“The true value of a human being is determined primarily by how he has attained liberation from the self.” – Albert Einstein
Recently I had the pleasure of studying the life of Albert Einstein for my popular science book, Einstein Relatively Simple. I was struck by the great physicist’s ability to think independently, persist through failure, and remain humble despite extraordinary accomplishments. Below are ten life lessons (LL) I gleaned from my research:
1. Think for Yourself
Einstein was skeptical of prevailing thinking. He followed the logic of his own ideas no matter how strange their implications. He even dared to challenge the physics of the great Isaac Newton.
Over a century of observations and tests have since confirmed Einstein’s predictions over Newton’s. Einstein’s ideas have forever changed the way we look at the universe.
LL: Don’t dismiss your ideas just because of what everyone else thinks. You may be on to something.
2. Evaluate for Individual Merit not Just Pedigree
Einstein was a high-school drop-out. In college, he graduated fifth of six students in the math/physics program. His physics professor gave him a bad reference for disrespect in class.
Upon graduation in 1900, Einstein couldn’t find a university or high school teaching position anywhere in Europe. Would you hire a person with such a record?
LL: Judging on grades, degrees, and references can be misleading. There may be another Einstein out there.
3. Persistence Trumps Talent
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with the problem longer.” – Albert Einstein
It wasn’t easy, even for Einstein. It took him ten years (starting at age 16!) to come up with his special theory of relativity. It took him another ten years to produce his masterpiece on gravity — general relativity.
LL: Persistence and strength of will is even more important than prodigious talent.
4. Take Time Out to Think
At college and in later years, Einstein would often go sailing in a small boat to think. The solitude away from the hubbub of the city cleared his mind.
LL: Get away. Go for a walk. Let your mind wander and see what pops up. This is even more important in the hyper-information age in which we live. (Shut off your smart phone!)
5. Seek Help When You Need It
“Grossman, you’ve got to help me or I shall go crazy.” – Albert Einstein
In 1912, Einstein found his new theory of gravity required expertise in an esoteric form of mathematics called differential geometry. He was in over his head and he knew it. He enlisted the help of his college friend, Marcel Grossman — who had become a professor of mathematics specializing in geometry.
LL: Don’t be too proud to ask for help. Even Einstein needed it.
6. It Isn’t All About the Money
“Plain living is good for everybody, physically and mentally.” – Albert Einstein
Einstein was one of those rare individuals who lived simply despite great renown. When he came to the United States in the 1930’s, he could have parlayed his fame into immense wealth. But he chose to live in Princeton in an unpretentious home and continued to dress modestly.
LL: As studies show, once you have enough to live comfortably, more money does not necessarily make for more happiness.
7. Treat Everyone the Same
Einstein was famous for engaging the garbage man with the same warmth and respect as a president. He played his beloved violin with the Queen of Belgium and a department store owner with equal enjoyment.
LL: We are all human beings. Treat everyone you meet as an equal.
8. Admit Your Mistakes
In 1927, Belgian physicist Georges Lemaitre proposed to Einstein that the universe is expanding. “Your calculations are correct,” Einstein told him, “but your grasp of physics is abominable.”
Two years later, astronomer Edwin Hubble published his landmark observations on the expansion of the universe. In 1931, a humbled Einstein traveled to the top of Mount Wilson and personally thanked Hubble for “delivering him from folly.”
LL: Admit your mistakes promptly and publicly. It gains the respect of others and makes you a better person.
9. Attend to Family
“I am very starved for love . . .I almost believe wicked science is guilty . . . – Mileva Maric, Einstein’s first wife, in a letter to a friend.
As his fame grew, Einstein now in Berlin spent more and more time away from home — giving lectures, interacting with colleagues, and working on his physics. Mileva Maric’s resentment grew accordingly. After several attempts at reconciliation, Mileva left Berlin with their two boys in tow and moved back to Zurich. Seeing his sons off at the station, Albert “bawled like a little boy.”
LL: Absence does not necessarily make the heart grow fonder. Spend time with your family or you may lose them.
10. It Doesn’t Count Till You Finish
“Finally the general theory of relativity is closed as a logical structure.” – Albert Einstein on November 25, 1915.
Einstein had come up with the principle concepts of general relativity by 1912. It took him three more years of intense effort to produce the mathematics. Only then could other physicists test his predictions quantitatively and see how well his theory agreed with reality.
LL: A great idea is only a start. Put into action and complete it for others to see. Then you have accomplished something.
Postscript: I write this article with a famous picture hanging above my desk of Einstein sticking out his tongue. It’s another life lesson — don’t take yourself too seriously.
For more information on the life of Einstein and how he came to develop relativity, please check out my book Einstein Relatively Simple.
Sources for this article:
Egdall, Ira Mark. Einstein Relatively Simple: Our Universe Revealed in Everyday Language (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2014)
Isaacson, Walter. Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008-pbk)