When we think of Albert Einstein, we inevitably conjure up images of the icon rather than the man. We see Einstein with his wild hair and his tongue sticking out or Einstein as a playful old man, riding a bicycle. We remember his cheerful confidence and his easy comfort with his own genius. He wasn’t always that way.
The younger Einstein, the one who actually came up with the ideas that established his place in history rather than the world famous scientist he became, was far different. Reeling from chronic unemployment and a troubled marriage, he was working as an obscure clerk in a patent office when he changed the world.
Yet we can learn far more from that awkward young man that we can from the icon. While the older Einstein was, as Robert Oppenheimer put it, “a landmark, not a beacon,” the early Einstein was a creative force who transformed how we see our universe. So don’t be fooled by the witty myth in the tattered sweater. Here are 4 lessons the real genius can still teach us.
1. Find A Good Problem
As a boy, Einstein liked to imagine what it would be like to ride on a bolt of lightning. In many ways, it was a typical childhood fantasy. If he were born in another time, you could imagine him learning to speak Klingon or becoming immersed in the lore of the Jedi. Yet Einstein took the idea so seriously that it became the first of his famous thought experiments.
As he grew older and began to study physics, he learned that according to Maxwell’s equations the speed of light was was supposed to be constant, but according to Newton’s laws if a boy riding at the speed of light shined a lantern forward, then the beam would travel at twice the speed of light.
Clearly, both couldn’t be true. Either the speed of light was relative to absolute time and space or the other way around. As we now know, Einstein proved that the speed of light was absolute and that time and space were relative quantities. In other words, an inch is an inch and a minute is a minute only in relation to a specific context.
This seems incredible because it’s so alien to our everyday experience, but today it’s easily proven. Simply get in your car, turn on the navigation system and follow its directions. GPS satellites are calibrated according to Einstein’s equations, so if you get to where you want to go you have, in a certain sense, proved the theory of relativity.
What’s interesting about Einstein’s theory is that he didn’t discover it in the same sense that Columbus discovered America. In fact, he didn’t uncover a single fact that wasn’t known to virtually every working physicist at the time. His genius was to see a problem where nobody else realized that one existed.
2. Innovation Is Hard Work
One of the most misleading aspects of the Einstein myth is that it makes it seem as if brilliance came easy to Einstein. It didn’t. Although the stories of him failing in math — or any other subject — are apocryphal, he was a bright, but not a brilliant, student. Few, even close friends, seemed to notice anything exceptional about him.
What made Einstein different was how long he was able to keep a thought experiment in his mind and continually work through it. The lightning bolt riding fantasy lasted ten years before he discovered special relativity. It was then replaced by an elevator riding fantasy that he worked on for another ten years before he came up with general relativity.
So while Einstein was undeniably smart, there’s really nothing to indicate that he was exceptionally gifted. That’s not unusual. Many geniuses throughout history showed little early promise. At the same time, research suggests that child prodigies tend not to be any more successful than anyone else.
In Peak, performance expert Anders Ericsson explains why. While certain genetic gifts give you a head start, to accomplish anything worthwhile you still need to work at it intensively for an extended period of time and those years of hard work tend to supersede any initial differences in talent.
3. Create A Safe Space
Einstein’s lack of early promise raises a question: How did an unexceptional young man turn the world on its head so suddenly?
After graduating from school in 1900, he spent a few years in depression and unemployment before taking a job as a lowly clerk in a patent office. Nevertheless, in 1905, he unleashed such a torrent of discovery that it is now known as his miracle year.
The key intervening event seems to the establishment of the Olympia Academy, an informal group that met regularly to discuss physics, mathematics and philosophy. It is easy to imagine how this group, in contrast to his formal studies in which he often clashed with his professors, gave Einstein the confidence and support he needed to let his mind run free.
Recent research suggests that this type of environment can spur innovation. Google conducted a study in which it found that its best performing teams acted as “safe spaces” where members felt comfortable sharing ideas without fear of rebuke. Scientists at MIT and Carnegie Mellon found that members of high performing teams exhibit high levels of social sensitivity and speak in roughly equal amounts.
What is clear is that a few years after the group started meeting Einstein shocked the scientific world with an outpouring of creativity rarely seen in world history. He also remained close to his Olympia Academy friends for decades, suggesting that a strong bond was formed. Two of them, Michele Besso and Marcel Grossmann, became key collaborators.
4. Even A Genius Can Be Wildly Wrong
Einstein rightly earned his place in history and is considered one of our greatest geniuses, but that doesn’t mean that he was always right. In fact, in some ways he was wildly off the mark. The most prominent case was his inability to accept the central implication of quantum theory, that the universe is based on probabilities, not absolutes.
This played out in the famous Einstein-Bohr debates in which he insisted that “God does not play dice with the universe,” to which Bohr cleverly retorted, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.” Bohr not only won the day, he also won in the eyes of history and quantum mechanics became, along with relativity, part of the standard physical model.
After that, Einstein’s work as a serious scientist was mostly over. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb and would become Einstein’s boss at the Institute for Advanced Study, once remarked that Einstein was “completely cuckoo.”
Yet with Einstein, even his failures were more fruitful than most people’s successes. His debates with Bohr are still considered to be the height of scientific discourse. His skepticism of quantum physics led to his famous EPR paradox, which in turn led to other breakthroughs such as quantum teleportation and quantum computing.
We tend to remember Einstein only as the brilliant, incredibly creative iconoclast and he was certainly that, but he was also something much more. He was intensely human man who struggled, made mistakes and could even be cruel, especially with Mileva Marić, his first wife. We need to remember him not only for his achievements, but for how he achieved them.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com
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Greg Satell is a popular speaker and consultant. His first book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age, was selected as one of the best business books in 2017. Follow his blog at Digital Tonto or on Twitter @Digital Tonto.