“History is full of bad jokes.”
One of Einstein’s good friends allegedly said this to him after he’d published four of the most pivotal papers in physics in the course of a single year, one of which was the Special Theory of Relativity—but was still unable to secure a position in academia even at the high school level. How absurd that one so brilliant should be confined to spend eight hours per day in a patent office! (And it took him years to get even that. For quite some time after his college graduation, Einstein was unemployed.)
And yet… one of the reasons I love biographies is because hindsight, of course, is 20/20. Many years later, Einstein would reflect that his position in that lowly patent office might well have been the essential ingredient to making those the nine most productive years of his life. After all, there he was not pressured to conform to already accepted theories of the universe (not that he was much of a conformist, but his isolation probably afforded him greater license for creativity.) He was at the patent office eight hours per day, but he could get his work done in three or four, leaving him the rest of his time to ponder his own work. His little office in Bern, Switzerland was located right beside a train station with an inordinately large clock which he could view through his window—probably contributing to the fact that many of his thought experiments prominently featured both trains and clocks. Perhaps he might have been just as productive in a different post… but perhaps not.
If Einstein hadn’t had the time and the freedom to write his papers, certainly we’d have had the breakthroughs anyhow—history would simply have ascribed them to another name. After all, many of his contemporaries were right on his heels, and had all the essential elements to have described Brownian motion or the photoelectric effect or Relativity, themselves. (Great breakthroughs always seem to happen in twos or threes: it’s called Multiple Discovery, and I wrote about it here.) But what fascinates me most about Einstein is that his greatest asset seemed to be a disregard for convention, which left him free from the mental limits that confined his contemporaries. He wasn’t intimidated by the fact that every well-known scientist in the world just assumed that space was made up of ether—and here he was, just a lowly patent office worker who couldn’t even qualify for a Ph.D. He dared to ask the question, “What if?”
It just makes me wonder… what might any of us be able to accomplish, if we could just shed our own limiting beliefs?
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