While conducting research for my recent piece Are You Trying to Find Yourself or Construct Yourself?, I repeatedly stumbled upon life lessons from Einstein. He had fascinated me in my days as a physics major (back before my first surge of authenticity) because in many real ways he was the most nontraditional scientist, while also being the most brilliant. Thus it felt oddly comfortable to get back in touch with this man's great ideas, which extend far beyond the lab. Here are the life lessons he had to share about finding solutions, keeping balanced, and making space for important work. In other words, about all of the things with which we grapple here at Working Self!
Life Lesson #1: Sudden Insights Come From Preparation
As we discussed recently, you can no more “find” who you are than Einstein could “find” the theory of relativity. It wasn’t written on some bathroom stall just waiting for him to happen by one day. “Oh my!” he’d exclaim upon seeing it all scrawled there, the superscripts hovering in bathroom-y bliss, “There it is! Now I know!”
It’s true that we often do experience a flash of insight – a moment when the answer we’ve been seeking suddenly appears in full form in our mind – and Einstein was famous for having such flashes of brilliance while bicycling. Insight is most likely to arrive while we’re doing something unrelated task that lets our mind wander – e.g., showering, hiking, doing the laundry you’ve put off for three weeks.
But here’s the trick to suddenly “finding” the answer: you have to have put in a good deal of effort before that moment. It’s like a garden. One day, suddenly and without warning, your plants spring forth from the ground. But you have to have tilled and seeded and fertilized and watered first.
Einstein did his “garden preparation” through extensive reading of physics and philosophy. He became absorbed in the topics, marinating in the works’ words and dilemmas regularly and deeply. He put in the time long before any insights came his way.
"A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. That means it is not reached by conscious logical conclusions. But, thinking it through afterwards, you can always discover the reasons which have led you unconsciously to your guess and you will find a logical way to justify it. Intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience." - Einstein
Life Lesson #2: You Have to Make Room for the Important Work
How nice for him, you may think, to have had time to stew in philosophy and the like, passing it so deeply through his core that it stirred wholly original thoughts within him.
In fact, Einstein didn’t have leisurely hours to do this work. And he wasn't paid to do it. He was reading, researching, and thinking while supporting his wife and small child on a meager salary from a full-time job as a patent clerk.
“One must not think of Einstein as a tranquil academic, brooding at leisure on weighty intellectual problems. Rather one must imagine him fitting his intellectual work into the interstices of a professional career and personal life that might have overwhelmed someone with a different nature.” - writer John Stachel
Einstein wasn’t all that much unlike a contemporary twentysomething – holding down a crappy job, trying to make ends meet, knowing there were bigger questions that needed answering but not knowing how the heck to fit it in.
As Einstein found, the only way to fit it in is simply by doing it. By keeping your family and professional drama to a minimum so you can do the important work of constructing a vision of who you are, what you value, and the impact you want to make on the world, large or small. You must hold down a job, you should keep an active social life, you need and hopefully want to attend to your family. But don’t put your real work – the work of finding you and the work you're meant to release into the world - on the backburner while you do it all.
Life Lesson #3: Remain Active At All Times
While it was a different physicist who famously said, "A body in motion stays in motion," it's certainly a statement with which Einstein agreed. And not just on the lab bench:
"Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving." - Einstein
Sitting around waiting for "the answer" to appear is the least likely way to find it. Whether that "answer" is who you are, what you're meant to do, or whether the work you're currently doing is the right fit, sitting around contemplating the question won't get you any closer to the solution.
We don't find answers by being in our heads, we find them by trying different possibilities out in the real world and seeing what sticks.
So get out there and ride your bicycle. It's the only way you'll stay upright.
Which of these life lessons resonates most for you? How come? (And if you have any great Einstein quotes to share, I'm all ears!)
For every new idea we create, I believe we have to read at least 50 times the amount. (Photo credit: afagen)
He's still joyfully riding in cities around the world. (Photo credit: adambowie)