I’m reading A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which is the first Sherlock Holmes story, and something Holmes said got a chuckle out of me.
“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. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
Holmes was responding to Watson who was flabbergasted that not only did Holmes not know about the Solar System, but wished to forget this new information he had now acquired, because it was just not relevant to him or his work.
But it’s the Solar System we’re talking about here!, Watson protested.
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
I don’t think anyone intentionally fills his head with junk or so-called ‘useless trivia’. If something sticks in your mind or strikes you as particularly interesting and you go ahead to learn more, it’s because you have a strong interest in the subject and to me that’s a good enough reason to do so.
The quote reminds me of the various subjects or skills I wanted to learn and went ahead and did them, whether on my own or in the form of courses that took up a lot of time and effort (evening classes after work, for example). Some were completed and proved to be useful, while some others did not turn out to be useful or relevant to my work or other aspects of my life. A few were abandoned because the interest fizzled out after a while. But whatever the outcome, I never regretted taking on any of them, because I enjoyed the learning process every single time.
I get Holmes’ point, though. Or Sir Doyle’s, rather. And this bit:
It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.
is something I have probably been guilty of. While this:
Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.
sounds scary but is probably true.
Notes to me: To Do
- Declutter brain-attic for a tidy and efficient workspace.
- Expunge useless trivia like celebrity gossip, politics and other stuff you picked up in the news, current favourite TV show (Extant starring Halle Berry) and the Solar System
- Renovate brain-attic. Include filing cabinets and open shelves so the useful info is tidily organized and easily accessible. Also a fireplace so the useless info can get sucked in and go up in smoke.
- Don’t feel hesitant or too guilty to pick up new things that may seem useless or pointless, as long as you enjoy them. Just quickly burn after use lest something sticks. Keep brain-attic neat and tidy.