Is everything alright

On the day before he passed away, Albert Einstein’s assistant, seeing him in pain, asked – “Is everything alright?”

“Yes, everything is alright” – he said – “but I am not.”

In 1916, Albert Einstein predicted that gravitational waves transport energy as gravitational energy. In February 2016, scientists in California confirmed this prediction a fully hundred years later. I remember saying “Wow” as I read this piece of news. How do you develop such a deep understanding of first principles and make a prediction that turns out to be spot on a century later? So, I ordered Walter Isaacson’s biography on Einstein.

While I only started reading a few months later, I made slow progress and even considered stopping at some point in the middle. I’m glad I didn’t, however. As I made more progress, the book just kept getting better. And, by the end, it was clear that Walter Isaacson had done a great job with character development.

So, it follows that one of my biggest takeaways from the book didn’t have much to do with Einstein’s smarts. Instead, it was his attitude toward life that resonated deeply.

Walter Isaacson characterized Einstein’s approach as one of a “wry detachment” (I think of it similar to non-attachment). Einstein himself called out the fact that he didn’t take his life or work too seriously. That, in turn, helped him deal with challenges with a good measure of equanimity and a sense of humor. This becomes apparent as Isaacson shares many interesting stories from an eventful life. His charm and wit made him very quotable. And, I was fascinated by the regularity with which Einstein and his work appeared in the front page of “The New York Times.”

Can you imagine that happening with a modern day scientist? Einstein’s fame meant he was like a modern day rockstar.

And, yet, he maintained perspective. “Wry detachment” describes his attitude toward life well. He seemed to have mastered that human ability to be able to look at oneself as an outsider. And, he managed to do so by not taking his life or contributions seriously.

That’s why I thought his response to the “Is everything alright” question was among the more powerful lines in the book (and there is no lack of competition). Most of us might interpret the question as being about us. But, not Einstein. Despite his out-sized contributions to life on this planet, he understood his place in it better than most of us ever will.

I’d love to be able to emulate a bit of that wisdom in my life.

Not getting recognized

One of the biggest reasons for workplace unhappiness is a feeling that employees are not getting recognized for the work they do. Appreciation is such an important factor in us staying motivated.

As I slowly make my way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein, I’ve come to realize that what has blown me away about Albert Einstein is not what I expected. I expected to be in awe of his combination of creativity and intelligence. And, while his ability to channel his creativity and impudence into Physics is a fascinating lesson, I have been in awe of his ability to soldier on despite no recognition for the longest time. I wrote about him not getting a job (only made possible by a friend whose father had sway over the Swiss patent office) for about 2 years after getting his P.hD a few weeks back. It turns out that was only the warm up act.

Not getting recognizedThanks to Biography.com for the image

In 1905, Einstein wrote 4 papers that provided the foundation for modern physics – on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect and special relativity.  But, even as of 1907, Einstein hadn’t landed an academic job. Frustrated, he applied for a position as a school teacher to teach Math. He also offered to teach Physics in his application. But, he was told he didn’t even make the short list. He was then refused admittance for a research assistant position despite submitting his 4 papers which were gaining fame thanks to the endorsement of Max Planck, then the greatest theoretical physicist on the planet.

He finally did land a job in 1908 and was finally granted Professorship in 1912 – a full 7 years after his “annus mirabilis” or extraordinary year.

It is such a wonderful lesson for all those of us who complain about not being recognized for our work. Yes, there always are those who seem to get instant recognition. But, if it is merit-based recognition we seek, it is worth remembering Albert Einstein’s journey to remind ourselves to chase merit, not recognition.

In the long run, good results follow good processes.