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Albert Einstein – what was the key to his “genius”?

Here are some key takeaways from my reading (not yet finished) of Walter Isaacson’s book on Einstein. These aspects of Einstein’s personality seem to be largely responsible for his success. Interestingly, these traits were also the cause of his many early failures (e.g. professors tended to be put off by his smug certainty, which is why he couldn’t get an academic job after graduation from the university).

  • He always questioned authority; held no reverence for accepted views or common beliefs.

  • Disdained nationalism, religion, and most formal organizations.

  • He flourished in the Patent Office job not because he liked the job, but because it didn’t hinder the development of his revolutionary proposals. No one at the patent office cared if he wrote controversial academic papers; they didn’t even notice. If he had had an academic post (which is what he wanted) his career probably would have initially suffered after writing the iconoclastic 1905 papers.

  • Visualization always came first when he tried to understand things, including the insidious problems presented to physists. He learned the importance of visualizing at the college prep school in Aarau, a school that practiced the teachings of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (a Swiss education reformer).We can only speculate how much less successful Einstein would have been if he not been encouraged by the Pestalozzi approach; but it certainly helped him greatly. Einstein said of his education at Aarau: “it made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority.”

  • Contrary to popular myth, did not flunk any math courses. But he did do poorly in mandatory subjects that he didn’t care about, such as French. It’s true that math was not what he was primarily interested in, and he didn’t do as well as he should have in that subject. But he crammed and learned it quickly when he saw the usefulness of it in physics. He learned mostly on his own, and when he was deeply interested he could learn a subject very quickly.

  • He had deep powers of concentration. He focused on one thing at a time, and could easily block out everything else while he focused deeply on one question or problem. People tended to see him as aloof. He knew this and didn’t care. He was more interested in solving problems than in reassuring people with social pleasantries.

  • He didn’t care about making money, and saw the lure of money as a corrupting influence on correct thinking. He was fascinated by science, but also with philosophy and ideas in general.

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