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Get Smart — Like Einstein!

Dear Readers,

I promised that our next post was to be on ideas on how to foster the creative collaboration that is foundational to innovation in organizations.  I also had some other posts lined up for some logical progression.

However, my time will be very limited for the next several weeks because a U.S. government training project for our returning military personnel is calling upon my creative skills.  Imagine that!  😉 — Did I mention that I design and deliver training programs?

In the meantime, I will share a couple of articles that I find of interest that tie directly into what we're exploring together in this forum, which, in simple mathematical formulation can be summarized as:

   Curiosity Creativity
x Good Management (Respect + Support)

(Yes, I actually made that up on the spot, and math isn't even my strong suit.  😉 )

Look for themes below that tie back to previous posts.  Again, it can all tie back to our earlier posts on the 2010 IBM CEO report on best practices for organizations that want to thrive and key points we reviewed from How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci:

  • Einstein never squelched the innate curiosity that we all were born with.  He just loved to learn and explore; that was his primary drive.
  • He didn't grow up in a family who's main preoccupation in life was looking good and fitting in.  Modus operandi such as that does not generally foster original thinking.  Integrity does.
  • He wasn't afraid to experiment and (gasp!) fail as a means of learning what didn't work, so he could ultimately uncover what did.
  • He used "whole brain thinking" with the music; let his mind wander with daydreaming and unrelated things while his subconscious continued to problem solve; he was suspicious of the convergent "single answer" thinking encouraged in many of our schools and organizations; and, I like this one, he believed we could learn about the spiritual realities (or, for those who prefer, God) by paying attention to the world around us.  — A very worthwhile pursuit.

Namaste!  EnJOY!


How Einstein Got So Smart – 10 Learning Hacks
Einstein Got So SmartHow would you feel if many people thought you were the smartest person in history? How might your life be different if you actually were that intelligent? Although we often think of Albert Einstein as one of the smartest people ever, we don’t investigate what it was that made him so. People who speak highly of him often attribute his genius to some mysterious gift. They don’t believe his smarts came from a certain attitude about learning. I believe you can recreate some of his habits to get smarter and find more rewarding work.







Einstein…the Failure?

Before you get the list of Einstein’s learning habits, consider some interesting facts about his early life. These things set the stage for appreciating his educational philosophy a little more.

  • Although he worked in engineering, Einstein’s father failed at several business ventures and had to depend on relatives for support.
  • When Einstein’s father asked his son’s headmaster what profession the boy should adopt, he said, “It doesn’t matter; he’ll never make a success of anything.”
  • He failed his first admissions examination to the Swiss scientific school he wanted to attend.
  • Some family friends told Einstein’s parents, “That young man will never amount to anything because he can’t remember anything.”
  • After graduating from the university, Einstein was denied a low-level teaching position there. (Other friends in his graduating class did get teaching positions.)
  • Many scientists and professors stonewalled his requests to work for them.
  • Einstein struggled for a few years to even find decent employment and finally got work as a third-class government patent examiner.

These things represent just a taste of the irony about his early life. Looking back – in light of his eventually recognized genius – these facts even seem humorous.

10 Things Einstein Did to Get So Smart

From what I can find, no one has compiled details about how Einstein actually studied. I doubt that his true genius was even observable to the eye anyhow. The real accomplishments went on inside his mind. I suspect his brain looked no different than ours; and genetically, nothing seemed remarkable. So, to benefit from his example, we need to look as much at his character and philosophy about learning.

1) He daydreamed and contemplated
Who has the right to say what is absentmindedness and what is pure genius? What others labeled as forgetful or even spacey, Einstein knew to be some of his most insightful, creative brainstorming sessions.

2) He Rubbed Shoulders with the Best and Brightest
Especially after his reputation became known, Einstein sought out the instruction and mentorship of the smartest people in his field, like Max Planck. If he didn’t get to know these people personally, he studied their writing and research.

3) Einstein Cross-Trained
He learned to play the violin well and loved the mathematical structure of music. He used music as a “psychological safety valve” throughout his life.

4) He Trusted His Own Curiosity
One legendary story says that his father gave him a compass when he was five years old. After lengthy observation, Einstein figured out that some outside force was acting on the needle to keep it pointed in the same direction.

5) He Maintained a Deep Suspicion of Educational Authority
Too many teachers, even in our day, feel you should believe what they say because, “I said so.” While they claim that “thinking for yourself” is part of the curriculum, their own biases and the school system’s structure discourage independent thought.

6) Einstein Nourished a “Radical Inquiring Attitude”
A Chinese proverb reads, “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” True learning requires exploring assumptions and other facts that many take for granted.

