How to think like Albert Einstein

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Considered the epitome of genius, Albert Einstein appears like a wellspring of intellect gushing forth fully formed from the ground, without precedents or process. There was little in his lineage to suggest genius; his parents Hermann and Pauline, while having a pronounced aptitude for mathematics and music, gave no inkling of the off-scale progeny they would bring forth. His career itself is now the stuff of legend. In 1905, while working on physics almost as a side-project while sustaining a day job as technical patent clerk, third class, at the patent office in Bern, he published five papers that revolutionized physics and can only be compared to Isaac Newton’s burst of high creativity as he sought refuge from the plague. Among these were papers heralding his famous equation, E=mc^2, along with ones describing special relativity, Brownian motion and the basis of the photoelectric effect that cemented the particle nature of light. In one of history’s ironic episodes, it was the photoelectric effect paper rather than the one on special relativity that Einstein himself called revolutionary and that won him the 1922 Nobel Prize in physics.

But in judging Einstein’s superlative achievements, both in terms of his birth and his evolution as a physicist, it is easy to think him of him as an entirely self-made genius. Nothing could be further from the truth. Einstein stood on the proverbial shoulders of giants – Newton, Mach, Faraday, Maxwell, Lorentz, among others – men who had laid the foundations of physics for two centuries before him and who he always had effusive praise for. But quite apart from learning from his intellectual ancestry, Einstein also honed useful habits and personal qualities that enabled him to triumph in his work. Too often when we read about brilliant men and women, there’s a tendency to enshrine and emphasize pure intellect and discard the personal qualities, as if the two were cleanly separable. But the fact of the matter is that raw brilliance and qualities are like genes and culture, each feeding off of each other and nurturing each other’s growth and success.

As psychologist Angela Duckworth described in her book “Grit”, genius without effort and determination can fail, or fail to live up to its great promise at the very least. And so it was for Einstein. Which makes it a matter of curiosity at the minimum ,and more promisingly a tool for measurably enhancing the efficiency of our own more modest work, to survey the personal qualities that Einstein embodied that made him successful. So what were these?

Have no fear: If one had to point to a single quality that really set Einstein apart from the pack, it would be personal courage and self-confidence. Usually we associate courage with the battlefield. But science is no less a battlefield, with intellectual soldiers entrenched as deep in their trenches of belief as the British were at the Battle of the Somme, with the hail of bullets becoming the articulate barbs of criticism in scientific journals and the popular press. No revolutionary idea comes into the world without an uphill battle, kicking and screaming not just against its detractors but against the weight of its own novelty that threatens to sink it. Einstein’s ideas were no different. Not only was he fighting against the old Newtonian guard with its concepts of absolute space and time, but he was fighting against making intellectual leaps without enough ballast. Later he also fought, unsuccessfully as it turned out, against the vanguard of quantum theory led by Niels Bohr in his efforts to clarify the laws of the subatomic world.

The trick in Einstein’s case, to quote the late theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, was that he actually took his ideas too seriously and pursued them to their logical ends. A significant part of this meant trusting that the equations equaled reality. Other men who came tantalizingly close to discovering special relativity, most notably Hendrik Lorentz and Henri Poincaré, lacked the courage to make this equivalence. For instance, Lorentz meant for the “local time” (t’) for observers to represent a mathematical convenience rather than physical reality. Einstein, based on his relativity postulates, simply assumed it to represent physical reality as a logical end. Throughout his career Einstein stuck to this kind of intellectual fearlessness, and today it’s one of the first principles wise professors emphasize when initiating beginning students into scientific research: the enthusiasm and hard work might come easily enough, but standing your ground is very much an acquired habit, and one acquired sooner than later. Whether it’s doing a new piece of science or starting a new company based on a novel idea for a product, you will be mocked for your beliefs. You will discover truths about nature (or the market, or human beings) that would make it hard for you to take yourself seriously. But believe in yourself, persist and see where the rabbit hole goes.

