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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!

Read more:


Leonardo w butterfly Is it absurd to even dare to dream that we regular folks could embody anything even close to the creative genius of Leonardo da Vinci? A man who played such a pivotal role in the evolution of human intellectual, artistic, and scientific thinking.

By going through Michael Gelb’s wonderful book of the title above, many of us certainly can unleash considerably more of our own creative geniuses. A lifelong scholar on Leonardo da Vinci's life and work, the author identifies and details seven basic habits cultivated by the maestro that enhanced da Vinci's gifts and enriched his life.  Gelb’s book also offers a range of great exercises that will enable those who practice them to nourish their own innovative capacities while enhancing the quality of their lives and enjoyment.  — Perhaps some of us will want to experiment with some of these together, and report out on any "ah-ha" moments?

As I summarize some of these practices over the next couple of weeks, thanks to the miracles of modern podcasting technology — we are going to be blessed with a couple of special guest appearances related to this captivating book! 

Here now, is a list of the seven practices. In subsequent posts, I’ll go into more detail of the various habits and summarize some of the suggested related exercises. The Italian words are listed first, in honor of the maestro’s native tongue. Those that also happen to be referred to by the stand-out leaders in the IBM study (coincidence? hmm..) are bolded in blue, and the subsequent posts will discuss some of those parallels, as well.

  1. Curiosità – Curiosity*: An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning. (My note: A willingness to ask key questions.)
  2. Dimostrazione – A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.
  3. Sensazione — The continual refinement of the senses as the means to enliven experience. 
  4. Sfumato (“going up in smoke”) – A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.
  5. Arte/Scieza – The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination. “Whole-brain thinking.”
  6. Corporalita – The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.
  7. Connessione A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of things and phenomena. Systems thinking.

*Curiosità was a topic recently covered in the “Asking the Right Questions” post. It is telling that it is first on the list.

I'll leave you with one quote from the book related to a classic study on higher education and the low rate of retention, even a month after final exams, at a top university.  This harkens back to a critique I posed in an earlier post: "The authority-pleasing, question-suppressing, rule-following approach to education (and I would add, doing business) may have served to provide society with assembly-line workers and bureaucrats, but it does not do much to prepare us for a new Renaiassance." 

A new renaissance is exactly what is needed with innovative approaches to how we run our organizations and governments, conduct our commerce, and engage our citizens.

Ciao for now!

Colorful image, photo-like, depicting two contrasting sides of the brain. Left, blue-hued, with calculator and computer circuitry. The right, yellow-hued, with a violin and seashells.

cre·a·tiv·i·ty / krēāˈtivədē/ noun:

"The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness." –

"The process of having original ideas that have value." – Sir Ken Robinson


In a LinkedIn discussion group a while ago, a question was posed, “Which is more important: critical thinking or creative thinking?”

I was a bit taken aback by the question, since I can't really imagine one without the other. In my world-view, they should inform one another. In fact, I believe that even construing these as two independent and unrelated types of thinking is a false dichotomy. Unfortunately, it is a widely prevalent one that has been the basis of some of the limited and short-term thinking behind many of our organizational, economic, social, and environmental crises today.

Our world needs organizations filled with creative thinkers with strong skills in critical analysis, as well as analytical thinkers adept in creative ideation. And we can achieve this. We all have both sets of capabilities. They are two sides of the same coin.

Photo of Rodin's bronze "Thinker" statue: a man hunched over with his head on his hand as he contemplatesThinking with our Whole Brains


We humans are born with brains with two hemispheres for good reason:

  • Among its other functions, the “left brain” helps us with logical and sequential reasoning, vocabulary and grammar, mathematical calculations, planning, and detail. 
  • While the right hemisphere helps with spatial, contextual, empathetic, kinesthetic, artistic, and creative thinking, and synthesis.  It looks for patterns and connections, even those that may not be readily apparent. 

Many of us may lean towards one type of thinking, but it’s a matter of choice (including the choice to resist peer pressure) as to whether we primarily exercise one hemisphere, or use our entire [and for believers among you, “God-given”] brain and apply what some refer to as "whole brain thinking." (Hermann Solutions and author Dan Pink's talks on A Whole New Mind.)

From a recent Psychology Today article, "The highest levels of creativity require both divergent thinking" (the ability to generate multiple ideas and possible solutions) "and convergent thinking" (the ability to deduce a single correct factual answer) "[which has] long been known in creativity research. [In the] Geneplore model, creativity involves a cyclical process of generating ideas and then systematically working out which ideas are most fruitful and implementing them."

How our collective creative imaginations became buried alive

The northern European-dominated U.S. culture and its current public education system strongly favors “left-brain” linear thinking. To explore the effects of this approach to education on the innate creative imaginations of children, in the 1960s Dr. George Land led a multi-year NASA-funded study. 1,600 children in a Head Start program were tested on their divergent or “out of the box” thinking abilities.

  • Of children 4-5 years old, 98% tested at the “genius” level for divergent thinking
  • But by ages 14-15, the numbers had gone down to 12%!  These youngsters had not lost their capacities for divergent thinking, but peer pressure to conform in order to a) “fit in” and not seem “weird*” to other kids, and/or to b) give “the one right answer” in school (convergent thinking) had already trained these adolescents to suppress their own creative imaginations.
  • By age 25, only 2% of 280,000 adults tested in the genius range. –Woe is us!  (George Land's TED Talk.)

Land wrote, "What we have concluded is that non-creative behavior is learned."

According to Human Resource expert John Putzier in his highly engaging book, Get Weird: 101 Innovative Ways to Make Your Company a Great Place to Work, the 2% of adults who do manage to hold onto their divergent thinking abilities are often considered “too weird”* to be hired by many employers as they don't fit the expected molds. Or when they do find employment, they often learn to keep their heads down and their ideas to themselves. 

*(Putzier says the word “weird” is intended as a pejorative often used as shorthand for anything considered to be “different.”)

The case for Both/And….Drawing of the top of a person peering into his/her brain: right side, with green living things flowing out, and the blue left with numbers


Unlike merely “imaginative” musings, (as with the definitions at the top of this article) some define creativity as a form of thinking that presents "the right solutions at the right time." Given the opportunity, these can then result in innovation. 

Solid analysis is a prerequisite for creative solutions:

  • Recognizing the internal and external dimensions and factors of a problem
  • Exploring the components of possible solutions
  • The art of successfully inspiring and persuading others

The most brilliant thinkers and innovators have built their imaginative creations on foundations of significant amounts of critical thinking. Truly creative thinking results from an intersection of analysis, imagination, and synthesis. And when given the requisite support, innovation can be the result. 

It is no surprise that the standout leaders in the 2010 IBM CEO study (see summary in previous post) who fostered creative thinking throughout their organizations also found that increased efficiency and profitability resulted. The two equal and complementary hemispheres of our brain exist together to be used together. Either half used in isolation, is limited and far less effective:

  • Ungrounded imaginative musings that don’t reflect interrelationships and what is truly possible go nowhere.
  • Analytical scrutiny bereft of exploring creative possibilities and alternatives to what it views as “current reality” often overlook the larger picture and more comprehensive solutions.

The most effective problem solving requires creative thinking grounded in critical analysis — a brilliant, inspiring, (and perhaps inspired) union.


— Creative thinking is often the smartest thinking! 



Originally written February 2011.  Revised January 2018.


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