7) Einstein Designed His Own Curriculum
He had friends at the university take notes in class for him while he was away reading his preferred “extracurricular” books or journals on physics and mathematics.

8) He Relied on Faith to Learn
Einstein’s faith was that by inquiry and discipline you could learn things about invisible objects or phenomena. His “God” was not arbitrary and conformed to natural, discoverable laws.

9) He Avoided Preoccupation with Trivial Things in Life
How much time would Einstein spend on YouTube or Facebook if he were around today? His mind reverted consistently to “exploring and understanding the physical world.” What do you think about when you have nothing else to think about? Einstein’s discoveries didn’t come easily; they came from discipline!

10) Einstein Was an Autodicact. 
As one biographer (Ronald W. Clark) wrote, he “found his real education elsewhere, in his own time.” Schooling provided the basic building blocks of language and concepts, but Einstein’s initiative took his learning far beyond the limits of academics.

Einstein's Learning Hacks - Free Infographic
Get this high resolution graphic (pdf) on Einstein’s Learning Hacks – for free!

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Cat Eyes w fish friendWho among us has not heard this unfortunate maxim repeatedly from the time we were very young?  This cautionary saying has been brandished as a means of squelching natural human curiosity for 400+ years, when it was first penned for characters in plays by Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.  However, some version of these sentiments has likely been in existence for millennia, serving to instill trepidation into the hearts of children and adults alike that trouble comes to those who ask too many questions!

But don’t believe it!!  Resistance is not futile!  Reawakening our innate sense of inquisitiveness and wonder is essential to cultivating our creative and innovative mindsets.  Leonardo da Vinci’s voracious curiosity led him to being rigorous in seeking ways to examine everything from a range of perspectives.   He sketched his subjects from different sides, and from above, and/or below.   The powers of observation that he honed seemed almost super human. He knew that it was only in this manner that he could come even close to understanding a thing’s essence.

As another important means for regaining fresh perspective, he encouraged people to take breaks from their work and relax or put their attention elsewhere, often to find that new ideas would then emerge.  Most of us have heard stories of brilliant insights coming to people when their minds are “unfocused,” when they are in the car, shower, bed, exercising, etc.  Einstein said he got his best ideas while shaving.  Abraham Lincoln also wrote, “Such [thoughts] often come in a kind of intuitive way more clearly than if one were to sit down and deliberately reason them out.”  It is an experience many of us have shared, having great insights emerge when we are doing something seemingly unrelated to the topic of inquiry. 

So — how curious are you?  In How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Gelb provides a “Curiosità Self-assessment.”  Ask yourself whether you:

  • Take adequate time for some form of contemplation or meditation – mental “down time” when you are not thinking about anything in particular.
  • Are always learning something new.
  • Seek out different perspectives when making important decisions.
  • Read a lot.
  • Learn from children.
  • Are skilled at identifying and solving problems.
  • Look up words you are unfamiliar with.
  • Continually learn about other cultures.
  • Know or are learning foreign languages.
  • Would be described as open-minded and curious by those who know you.
  • Love learning. Da Vinci Workbook

I highly recommend either going through Gelb’s da Vinci book or the accompanying Notebook.  Some people intend to go back through the book and do the exercises, but never get around to it.  So it might be best to just dive into the Notebook.

In short, Gelb recommends five types of exercises for cultivating our curiosity.  Helpful guidelines for these and related practices are provided in the book and workbook:

Practices such as these and others outlined in the book can encourage us to keep our inquiring minds alive while continuously helping us to expand our intellectual, expressive, professional, and interpersonal capacities.

  1. Keep a journal for a range of types of notes, observations, and questions to be contemplated.  Gelb offers good suggestions for topics.
  2. Find the right questions:
    Gelb writes: “You can increase your problem-solving skills…. [By] shifting the initial emphasis away from focusing on finding “the right answer” and toward asking “Is this the right question?
    …Instead of continually asking how to get to water, nomadic societies became agrarian and stable when they began asking, “How do we get the water to come to us?”
    Exercise: Ask the Five Whys of things, as well as What? Who? How? & Where?  Contemplate them in your notebook.
  3. Continually Learn New Things:
    “Just as iron rusts from disuse, and stagnant water putrifies, or when cold turns to ice, so our intellect wastes unless it is kept in use.”  Leonardo da Vinci
    “Your progress in learning will correlate directly with your willingness to play and embrace feelings of unfamiliarity and foolishness.”  Michael Gelb 
    a. Pick a “by when” date that you will begin to pursue your “some day” hobby now
    b. Learn a new language.  "Babies dive into learning language as early as they are able and don’t worry about sounding foolish – so can you!"
  4. Continually build your vocabulary.
  5. Nurture your emotional intelligenceBe curious about yourself.
    Differing from “self” obsession, some level of curiosity about oneself is healthy and necessary for emotional growth.  It can increase one’s self-awareness along with compassion for others and the ability to relate to them with less reactivity.  “Know Thyself” seems to have been a guiding precept for the maestro as well as for Socrates. 
    Exercise:  Ask trusted loved ones, friends, and colleagues questions such as:      
    i. What are some of my blind spots and areas for improvement? (In my hospital chaplaincy training, we called these our “growing edges.”)
    ii. What are some of my best qualities?
    iii. What can I do to be more effective, helpful, or sensitive to others?


