Unlock Your Brain’s Power With The Einstein Technique
Einstein had this forgotten habit for 10 years before he got famous.
Author’s Note: This article was written over 60 hours with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.
In 1905, at the age of 26, Albert Einstein had what we now call his Miracle Year. He published three academic papers that completely transformed the field of physics.
If you’re like most people, you attribute Einstein’s creative breakthrough to a mixture of his quirky genius and his daydreams (one of his most famous was visualizing what might happen if he chased a beam of light).
But, as you’ll see in this article, the actual story of Einstein’s creativity is much more interesting and instructive. It’s NOT the story of a genius doing something we never could. It is the story of someone using a set of strategies that anyone can replicate in order to have creative breakthroughs. These strategies are hiding in plain sight among many of history’s greatest scientists and inventors.
Granted, the odds of anyone reading this article coming up with the next Theory of Relativity are vanishingly small. Even Einstein couldn’t replicate his own breakthroughs later in his career. However, this doesn’t diminish the fact that using Einstein’s creativity strategies can make us dramatically more impactful and successful.
With that said, let’s dive into the revisionist history of Einstein’s miracle year and set the record straight.
Einstein Is Not Who History Tells Us He Was
Before he had his miracle year, the last word an outside observer would’ve associated with Einstein was “genius.”
His headmaster told him he would never amount to anything.
He dropped out of high school at 15 (and later had to finish his last year of secondary education elsewhere before being admitted to university).
He was one of the only students in his class not to get a job after graduating college.
So, he moved back home, and after a few months of searching for a position he started to lose hope. In an act of desperation, his father wrote a letter to an esteemed professor almost begging for help:
Please forgive a father who is so bold as to turn to you, esteemed Herr Professor, in the interests of his son . . . All those in a position to judge the matter can assure you that he is extraordinarily studious and diligent and clings with great love to his science . . . He is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means.
Herr Professor did not respond.
Four years later, Einstein had his miracle year.
Let’s pause to consider how crazy this is.
Imagine a college grad today who is still living with his or her parents and just can’t seem to get it together. Then imagine an entire field of physics being transformed just a few years later by said person.
This just doesn’t happen.
And, it begs the question: How did such an “underachiever” make some of the most significant contributions to the field of physics?
To answer this question, we need to realize that while everything I just shared is true, it’s only part of the story.
Einstein Was Not An Overnight Success
When we tell the layman’s version of Einstein’s story, we oversimplify to the point of absurdity. You would think that Einstein was just randomly sitting around when he daydreamed his big ideas.
The little-known truths about Einstein are two-fold:
Starting from an early age, Einstein had one-on-one tutoring in mathematics. Although he showed a very large passion and talent for the subject, he did poorly on it in school.
Einstein deliberately trained his visual imagination for 10 years before his miracle year. And throughout his career, he looked at fantasy, not rational thought, as the secret to his creative impact. “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge,” Einstein explained later in his career. He added, “I never came upon any of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.”
Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.
So how exactly did Einstein visualize himself into genius territory? And how can we develop this ability within ourselves?
Let’s take a look at what Einstein did.
Einstein’s 10,000 Hours Of Mental Simulation Training
Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.
The school Einstein attended after being kicked out was an avant-garde school that emphasized visual thinking. It was here that he started visualizing how light works under different conditions.
In Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, researcher Gary Klein writes:
At the age of sixteen, Einstein began to conduct thought experiments about beams of light. These thought experiments were mental exercises that helped Einstein appreciate properties of light and also helped him notice anomalies and inconsistencies. Einstein imagined different conditions and possibilities, pursuing these speculations for ten years.
In his book Sparks of Genius, researcher Robert Root-Bernstein adds:
The young Einstein was thoroughly schooled in what modern scientists would call ‘thought experiments’: seeing and feeling a physical situation almost tangibly, manipulating its elements, observing their changes—all of this imagined in the mind.
As he conducted these visualizations, Einstein saw a conflict between his intuition and Maxwell’s equations, which at the time formed the prevailing theory of how electromagnetism worked. According to this article in the New York Times by his biographer, the tension Einstein experienced because of this conflict actually made his palms sweat.
After graduating from Zurich Polytechnic and spending several months unsuccessfully applying to academic positions across Europe, Einstein was finally accepted to a menial job as a Swiss patent clerk, where he worked for four years.
But the time didn’t go to waste. In the same New York Times article, Einstein’s biographer describes how Einstein started performing thought experiments about the relationship between light and time:
Every day, he would attempt to visualize how an invention and its underlying theoretical premises would play out in reality. Among his tasks was examining applications for devices to synchronize distant clocks. The Swiss (being Swiss) had a passion for making sure that clocks throughout the country were precisely in sync. … More than two dozen patents were issued from Einstein’s office between 1901 and 1904 for devices that used electromagnetic signals such as radio and light to synchronize clocks.
By learning Einstein’s story, we move away from the overnight success and eureka narrative and find a learnable skill and habit that Einstein practiced and developed over time.
If Einstein were alone in this, we could attribute his mental simulation habit to a personal quirk. But as I’ve dug deeper, I’ve noticed how many of history’s greatest inventors and scientists spent years deliberately practicing mental simulation with mental models (see The Laboratory Of The Mind and Creating Scientific Concepts). By learning about some of the stories, we can get creative ideas for how to incorporate mental simulation into our own lives.
The Greats Use Mental Simulation
The most common way that scientists and inventors use mental simulation is to model their craft in their head.