills.
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