I've read the book Einstein - His life and universe by Walter Isaacson, who is also the author of the most famous book about Steve Jobs. This summer I also read another book by Walter Isaacson called The Innovators, which is all about the history of the digital age, ranging from the first analog computer by Charles Babbage to Google. I also tried to read his book about Benjamin Franklin, but gave up because it was filled with politics which is not really my cup of tea.
The basic theme in the book The Innovators is that those who collaborated with other inventors succeeded, while those who didn't collaborate failed. It was the computer built by a team that succeeded and the computer built by the lone inventor failed. Now this is not always true, because Albert Einstein was in fact the loner who succeeded.
Einstein didn't invent anything, but he developed the theories he's now famous for while working as a patent examiner. Why was he working as a patent examiner? Because no one wanted to hire him. Einstein was actually the only person graduating in his section who was not offered a job and he often didn't even get a reply on his applications! But he responded with humor by saying "God created the donkey and gave him a thick skin."
So while trying to remain optimistic, Einstein examined patents six days a week and in the evenings he developed his theories that would eventually give him the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921. He was so efficient that he managed to do a full day's work in three hours, and the remaining part of the day he would work with his own ideas. It was doing what he enjoyed that kept him sane while everyone else succeeded. "What kept him happy were the theoretical papers he was writing on his own."
In hindsight, Einstein argued that it was actually good for him to not get a job, because he wasn't influenced by other people's thinking and he could develop his own "crazy" ideas. "An academic career in which a person is forced to produce scientific writings in great amounts creates a danger of intellectual superficiality." So Einstein was a rebel, and there was a link between his creativity and his forced willingness to defy authority. He could throw out conventional thinking that had defined science for centuries.
So how did he do it?
- Have imagination. Einstein argued that "Imagination is more important than knowledge." He also argued that "the value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think." Einstein never began with experimental data. Instead, he generally began with postulates he had abstracted from his understanding of the physical world. Einstein's ideas are abstract and are not always easy to grasp. But he believed that the end product of any theory must be conclusions that can be confirmed by experience and empirical tests. He is famous for ending is papers with calls for these types of suggested experiments.
- Do something else when you are stuck. When he couldn't solve a problem he played the violin late at night. "Then, suddenly, in the middle of playing, he would announce excitedly, 'I've got it!'"
- Work a lot. Einstein was ambitious. He and his wife had separate bedrooms so he could spend more time with his calculations. "For I shall never give up the state of living alone, which has manifested itself as an indescribable blessing." He worked so much that he didn't really enjoy food. When he invited visitors for lunch, he heated cans of beans. Then they ate the beans with spoons directly from the can. Einstein also used his work to escape the complexity of human emotions. When his wife was dying, he worked even more.
- Change your mind. Einstein wasn't mindlessly stubborn. When he realized his idea wouldn't work, he was willing to abandon it. Before Hitler, Einstein was a pacifist and thought the solution to war to not rearm after the First World War. But after the Second World War, Einstein thought he had made a mistake by encouraging Germany's neighbors not to rearm.
- Be a star. The reason Einstein is now an icon and almost everyone can recognize him if they see a picture of him is because he could, and would, play the role. "Scientists who become icons must not only be geniuses but also performers, playing to the crowd and enjoying public acclaim." And Einstein performed. He gave interviews and knew exactly what made a good story, and he often made jokes during interviews.