    Gelb recommends just listening; maybe asking some clarifying questions, but avoiding the temptation to justify (as difficult as this may be).  I admit this might be bit of a scary exercise for some of us, but its value can be immense.

Instead of listening to my preferred talk radio station on my long drive between the Washington, D.C. area and my home in central Virginia, other sorts of sound tracks allowed my mind to wander the other evening.  I started thinking about three of the seven key habits in the book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, which happen to correspond to practices recommended by the “stand-out” leaders cited in the 2010 IBM CEO study:

  1. Curiosità, and questioning;
  2. "Dimonstrazione": Experiential learning, which goes with the willingness to make, and learn from, mistakes, and,
  3. "Sfumato": Comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity.

It then dawned on me that these ways of being all relate to overcoming fear.  Even the term used in the report, “stand-out,” implies people who are willing to follow their own instincts and speak their truths in the face of “group think” and at the risk of rustling feathers, or worse.

I’d been wondering about the linkage that those successful leaders alluded to between
Standing out in a field
creative/innovative thinking and “integrity.”  As was said, yes, it does take courage to question the status quo, go into unknown territory, and be willing to learn from mistakes. But I then saw a deeper connection: that overcoming one’s own fears requires personal integrity.

As President F.D. Roosevelt said, “… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Although the two words, “curious” and “courage,” are not etymologically related, it occurs to me that they are intertwined.  Both require a willingness to question, to forge into the un-known, and to risk making mistakes.

It seems to me that fear is what sabotages our capacities for creative expression and innovative thinking.  It is fear that seduces many of us and keeps us in our comfort zones.  It is those people who have no choice, or those who are inspired by the greater visions, who exhibit to us time and again that “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

What moves us to overcome our fear?  Inspiration.  The word “inspire” derives from the Latin: “to breathe,” and is related to the word “spirit”: “The vital principle or animating force within living beings.”  Inspire: (American Heritage dictionary, 4th Edition)

1.    To affect, guide, or arouse by divine influence.
3a. To stimulate to action; motivate
5.    To be the cause or source of; bring about
6.    To draw in (air) by inhaling.
7.    Archaic  b. To breathe life into.  

Brave people, warriors on any number of fronts, consistently say that they do experience fear, but they push themselves beyond it for the sake of others or because they are inspired by causes or visions beyond themselves.

We were born inspired with curiosity about life and possibilities.  As little children, most of us didn’t fear being “wrong” when unfettered imagination was allowed and for which there was no right or Teacher --( wrong.  But gradually, fear crept in as we were acculturated to come up with the correct answers, to draw between the lines, and not be perceived as too different, “weird” or “stand out” from the crowd.  Actually, come to think of it, this is ironic in America, where the dominant culture is considered to be the most “individualistic”  in the world… Food for thought for a future blog post. 

Some say Leonardo da Vinci was the most curious man who ever lived.  But then, there was Socrates, who inspired even the maestro and other great Renaissance minds.  Our greatest artists and leaders overcame their fears through what inspired them and through their own integrity, often in the face of tremendous sacrifices.  These men and women continue to stand as inspirational figures for all of us.  Those who saw what was possible and asked “Why not?” and “What if…?”

What comes to mind regarding overcoming our own insecurities is the well-known Marianne Williamson poem quoted by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural address.  It speaks so poignantly to the fear that many have of standing out and the need for being true to our gifts in order to benefit others:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves,
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles

 That’s what truly inspirational leaders and innovators do: they do not shrink from standing out, from speaking their truths, or from daring to inspire with imagination.  We need a lot more of them; we need to be them.  As Ms. Williamson wrote in her more recent book, Age of Miracles, our world desperately needs our full range of skills which includes our creative imaginations, “All hands are needed on deck.”  

So now, I have some contemplating to do. If you care to join me in pondering these questions, please do.

  • What have you been most afraid of?  What has gotten in your way of following your heart’s desires? 
  • What inspires you?  When do you feel most alive?  
  • What helps you to overcome fear?

And best of all:

  • Where would you love your inner “drummer” to lead you in this year ahead?







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