Keep it simple: One of Einstein’s famous quotes says, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”, and he certainly followed his own advice, especially during his early career. The impetus for special relativity came from failing to find the so-called ether as the medium through which light propagated. Like any other disturbance in matter, light was thought to be an entity whose speed was always measured relative to a medium. In developing his own revolutionary equations of electromagnetism, James Clerk Maxwell had found a constant speed for light – 186,000 miles per second. But 186,000 miles per second relative to what? The next few years were spent constructing ingenious experiments trying to find the all-pervasive ether, until the Michelson-Morley experiment showed that there was no such medium.

Einstein simply took this result at face value, and it became one of only two basic postulates of special relativity; the other one being that the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames. All the bizarre, parlor-trick-like predictions of relativity including the twin paradox and length contraction come from these two simple postulates. We see the same kind of thinking prevailing when Einstein explained the photoelectric effect in terms of photons, and later when he developed the quantum theory of statistics for particles like the photon with the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose. In fact, Einstein’s biographer Abraham Pais says that all of Einstein’s career could be said to have been founded on two simple principles: the search for invariant principles and the application of statistics.

Another enduring example of Einstein’s simplicity was the essentially childlike curiosity that enabled him to keep asking the most fundamental questions about space and time. As he said once, children always ask such questions, but they are usually hammered out of adults (usually by teachers and peer pressure). One hallmark of great scientists is their continued passion for understanding basic questions about nature. And that’s a quality that bears fruit in all kinds of settings. For instance, “Why are we building this product?” is not a question that is usually asked or patiently answered a year into the product’s lifecycle, but it’s all too easy even for well-defined products with an initially clear vision to stray from the chosen path through the vicissitudes of technical or management decisions. Keep on asking the simple questions, even if they lead to raised eyebrows.

Interestingly, we can also learn from Einstein’s quest for simplicity by its failures. In his later years he refused to take the results of his own general theory of relativity seriously, including the expansion of the universe and the existence of black holes. The first he grudgingly accepted after seeing overwhelming evidence of it painstakingly gathered by Edwin Hubble, but the second he refused to accept until the end of his life. And yet in many ways, black holes are among the simplest and most striking predictions of general relativity. Later when it was found that an object as diabolical and otherworldly as a black hole could be characterized by only three parameters – its mass, charge and angular momentum – the simplicity of Einstein’s ideas was revealed in all its glory. Another one of Einstein’s failures was to not take quantum mechanics seriously enough, when work by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others revealed the fundamental indeterminacy at its heart. The young revolutionary had become an old conservative. Had he followed his younger self’s advice of following every idea to its logical end, he might have felt more at home with the bizarre mysteries of quantum theory which were as philosophically upending as those of his beloved special relativity.

Do thought experiments: There was no other scientist who mastered the art of achieving insights through thought experiments as well as Einstein. From his wondering as a 16-year-old how the world would look like if he rode on a beam of light to his thinking about the equivalence principle (the equivalence of inertial mass with gravitational mass) after imagining free fall in an elevator, Einstein never ceased to imagine. Many of us shy away from thought experiments because we don’t think they are grounded enough in reality. But the whole point of thought experiments is to imagine a situation which may not be possible in practice because of technical limitations but which does not violate any fundamental laws and is entirely plausible in principle. In that sense thought experiments are a kind of speculative modeling, constructing what-if models, testing and tweaking the model’s parameters, pressure-testing and mentally breaking them. If nothing else they serve to clarify our thinking, isolate the essentials of a problem and point to the path forward.

Focus on the ends, not the means: For a physicist, mathematics is a tool to achieve her goals. It can be a nerve-rackingly beautiful tool, but it’s a tool nonetheless. Young Einstein was the supreme embodiment of this attitude. He wasn’t technically accomplished as a mathematician compared to fellow theoretical physicists like Dirac, Heisenberg, Chandrasekhar or Bethe. But where he surpassed every other physicist was in his physical intuition; he saw the physics first, and the mathematics came later. A quarter century later Enrico Fermi exemplified the same quality better than any other physicist. For instance, Einstein’s famous principle of equivalence came in 1907. So did his prediction for the bending of light. And yet the mathematics for describing general relativity, involving tensor calculus and the geometry of non-Riemannian manifolds, came five years later, and that too only after his friend Marcel Grossman helped him. In fact getting help for mathematics seems to have been a lifelong habit of Einstein’s, and in his later years when he seemed to carry the wisdom of the world on his shoulders as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he employed assistants like Leopold Infeld and Valentine Bergmann to help him with calculations.

