Six lessons from Einstein you can use in your worklife
In a marketplace that demands creative breakthroughs—the next start-up idea, a leading-edge product, a redesigned process—design-thinking interventions attempt to infuse businesses with the creative methods of designers.
Delving into the life of the last century’s iconic genius, Albert Einstein, can offer insights to both individuals and organizations on how to remain engaged at work and think out of the box.
Retain a childlike curiosity
Most adults hesitate to ask foolish questions that might lead to the unravelling of the sophisticated and clever selves they project to the world.
Sixteen-year-old Einstein was driven to explore a question that might seem childish and even absurd to any other person: What would it be like to travel along a light beam? Even as he matured and aged, Einstein retained the sprightly and playful inquisitiveness of a child.
If you are fascinated by a question that is ridiculed by others, don’t be afraid to pursue it on your own. At offices, innovation teams should ensure that a dominant group thought does not quell questions that can lead to fundamental shifts.
Engage in self-motivated learning
Einstein resisted rote learning or highly regimented school experiences. Even during college, at the Zurich Polytechnic Institute, he avoided physics classes because he was not interested in the engineering approach adopted by the professor. Instead, he turned to theoretical physics textbooks. In Bern, where Einstein came up with his special theory of relativity, he was a member of the Olympia Academy, a group that debated works in philosophy, mathematics and science. He also wrestled with questions about religion, played the violin, and was particularly drawn to the music of Mozart and Bach.
Learning that is personally motivated can lead to a deeper engagement with material than the mechanical learning that corporate executives engage in. Also, in an era where specialists are exalted more than generalists, it is instructive to recall that radical breakthroughs have often been fuelled by thinkers who have engaged intensely with multiple (or at least two) domains. So, study anything that fascinates you, even if it does not result in a degree or certification.
Value an amateur’s perspective
We can learn as much from Einstein’s failures as from his successes. Ten years after he started pondering his light-beam question, at the age of 26, Einstein published four papers in rapid succession. After the age of 40, however, though Einstein wrestled equally hard with new conundrums thrown up by the findings of quantum physicists, he was unable to achieve equivalent scientific breakthroughs.
Even at the workplace, experience and knowledge can often serve as mental baggage that prevents novel ways of thinking about familiar things. In corporate workplaces, such limitations can be overcome by inducting younger or amateur members into teams, and by gaining cross-functional perspectives on old problems.
Present your Ideas to diverse audiences
When Einstein thought of a solution to a problem, he felt the need to state it in ways that would be understood by diverse audiences. As an innovator, do not scorn someone who does not understand your idea. Besides presenting your findings to people at different levels in the hierarchy and across functional groups, explain it to the receptionist, the security guard and to children. They might enrich your thinking.
Steel yourself to rejection
Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect in 1905 did not receive instant universal acclaim. In fact, he received the Nobel Prize for it only in 1922. Surprisingly, he never won the prestigious award for his landmark theory of relativity, which he came up with in 1905.
More radical ideas are likely to elicit criticism, rejection or indifference as a first response.If you are convinced about the validity of your idea, you need to persist in winning over audiences, whether those are customers or internal stakeholders.
Make the most of grunt work
At Bern, where Einstein came up with his first set of findings, he was employed as a class III clerk at the patent office. This lower-rung job did not exploit his potential but it did give him a salary, fixed timings, and the freedom to grapple with questions that deeply interested him.
Many other creative individuals have appreciated the value of repetitive tasks that moderately occupy the brain while also allowing it to meander into more imaginative terrain. In an age where many people are keen on rising up the hierarchy and engaging in strategic work, as a creative individual you may want to make the most of grunt work, rather than shun it.
Brinda S. Narayan is the author of Bangalore Calling.
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