Sherlock Holmes Meets Career Counseling

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Elizabeth Samet is an English professor, but her piece in The New Republic reads more like a literary musing on career counseling--one some career counselors would do well to read. After having her first-year students at the U.S. Military Academy list what fields--academic or recreational--they know best, Samet assigns them some Sherlock Holmes:

I ask my students to read a passage near the beginning of A Study in Scarlet (the detective's first appearance), in which Dr. Watson vainly attempts to itemize precisely what Holmes knows: next to nothing about literature, philosophy, astronomy, and politics; "practical" but idiosyncratic facts of botany, geology, anatomy, and British law; the most minute details of chemistry and "sensational literature." After concluding his list by noting that Holmes not only "plays the violin well" but is also "an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman," Watson throws it into the fire "in despair" of ever figuring out what kind of profession could possibly require this eclectic catalogue of "accomplishments."

The lesson, of course, is that even a seemingly scattered series of specialties may have an appropriate application. Also, explains Samet, "determining exactly what Holmes knows is beside the point, for it is not the amount of knowledge he stores in his prodigious 'brain-attic' but the way in which he uses it that distinguishes him." So back to the students:

I use the detective's example--that of a man who fully realizes his innate gifts, but only through rigorous discipline--to convince my students that they can learn to distinguish information from noise, differentiate the red herring from the important clue, and synthesize seemingly unrelated spheres of knowledge.

This isn't all that different, she explains, from what the military calls "operational adaptability" or "flexibility of thought."

Her final takeaway is this:

Playing the violin helps Holmes to think clearly and to work out complex puzzles. As I discover frequently with my students, you never know what someone's violin is--what secret, out-of-the way, seemingly irrelevant knowledge or skill animates the whole.
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