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7 Ways Thinking like a Detective Will Make You Smarter

Detectives solve problems by finding the relationship between facts  – they observe what others don’t, and eliminate the impossible.

By Gustavo Razzetti

April 29, 2019

How to solve problems thinking like famous detectives do

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” — Sherlock Holmes

How good are you at connecting the dots?

Detectives are often portrayed as brilliant, talented minds. They possess the rare gift to see what ordinary people can’t. However, there’s a method to that superpower.

The word “detective” means uncovering the truth — it’s about detecting both what’s possible and improbable. To better observe how people act and why. And, finally, eliminate the impossible.

Searching for relationships between facts is a habit. It’s essential to produce new ideas, as James Webb Young explains in his famous 5-step technique for creative problem-solving.

You don’t need to be a bright detective to think like one — exercise your ability to find the relationship between facts.

1. Deduction and Mindfulness Go Together

When we think of mindful people, Sherlock Holmes is not a top-of-mind example. However, that’s the secret behind the most famous detective ever. Mindfulness allowed him to return his wandering attention to focus on whatever matters to him.

As Maria Konnikova explains in Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, the English detective was always observing, rather than merely seeing. Being present and focused allowed him to look for clues that will guide him to the real solution.

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.”

— Sherlock Holmes

Holmes observed facts without being judgmental. The detective focused on finding the connections and making sense out of everything he saw. He applied the principles of Deductive Reasoning.

Sherlock would write down some hypothesis about what he believed happened. He would then search for more evidence to logically validate his initial statements. The detective deconstructed what happened — piece by piece.

It seems counterintuitive to walk away from a problem you want to solve. Forcing your mind to take a step back is not easy. Dr. Watson couldn’t detach from the issue at hand. He couldn’t tolerate when Holmes became distracted by lighter things.

However, deduction requires taking distance. We let the answer find us — not the other way around.

Sherlock Holmes spent his life in mindful interaction with the world around him. Your beliefs or blind spots can sometimes tint your intuition. Practicing mindfulness opens your mind — instead of judging facts, you observe them.

2. All Stories Are Possible — Until They Are Not

When Agatha Christie penned Hercule Poirot, she had no idea she would write books featuring him for decades to come.

Unlike Sherlock, the Belgian detective is both left-brained and right-brained. Morality also plays a significant role in how he uncovers the truth. Poirot is more than a detective — he is a storyteller.

Poirot encourages everybody to tell their story. Most are full of contradiction; most are fantasies. The detective is patient — he listens to multiple accounts of what happened and why. He allows everyone to share their own point of view.

Christie populated her books with multiple suspects who seemed equally insincere until the real killer was finally revealed. Stories help Poirot comprehend what kind of person the victim was. And to uncover the murderer’ motive.

Take nothing for granted. The Belgian detective doesn’t use mental shortcuts. He doesn’t accept the verdict of others, nor does he jump into quick conclusions either. Every single piece has to fall into its proper place.

Poirot’s morality is not conflict-free. In “Murder in the Orient Express,” all the suspects end being guilty. Yet, he lets them get away with it. Though this seems like a significant betrayal to his own doctrine, it’s actually an evolution of the detective’s character.

At the end of the story, Poirot realizes that life is full of moral gray areas. The group had killed a man. But, the victim has left everyone emotionally scarred and damaged.

Storytelling is powerful to uncover insights, not just the truth. Design Thinking — a process for creative problem solving — leverages the power of stories to detect human desires and needs. Just like Poirot you must be patient and listen to many, diverse stories — the truth lies within richness.


3. Be Relentless

Sarah Linden is the least self-aware television detective — she is genuine and flawed. Sarah is clueless about herself, her relationships and being a mother.

Linden is a runner — both metaphorically and literally. She now jogs to clear her mind. She escaped from a foster home. Sarah has spent her whole life running away from childhood wounds.

Her worst qualities are also her best — she pushes it further than no one else. When others go to rest, Sarah keeps digging for the truth.

Linden’s stoic and quiet character define this driven detective. She takes it all in. When surveying crime scenes, she absorbs every detail. Her mind doesn’t ever stop. She is always coming up with new hypotheses — Sarah questions suspects over and over.

Assumptions are our enemies. Sarah continually warns his partner about jumping too quick into conclusions. Stephen Holder tends to be more impulsive, while she remains cool and clear-headed.

“You’re here. That’s what matters. That’s kind of the only thing that matters. That you show up. You’ll be alright.” — Sarah Linden

Her dedication to her work and stubbornness are unbeatable. She never gives up. Even though she fails in many aspects of her life — like being a mother. But, she keeps showing up and trying to do better. She tries again, fails again, and fails better.


4. Seek for the Aha! Moment

Life in paradise seems straightforward — but death is not. That’s what Detective Humphrey Goodman learned when he moved from London to the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie.

Humphry is very clumsy. He often forgets things and usually finds himself with nothing to take notes on. However, this doesn’t stop him from being a brilliant detective.

“Mess and I are very old friends.”―Humphrey Goodman

Humphrey has a knack at being able to solve murders by making sense out of small details.

Goodman knows how to connect the dots. Thinking outside of the box is second nature for him. Behind his unconventional approach, there’s an ingenious method. He always finds a unique and surprising angle to uncover the truth.

In his aim to answer the questions of “who, how, and why?” Humphrey usually gets stuck. He works on puzzles until he comes up with a riddle related to the case in question.

Often toward the end, the detective has a moment of realization. An ordinary element or event triggers an Aha! moment and helps him solve the crime. It could be an empty bottle of ketchup, ants on a window, or something a suspect said.

