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Can you become a genius if you aren't one?

Sherlock Magnifying Glass

"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." This quote is attributed to Sherlock Holmes, but ultimately, it was Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote the words. I love this quote, but it's not really practical for most of us. What do I mean by that?

Holmes uses a combination of deductive, inductive, and adductive reasoning in the stories.

Additionally, Holmes is an genius observer as well as strategist. When I say "genius" I mean it in the highest sense of the word. His mental prowess is beyond what most of us will ever be able to reach, unless we put in the time and effort to develop the same craft. How did he reach this level of genius?

Can you become a genius if you aren't one?

What is a genius? That's sort of a funny question. If you look up what genius is online or in a dictionary, you will likely find words like, "originality, creativity, intellect, exceptional talent, etc...". It's pretty hard to pinpoint what it is exactly. I actually prefer the concept that genius is just appreciation for the talents of someone in a field of interest. Usually that talent has reached a high level of proficiency and has impressed a generation of individuals past or present.

Why does defining "genius" matter? Because the word "genius" often carries an added implication along with it. The implication is that it is something people are born with, not developed. But that's not entirely true. Yes, there are plenty of individuals that have unique abilities because of how their brain is hard wired. Some people have synesthesia, an ability to hear, smell, or taste in colors. Some individuals have eidetic memory which allows them to remember information, events, etc... in seemingly flawless detail. And yes, there are savants. People with very specific talents in one area of life, although their intellect could be comparably high in other areas besides their main field. Mozart for example, predictably had a high IQ but it wasn't his intellect across multiple areas that made him famous. It was his ability to make music that earned him the title as genius.

But I am referring to the type of genius that can be replicated. In the book, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, he outlines the concept of talent hot beds and acts of "genius" from people that on the surface wouldn't seem like they would be genius. Often these individuals have some measure of talent, but it is their approach to practice that actually skyrockets them into the realm of what we might consider genius.


It was once thought that the mind and memory was limited. The prevailing belief was that the brain was like a piece of hardware that has limited function, power, performance, etc... But that's not the case. The mind is like a muscle that can increase in size and performance.

10,000 HOUR

'Anders Ericsson, a physiologist in the 1970s wrote a dissertation about verbal reports from people with talent. He wanted to understand what talent was and how to acquire it. He later partnered with a psychologist-economist named Herbert Simon to formulate the concept of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. This rule amounts usually to 10,000 or a decade of consistent work.

To be clear, the 10,000 rule is used to broadly predict that if a person spent that amount of time invested in a single field of study, they would be a world class expert. This isn't to say that you have to spend 10,000 hours to get good at playing table tennis or chess. But if you want to be on top of your game, the 10,000 hour rule is probably where you need to be at. "Yeah, that's well and good for some people, but I have tried to improve my skills and I don't seem to be reaching that high level of "genius" you speak of".

That's a valid statement. If genius can be developed, why is it that some people seem to progress quicker towards it? The answer is simple. Unfortunately, a lot of us don't want to swallow the pill that will cure us. Time and practice is what is necessary to acquire the cognitive connections that come with high levels of performance, and yes, genius.

"In Genius Explained, Dr. Michael Howe of Exeter University estimates that Mozart, by his sixth birthday, had studied 3,500 hours of music with his instructor-father, a fact that places his musical memory in the realm of impressive but obtainable skill." No wonder the young Mozart could dazzle the audiences of his day with impressive musical feats. He had almost reached half of his 10,000 hour mark by the time he was six years old. By the time he was 12, he likely surpassed that landmark because of the amount of time his father made him practice and perform for others.



We often limit ourselves by comparing our talents to others. "Oh I can never be as good as that person." or "Sally is just a natural singer, she must be born with it." Those little things that we tell ourselves don't really add up. It's rarely ever just natural talent that takes anyone anywhere.

In his work, Ericsson helped to disprove the notion that our brains are limited. In particular he helped to break the concept that we can only memorize 7 items (plus 2 or minus 2) in our working memory (short term). By the end of his experiment, he had some volunteers memorizing up to 80 numbers in number memorization task. He eventually went on to conceptualize the concept of "deep learning." Which is what a lot of professional talented people use today.

It could be suggested that the "genius" of past times, used this form of learning to reach high levels of performance. Those performances garnered the interest and finally appreciation of their generation. Ericsson called this process “deliberate practice” and defined it as working on technique, seeking constant critical feedback, and focusing ruthlessly on shoring up weaknesses. (For practical purposes, we can consider “deliberate practice” and “deep practice” to be basically the same thing'—Coyle, Daniel. The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. (pgs. 40-51). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Because of the work of people like Ericsson, we now know that things like intellect are limited by your own perception. We can all get smarter and learn greater amounts of information. But why does that matter?


If you know it's possible to reach high levels of performance, what's holding you back from achieving it? Is it fatigue, stress, social problems, distractions, feelings of self-doubt? Whatever it is, don't allow it to stop you from reaching the level of genius that you are capable. Spend time finding out the reasons that you can't achieve high levels of performance and squash them.

Maybe no one will call you a genius for all the hard work you put into your craft. Maybe no one will care about how you spend your evenings getting better at what you do. But "genius" is just a word to describe appreciation for the talent someone has cultivated. Other peoples appreciation for what you do doesn't define your talent and you shouldn't let it.

Let's go back to the start of this article. What if we wanted to learn to think like Sherlock Holmes? Remember, even genius is cultivated with hours of development. There is no secret, that if we wanted to learn to think like the fictitious character, we could. What would the training look like? What would deep learning look like for Sherlock Holmes?

In the stories, Holmes is a virtual historian of crime published and unpublished. He uses this as a reference in the stories to help him navigate the complex waters of crimes. In the Study In Scarlet, Dr. Watson catalogues the talents of Holmes.

  • Knowledge of Literature – nil.

  • Knowledge of Philosophy – nil.

  • Knowledge of Astronomy – nil.

  • Knowledge of Politics – Feeble.

  • Knowledge of Botany – Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.

  • Knowledge of Geology – Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.

  • Knowledge of Chemistry – Profound.

  • Knowledge of Anatomy – Accurate, but unsystematic.

  • Knowledge of Sensational Literature – Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.

  • Plays the violin well.

  • Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.

  • Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

After reading the list, we can see why Sherlock Holmes is so good at solving crimes. His most advanced knowledge comes from things associated with it. He doesn't waste his time learning about things that have nothing to do with crime or can't help him solve them. In the story Holmes displays a breadth of knowledge about other things but his main focus is on crime. What can we learn from that?

If we want to develop the same level of genius and craft in our thinking processes, we need to invest the same diligence and time that any genius does. It is attainable, but we need to make the investment. We need to spend time in deep learning. This requires us to be more deliberate, to seek out criticism, and to sure up our weaknesses. We also need a learning strategy.

In the next post about this I plan to outline some of the short term strategies that we can use to learn to think like Sherlock Holmes. Be sure to subscribe to the site for more updates on posting.

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