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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:


Again, in order to benefit from the valuable exercises that Child w Microscope investigateing daisyMichael Gelb has created for his readers, I recommend going through his How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci or the workbook by that name.

Among the more interesting questions in the author's self-assessment for “Dimostrazione” or experiential learning are:

  • Do I seek out new experiences every day, or pursue different perspectives and fresh insights?
  • Have I changed a deeply-held belief due to practical experience?
  • Would my closest friends say that I am willing to acknowledge my mistakes?
  • Do I ever practice cynicism and call it independent thinking? — Now, that's an interesting one! …And unfortunately, I would have to admit, "Guilty, as charged!"

I.    Examining Impactful Experiences:
This exercise involves reflecting on the most influential experiences of our lives, what we learned, how we apply them, how any conclusions we have drawn from them may color our attitudes or perceptions… and whether there are any that we might now reconsider?

II. The Sources of Our Beliefs:
Here, we are invited to write down beliefs we hold in at least three areas such as human nature, ethics, spirituality, or politics. We are asked what the source of those beliefs were: media, books, other people, or our own direct experience? Whether there are beliefs that we hold for which we have no experiential verification, or if there are any we might be able to test now through experience? 

III.  Three Points of View:
Just as Leonardo tried to look at everything he sought to understand or draw from three perspectives, this exercise asks us to take the statement of belief (above) that generated the strongest emotion and try to examine it from various other angles outlined by the author.

IV:  Learning from Mistakes and Adversity:
Here, we are encouraged to reflect on what we learned about making mistakes in our childhoods, what we learned from our biggest mistakes, which mistakes we repeat, and the role that the fear of making mistakes may continue to play in our daily lives at work and at home.

In an especially useful twenty-minute stream-of-consciousness writing exercise, we are asked, “What would I do differently if I had no fear of making mistakes?”

V. Learn from Role Models and “Anti-Role” Models:
We can learn a tremendous amount from paying attention to others demonstrating what not to do. Also, some of our anti-role models may be our positive role models for us in other ways. This exercise invites us to look at what we have learned from our positive and less positive role models.

VI. Practice Internal Anti-commercial Martial Arts: 
We are asked to consider the impact that some commercials may have had on our worldviews.

Monkey & camera

Learning through dimonstrazione is the second of Leonardo da Vinci’s lifelong habits advocated by Michael Gelb, author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. Gelb describes this approach as “a commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.” 

The leaders in the 2009 IBM CEO study who successfully managed innovative resurgences in their organizations urge other leaders to increase their comfort with ambiguity, ongoing experimentation, and taking "calculated risks." Fostering organizational cultures that encourage questioning and the challenging of assumptions and that continuously solicit new and original ideas leads directly to experimentation, which involves exploring lesser known paths. Not all of these paths will necessarily lead to success.

Is there such a thing as "a mistake"?
Some say, "No," that “there are no mistakes.” Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “Experience never errs; it is only your judgment that errs in promising itself results as not caused by your experiments.”  The maestro certainly had his share of failures. Yet, while he experienced tremendous adversity which resulted in periods of self-doubt, he never gave up. Gelb cites studies by Dr. Martin Seligman that find career success is directly linked with resilience in the face of adversity, and that this hardiness goes hand-in-hand with a willingness to make and learn from mistakes. Gelb and Seligman assert that awareness, a sense of humor, and deep contemplation help us overcome adversity, just as they did for da Vinci.

Following my own instincts, learning through experience, and sometimes going "by the seat of my pants” is what I’ve done much of my life. However, I would not be honest if I didn’t share that I have mixed feelings about this approach and that I don’t think that it is always the smartest route. Some who know me well as the ardent follower of my own drummer might be surprised to hear me say this. And so, I've struggled more with this post than with others as I've sorted this through to find resolution, as you will read further down.

Is there a generational divide when it comes to learning by doing versus learning from elders?
I'm not so sure there is. 
There has been considerable discussion in the training and development field about experiential learning as the preferred learning style of much of the Millennial Generation. I recommend a particularly well-written blog piece on this topic: Do Millennials Think That They Can't Learn From Boomers? The Surprising Truth. The article asserts that Gen Y'rs do look to their elders to help them to learn some of the more nuanced areas of knowledge which generally come through experience, such as how to read people, how to negotiate, etc.

And while Millennials prefer learning many new skills by doing, they also want mentors who will give them immediate feedback and who solicit their ideas for ways to enhance the learning process. The latter helps them to engage more enthusiastically, draws on their considerable creative thinking abilities, and will likely yield valuable improvements. I believe that most adults of any age would prefer this style of learning, given the option. Unfortunately, there was less choice offered in how previous generations were educated and trained. Hopefully, the learning-style preferences of this sizeable younger generation will serve to create changes in training delivery that will benefit all. 

Both/and: Trial, Error & Mentors Horsehead yin-yang
It seems to me that, as with so many other things in life, the key may be to find the right balance: to seek out opportunities to learn by doing and to find wise mentors. The last words of the Buddha were said to have been, “Be a lamp unto your selves.” In other words, listen to what wise teachers have to share, and read the great books, but don’t accept everything they have to say without question. We need to process their teachings through the illumination of our own reasoning and experience, so that they become part of our own knowledge base, instead of someone else’s.

Unfortunately, those who didn't have good mentors when they were young and necessarily became self-reliant don't always realize that they would benefit from wise champions, and therefore don't seek them out. But I believe we would all do well to find caring mentors who encourage us to imagine, create, and experiment while also sharing enough of their own experience with us so that when we fail, we don’t fall too hard or precipitously. 

Most of the stand-out leaders in the IBM study said that mentoring is the style of leadership toward which they have been shifting, as opposed to that of command-and-control. The "persuade and influence" approach they endorse permits leaders to step back and encourage experiential learning and some risk-taking, while also providing a sounding board and support in thinking through ideas. I believe that it is this style of leadership that will fill organizations with the critical and creative thinkers who will themselves lead.

The next post will contain a few exercises from Gelb’s book that will help us to  explore the role experiential learning has played in our own lives and how we feel about (gulp!) "mistakes" we have made.

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