There are two kinds of investigation. One of them sometimes seems like magic, so it is by far the more common dramatic trope. This is the investigation of what is unknown, and it is what gives us Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, Dr. House, and Detective Monk. These are the characters who peer over the same world the rest of us look at, and somehow manage to spot, through acute observation or dogged exploration, some clue that the rest of the world missed – one whose true significance lies like the underside of an iceberg beneath a relatively modest exterior. A scrap of fiber or word with hidden meaning might be the key that unlocks an entire mystery in an abracadabracal tour de force equivalent to pulling an elephant out of a hat. It’s a set-up that seems so consistently contrived that it’s a wonder that we ever give it any credence – except that sometimes, in real life, that’s exactly how extraordinary discoveries are made. Alexander Fleming notices a dead spot in a petri dish, and discovers the power of antibiotics. A single fingerprint is found on the outside of a stolen car, and the notorious murderer “the Night Stalker” is captured.
The other kind of investigation, by contrast, seems almost mundane: the investigation of what is already known, but not yet known by the investigator. This is the kind of research we are introduced to in grade school, when we are asked to write a report about colonial America or cloud formation. We go to the library or get on the internet and find out what other people already know about this. Very little drama or amazement involved. Furthermore, we do not usually have to pry a world of meaning out of a seed of a clue. Because this information is already known to at least some people, it has usually been meshed with other relevant information in some way. Books on the same subject tend to appear next to each other on the library shelf. Bibliographies and citations lead researchers to related texts or articles. Indeed, businesses like Westlaw, LEXIS/NEXIS, and MEDLINE have been built to help investigators leverage the connectedness of this information. Every lawyer, for example, learns that once you track down (or are told about) one case that discusses an issue crucial to your own client’s situation, you can then use various indices and key numbers to unveil huge lists of similarly relevant cases. You don’t need to discover everything anew all by yourself; all you need is a place to start.
Ironically, lawyers do not seem to be any less susceptible than the general population to pursuing the wrong kind of investigation in their professional development. I often meet with students who approach their job searches or career planning as if they need to be Sherlock Holmes. If they could only read that one crucial book, they would know what career direction to take! If they could only deduce what is in the mind of the hiring committee, they could present themselves perfectly! If they could only locate that one crucial contact, they could land that job they really want! And if that contact does not turn out to be the key to the job puzzle, well, then, the search starts afresh, looking for the one person who will be the key.
In working on our careers, remember that we are really doing the second kind of investigation. We are trying to find out information that not only is already known to someone else, but also is connected to other useful information. When you find one person who is working in a field in which you are interested, you can ask not only for information about that field, but also for the identities of other sources of information (other people, reading materials, etc.) in the field. The information you accrete from these various sources can grow exponentially, as each new lead generates more new leads. And because all of this information is connected, you can develop a coherent big picture to help you navigate – not just a picture of one iceberg, but a map of the entire surrounding sea. You don’t need to explore this territory all by yourself; all you need is a place to start. Generating this big picture info is more time-consuming and less flashy than solving a mystery Encyclopedia Brown-style, but it is much more likely to get you the result you seek.
Because, really, there are two kinds of investigation. One of them sometimes seems like magic, but the other one actually works like magic.