Einsteins second blunder – is it yours?

Albert Einstein

How Albert Einstein achieved the Nobel Prize undermined his later work.

On 14 March 1883, when he was given a compass for his fourth birthday, he played alone with it for months to find how it worked. In his school years, he was unhappy with the focus on Latin and Greek. So he isolated himself to study books on mathematics and science.

In 1900 when Einstein graduated in physics, he took a lowly position in the Swiss Patent Office while waiting for an academic position. By then he believed there was a simple principle that explained the forces of nature. As it took him only a few hours to complete his duties each day, the rest of the day and night he worked alone on his idea.

For the next 5 years, his curiosity and imagination was only matched by his confidence that he could find the answer to the mystery of the universe.

In 1915, he published his theory of General Relativity. and the famous equation E=MC2. Based on the idea of an expanding universe, it challenged the experimental evidence at the time, that the universe was stationary.

So, in 1917, he inserted a term lamba, called the cosmological constant, into his model to force his equations to fit within a stationary universe.

A few years later when General Relativity was tested, and proved correct, he was hailed as the heir to Sir Isaac Newton and received the Nobel Prize in 1921.

In 1927 when later experiments revealed that the universe was indeed expanding he removed the term lamba calling it the ‘’biggest blunder’’ of his life.

After that experience, he was determined this would never happen again. He became skeptical of current experimental results and distanced himself from his colleagues. They couldn’t understand his stubbornness and inability to recognize the evidence of recent quantum experiments based on uncertainty and probability.

Einstein would have none of this. He could not accept that chance played a role in the universe. “I am convinced that He (God) does not play dice.”

Although adored by the media and public, he worked alone, isolated and marginalized from the scientific community.
Every morning he would wander to his office with scraps of paper full of equations he had worked on feverishly the previous night and spend his days pouring over the problems of his equations.

Near the end of his life, Einstein realized that he wouldn’t live to complete his work.
I have locked myself into quite hopeless scientific problems,” he wrote, “the more so since, as an elderly man, I have remained estranged from the (scientific) society.”

Einstein revolutionized our view of the world by working alone and disregarding the predominant thinking of the time.

But in this poignant statement, Einstein acknowledged a fatal flaw in his work.

His past success cemented the idea that genius comes from isolating yourself from the world of ideas and rejecting current experiments and models in favor of personal intuition.

It was his second blunder.

He was unable to modify his process and the foundation of his greatest success was perhaps the foundation of his later failures.

It’s easy to get patterned. Stuck in places, repeating things that have worked in the past.

But the world changes and you change too.
Where you have been and where you are now, is not where you’re going.
Accept this. Then you adapt to new possibilities and evolve. Resist it and you miss opportunities.

Know your handicaps
Some people think success breeds success. People with successful careers and businesses don’t need help to reinvent themselves. They are wrong. They don’t realise past achievements do not predict future success. In fact, your past success can be a handicap.You think you know what works.

Top executives from General Electric were sought as Chairmen and CEOs of other S&P 500 companies. Over twelve years, the performance of these GE executives was evaluated. In ten companies like GE, they excelled. In ten companies that were different, they failed. The GE style just didn’t transfer.

‘Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.’ Bill Gates

Your style comes from beliefs, abilities and habits reinforced by past achievements.
Accept that they may not work in the future. Then you will be aware that ”easy and natural” may be an old way of doing things. Hard to break and not very helpful.

You’re never satisfied
You’re aspirational. It’s in your DNA. But although you rarely reach the lofty heights of your dreams, you do move towards them. The problem is you adapt. Those achievements become normal. It’s why we are more aware of our mistakes and what we haven’t done, than our successes.

Despite the popular myth, success doesn’t make you feel much happier or content. It’s just a by-product of striving to do your best.

Recognize your achievements and take comfort in the lessons from your failures. Then you will be more satisfied with your past and better prepared for the future.

‘We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing while others judge us by what we have already done.’ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

You get more credit than you deserve
People give you credit for insights beyond your expertise. It’s why celebrities get asked to comment on politics and human rights. It’s also why they think they have something important to say!

Believe what people say and you become unrealistic about your abilities. Don’t believe what they say and you feel like an imposter. 

Accept that other’s views are not important. It’s what you believe about your past success that’s the key to moving forward.

Elite athletes know this. They don’t let past successes or failures handicap them. For them, success is a by-product of striving to do better. The accolades of today can easily change tomorrow.

In 2015 Roger Federer was considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time. He was then the number one player in the world. But in that year he lost both Wimbledon and the US Open Championship to Novak Djokovic. When asked if he could have won Wimbledon, he replied. “Maybe..that’s sport. You don’t know the outcome. Novak was rock solid, he played great tennis. I didn’t play so badly myself so I can be very happy as well, that’s how it goes. Novak and I go away from these matches knowing more about our games and more about ourselves. I’m pleased where my game is at. It’s moving in the right direction…

Win or lose it doesn’t change what elite athletes do. They accept that sometimes it’s nothing to do with their efforts. It’s just luck (or bad luck) on the day. Then they analyse their performance, make necessary adjustments and head off to the next game.

It’s the same for you.

What you do next is what’s important, not what you’ve already done.


Further Reading

  1. Bodanis, D.,  (2016). Einstein’s Greatest Mistake. Little Brown. London
  2. Kahneman, D., (2000). ‘Experienced Utility and Objective Happiness’ in Choices, Values and Frames, ed. Kahneman, D., Tversky, A., p. 685, Cambridge University Press.
  3. Rosenzweig, P., (2007). The Halo Effect and the Eight Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers. N.Y. Free Press.
  4. McElwee, R,O; Yurak,, T. J. (2010). “The Phenomenology of The Impostor Phenomenon”. Individual Differences Research. Social Sciences Full Text. H.W. Wilson. 8(3): 184–197.
  5. Khurana, R., (2002). Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 23.
  6. Groysberg, B., (2010). Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


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