Once again we can learn from Einstein’s successful approach by its failures. In his later years when he was searching for a unified theory of the universe combining gravity and electromagnetism, he inverted his earlier approach, playing with the equations and neglecting the new discoveries of quantum mechanics and straying from experiment. That approach predictably turned out to be a dead end. The man who had told us to see nature as she was now wanted to view nature through a thicket of mathematics, confusing the ends with the means. But his earlier success should serve as a clarion call for any of us who are in the business of solving hard problems, whether in academic or industry.

The first rule of good product management for instance is to never take your eye off the problem, with the particular technology for solving the problem coming later and in an opportunistic manner. That’s a classic Einsteinian approach. But too often modern technology companies seem to do it the other way round, starting with a technology platform based on the latest brainwave in artificial intelligence or distributed computing or gene editing or what have you, and then trying to find a problem for it to solve. While that’s not entirely unreasonable, it can often lead you into the quintessential hammer-nail mindset where everything starts looking like a nail suited to your particular hammer. Just like the right thing for a physicist is to first visualize the physics and then summon the necessary mathematics, the right thing for a product developer would be to first figure out the problem and then use whatever tools work best instead of thinking about the tools first.

Laugh through it all: Einstein had a bitingly sarcastic, self-effacing sense of humor. When he was thinking about the implications of his mass-energy equivalence, he wrote to a friend and wondered whether the “good Lord might be leading him around the nose.” Throughout his life his letters to colleagues and friends are full of similar self-effacing, occasionally dark humor. The sense of humor was in part a defense mechanism that went hand in hand with the fearlessness. While Einstein was confident that his theories would work out, his self-effacing jokes were a form of emotional insurance to prepare him in case they didn’t. But the humor helped him weather not just scientific criticism but the tumultuous political times he lived through, especially the anti-Semitism he endured in Germany. And it also helped him weather the last few years of his life when he was cast aside as an occasionally consulted elder statesman of science rather than a serious scientist. Even when he was forlorn about the state of the world, as Abraham Pais said, “an occasional touch of sadness never engulfed his sense of humor.”

But humor is not just a defense mechanism against personal and professional disappointment, it can actually be a new way of thinking. In his book “Lateral Thinking”, the philosopher Edward de Bono has described through studies how humor – asking outrageous questions for instance – can get us out of a rut and allow us to think outside the box. Mathematician John Allen Paulos wrote an entire book titled “I Laugh, Therefore I Am” about how jokes can illuminate mathematics and philosophy. Humor and creativity also often go hand in hand – just think of the best stand-up comedians. In a letter, Einstein’s friend Erwin Schrödinger humorously described one of the most famous thought experiments in physics – Schrödinger’s Cat – to illustrate the absurdities of quantum mechanics. As it turned out, that experiment instead raised deep questions about both physics and philosophy that have kept practitioners of the art as well as a small publishing industry alive since then. The general trend is clear: Humor inspires creativity and debate.

Albert Einstein understood well what many of us don’t understand easily: life can be nasty, brutish and short – in a 1926 letter to a friend Einstein said that “our bodies are wilted leaves on the tree of life” – but it can be enlivened by a quest for creativity and ideas and an ability to laugh about it all. Whether you are running a company or working on a novel scientific idea, the possibility that you may fail is very high. Most of your work may not succeed, certainly not the way you want it to, and the best way to deal with the waves of uncertainty that buffet you is to look at the world through a glass drolly. Ultimately if Einstein’s pre-eminent role in history is to be that of court jester, it’s a role we can well use today.