7 Things Albert Einstein Taught Me About Creativity
But first, this critical distinction:
Creativity is — solving problems, fashioning products, or defining new questions in a way that is novel.
Art is — the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination
The Arts are — the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.
I bring that up because most believe scientists, engineers, programmers, and accountants cannot be not creative people. They only served as the workhorses to execute the vision of those of us fortunate enough to dance with the Muse on a daily basis.
Creativity comes from the mastery of any domain. Proper information leads to new patterns and connections and ideas. Which means we can find clues to creative process in anyone from Pablo Picasso to a nameless, sweaty bricklayer.
Or in this case, a wild-eyed physicist who did poorly in school.
1. Anyone could have done what Einstein did
Around the time Einstein shook the world with his Special Theory of Relativity paper, physicists were already at a flex point.
Those in the field were already debating the notion that there was an “absolute” anything. Work from other physicists at the time, such as Michael Faraday, had decided the work of Galileo and Newton weren’t comprehensive enough. Seeds of Einstein’s accomplishment were being planted at all sides, as the field at large was starting to realize something called “the ether” wasn’t responsible for objects appearing to move at different speeds. The word “relativity” was already being spread from professor to lab rat.
Is Einstein of incredible intellect? Yes. Did he put his own ingenious spin on the topic? No doubt.
But is he the ONLY one who could have done what he did? The Chosen One who came to bring light to the world?
I doubt it.
Einstein himself called the paper: “an amazingly simple summary and generalization,” which is hardly a fanfare.
All Einstein did was execute on a key tool in the artist’s box: The +1 Rule. He absorbed the information in front of him and said “okay yeah, but also this.”
Yes, creativity sometimes happens in leaps and bounds.
But typically it is chaste and quiet, slipping into professional use as easily as a river feeds into an ocean. Einstein’s breakthrough would have been equally bland if not for…
2. Personal Branding Rockstar
Einstein died in 1955.
So explain to me why he is on a sweater from Forever 21.
Why Einstein gear?
Where is my coffee mug featuring Jules-Henri Poincaré, who is coined the phrase “principle of relativity” long before Einstein wrote his paper? Why do our children not play with toys from the Baby Föppl* company, when teacher August Föppl himself probably contributed most to Einstein’s early understanding of mechanical physics?
A couple of thoughts:
a) Nothing to do with science
Quick, name me a the biggest quantum physicist in the game today (no Google)
b) He looks like a genius
There no chance you look at the face on that sweatshirt and think “Yeah, I want this man as my tax lawyer.”
c) Instantly recognizable
For reference, here are some other physicists of the day:
And here’s Albert:
d) He’s a big, goofy kid
Forever 21 didn’t have to manufacture the face, Einstein made it all the time
e) An easy name to pronounce
This matters. Say what you want, but Einstein was from Germany. His name could have been Albert Schimmelpfennig. There’s no chance Americans remember that many consonants.
f) Actually fun to be around
Probably due to his time spent in a patent office as opposed to a stuffy lab with other people who were smarter than everyone else.
g) Not shy about opinions
In his later years, Big Al pretty much told everyone what he thought about everything. Including Jews, how to use atomic energy in a peaceful way, eliminating all weapons, and civil liberties.
Today we call that “branding.” I think Einstein probably just called it “being a human.”
*Someone make a Baby Föppl logo RIGHT NOW
3. It’s fine to have a job
You won’t see this quote on a poster:
“A practical profession is a salvation for a man of my type; an academic career compels a young man to scientific production and only strong characters can resist the temptation of superficial analysis.”
Which is basically Einstein speak for
“If your bills are on the line, you will take shortcuts.”
Einstein worked as a patent clerk. His earth-shattering theories came not in spite of those dull hours, but because of it.
This seems particularly relevant today, when everyone wants to have started 4 companies by the time they turn 25.
4. Good work speaks for itself
Here are some things which happened when Einstein’s first relativity paper started circulating in the scientific community:
- He received letters addressed to “Professor Einstein” (which he wasn’t)
- He got a job offer from Zurich (where he couldn’t get a job 10 years prior)
- He was nominated for the Nobel Prize (but didn’t win it yet)
The world does not care what your title is. It does not care how many direct reports you have. It also does not care about your pedigree (or the lack thereof).
Here’s what matters: having a new idea. Executing on your vision for it.
Repeating that process as often as possible.
5. Divergent Thinking
Which is the term you should use to explain to your boss why you come up with such off-the-wall solutions.
This is opposed to CONvergent thinking, which is what we usually consider mastery. You use convergent thinking to speak a language, do any math, or lift weights.
Divergent thinking occurs when you remember that once you saw a contest on TV where strong men hurled big logs over a bar, so you set up a contest in your gym that involves chucking kettlebells over the soda machine.*
Convergent thinking finds all the dots. Divergent thinking connects the ones nobody else does.
*You don’t have to worry about the consequences. Tell the attendant you are working on your creative genius**
**Please don’t actually do that
6. Faustian Bargain
I am stealing this description directly from author and psychologist Howard Gardner. In his seminal book — Creating Minds — Gardner points out that seven creative people who brought about modern era (of which he considers Einstein to be included) all made a Faustian Bargain.
I’ve heard that term in a different way: “A Deal with the Devil.”
This is a common thread in many people who stand out, from pianist to CEO. An excellent yet tragic example is Pablo Picasso’s abysmal treatment of almost everyone he came in contact with as an adult.
Einstein himself was not exactly a poster child for stable relationships, as you probably know. You probably also know he was poor at school. But it seems that energy was devoted intentionally to other things.
It seems Einstein would not have been able to do what he did if not for seeing the little things in his life (like a wife or two) as “small problems.”
He was more than willing to ignore them in favor of tackling the big ones.
7. Fantasy beats knowledge
It seems appropriate to end with a quote since we started with one.
(Remember, this coming from a man whose domain who respects information above all else):
“The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”
I love that so much I could cry.
After all, if you don’t have dreams, what do you have?
Much love as always ❤
— Todd B
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I wasn’t kidding about that Baby Föppl logo