Everyone is guilty until proven innocent. Goodman likes to assemble all suspects to reveal who the killer is. He first explains why each of them might be the murderer. Then, one by one, he eliminates all possibilities.

In the end, there’s one suspect left — no matter how improbable, the real killer is uncovered.

An obsession with small details helps trigger an Aha! moment. Connecting what seems unrelated feels crazy at first. But, when all the pieces fall into place, the solution ends makes sense.

5. Being Vulnerable Is Being Smart

No training on earth can prepare us to deal with someone like Dr. Hannibal Lecter. That’s what Clarice Ann Starling discovered when she first visited the violent psychopath. The rookie FBI agent felt exposed by the killer and brilliant psychiatrist played by Anthony Hopkins.

Clarice didn’t try to hide her inexperience though. She doesn’t pretend to be something she’s not.

“I’m still in training at the Academy.” — Clarice

“Jack Crawford sent a trainee to me?” — Lecter

“We’re talking about psychology, Doctor, not the Bureau. Can you decide for yourself whether or not I’m qualified?” — Clarice

The heroic FBI trainee is direct, honest, and determined. Clarice isn’t quite sure of herself at first but knows how to manage her insecurities. Underneath Starling’s many vulnerabilities lies her substantial strength.

Clarice wants to succeed against all the odds. She’s a smart and brave agent, but still a trainee. She’s also a woman in a male-driven world. Clarice experiences fear but don’t let that feeling stop her.

As she continues to open up with Lecter, the doctor obsessively wants to understand Clarice’s emotions. “Scared at first, then exhilarated,” she shares her emotional journey. The young FBI agent likes her job — even getting used to deal with finding body parts in jars.

By being authentic, Clarice disarmed Dr. Lecter’s intellectual superiority. Instead of trying to compete with him, her vulnerability made Hannibal more cooperative.

Being vulnerable reflects the best on you and others. You don’t need to outsmart others to find a great solution. Vulnerability is not a weakness, but a superpower — what we reflect comes back to us.


6. Follow Your Intuition

Unlike Sherlock, Father Brown’s methods tend to be more intuitive rather than deductive. The Catholic priest is a detective in disguise.

G.K. Chesterton’s fictional character was based on a real priest — one with a deep understanding of human evil. Father Brown doesn’t look like the smartest guy in the room. He overplays appearing clumsy, and naive.

His appearance provides freedom to pass inadvertently. It disguises his bright mind, penetrating insight, and a gift for observation. While the police use more straightforward methods, the priest relies on the power of empathy.

Father Brown is a kind man who feels sympathy for every suspect. By identifying with them, he can feel and think like a criminal. His experience as a confessor shapes his detective abilities.

As a priest, he understands the nature of evil. Brown uses empathy to get inside the criminal mind. He can see what others can’t — that’s how we solve crimes.

As Brown explains, ,“You see, I had murdered them all myself…. I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”

Father Brown solves his crimes through a strict reasoning process more. He’s more concerned with spiritual and philosophic truths than with scientific details. He’s an almost equal counterbalance with Holmes.

Sherlock finds the criminal by starting from the outside. He relies on science, experimental methods, and induction. Father Brown, on the other hand, uses refined psychological experiences learned from confession. He relies on empathy, intuition, and introspection.

The Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci believes the nature of each detective is based on their religious view — Protestant and Catholic respectively.

Brown reminds us that you don’t need a formal title or expertise to be good at solving problems. He is not an actual detective but is as competent as one. His life as a priest turned him into an intuitive human behavior expert — he reads between the lines of life and death.


7. Find Your Sidekick

Broadchurch is a dark and emotional series. No surprise then that the main character embodies them perfectly. Alec Hardy — just like detective Linden — carries a heavy backpack.

Unresolved issues and mistakes haunt detective Hardy. His family situation is a mess. He took the blame for a previous failing case when evidence was stolen from his wife’s car.

“Sanbrook doesn’t make vulnerable. It makes me the best man for the job.” — Alec Hardy

Hardy is secretive, aloof, and determined. He is suffering from a heart condition but doesn’t tell anyone — not even his partner. Alec always keeps his guard up. He hides his feelings behind a veil of sarcasm and attitude.

Detective Hardy believes everyone in Broadchurch is too emotionally caught up in the investigation. But, he can’t solve the murder without Ellie. They both have an up and down partnership.

Ellie is compassionate and strong-willed. She was supposed to be promoted to Detective Inspector — Hardy’s role. However, Ellie is caring and devoted to her job. But, she’s not afraid to show her emotions.

Hardy likes to hold lengthy interrogations. He is a man on a mission. Alec never stops — suspects and witnesses have to keep up with his pace.

Ellie, on the other hand, invests a lot of her time in building relationships. She’s part of the community. Miller fixes what Hardy breaks.

Sherlock had Watson. Linden has Holder. Ellie Miller is Alec Hardy perfect sidekick. She counterbalances his rational and relentless spirit. But, Alec offsets hers too. Especially, after Ellie realizes that his own husband was the murderer.

A great duo is where both parts can complement and balance each other. We all need a partner in crime to help us see what we miss. Our sidekick is an accountability partner — it increases our chances of success.

Connecting the Dots

Problem-solving requires more than one method. Every idea is possible until proven the contrary. Thinking like a detective is being obsessed about solving a problem.

Finding the solution is not enough — you want to eliminate the problem.

As P. D. James said: ‘What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.”

Solving problems is about embracing different mindsets. Not all detectives think alike. Sherlock uses mindfulness; Father Brown intuition. Clarice benefited from embracing vulnerability and Linden from being relentless.

No matter the detective style you choose, you can’t solve problems alone. Find your sidekick.

What do you think?



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