Albert Einstein inspired a paradigm shift in modern physics not as a scientist but as an artist.
Our entire construct of the world depends on language. What we see isn’t necessarily what the laws of the universe have defined, but what our cognitive brains have learned to label.
English distinguishes a scientist as someone who systematically learns about a particular part of the natural world and uses that knowledge to describe and predict it. An artist, on the other hand, is defined as an originator; someone who uses creativity to produce.
These labels are important. They’re not perfect, but they allow us to differentiate between the different aspects of our reality. Categorization helps us make sense of things.
The harm occurs when we use these labels incorrectly. When it comes to categories like science and art, we have a tendency to presume mutual exclusivity.
With a scientist, we picture something to do with research, while in an artist we see a painter or a writer. We define in terms of tasks and actions and not by the core definition of the words.
Einstein may have been a practicing scientist with a focus on theoretical physics, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t also an artist. In fact, you can very well argue that more of his success was attributed to his creativity than it was to his underlying knowledge of the field.
Almost anyone can consume. Our brains are pretty good at that. There are many smart and knowledgeable scientists. Rarely, however, are they capable of producing work that shifts our entire understanding of the world. That requires an entirely new way of looking at things.
You don’t have to play the violin or write a poem to be an artist. It’s simply about producing, and the quality of what you produce is largely dependent on creativity. Albert Einstein may be an unconventional case study, but he strongly exemplifies how creativity manifests when we:
• Don’t wait for inspiration to get moving
• Seek relationships between existing ideas
• Are willing to produce a large volume of work
Creativity is accessible to everyone no matter what the domain. It’s the key to great work.
Don’t Wait for Inspiration to Get Moving
There are many misconceptions about how breakthroughs are made. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they’re suddenly inspired and that all great creations in history have come out of a direct moment in time that changed everything. The moment the fall of an apple led Newton to discover gravity or the moment that pushed a great writer to finally finish her book.
In a slight way, they do happen, and sometimes, sporadically. That said, if your sole tactic is to sit and wait for inspiration to strike, then you’re almost always setting yourself up for failure.
Dr. Mark Beeman leads the Creative Brain Lab at Northwestern University. He uses brain scanners to conduct research studies to understand the creative process. In his own words:
“Although the experience of insight is sudden and can seem disconnected from the immediately preceding thought, these studies show that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales.”1
In other words, the reason eureka moments occur is because of the work leading up to them.
Action stimulates inspiration more often than inspiration stimulates action. Doing creative work isn’t sexy. It’s about setting a schedule and getting on with it whether you want to or not. Eventually, the combination of that effort will energize the push towards a final result.
In 1902, Einstein got a job at a Swiss patent office. He had searched for a teaching position in the preceding two years with little luck. This forced him into an inopportune and rather uninspiring place, at least relative to his interest in physics.
During his time there, however, he chose to closely manage his day so that he had a disciplined balance between the hours he spent on the job and the hours he dedicated to scientific work.
He was deliberate in his commitment to creation, and the fruits of his labor led to the Annus Mirabilis papers. Scientists call it the miracle year. It would inspire the formulation of the two fundamental theories in physics: the theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics.2
Had Einstein waited for the right moment, the world might not be where it is today.
The more you work, the more likely you’re to be inspired, and the more likely that inspiration is to fuel something of real value. If you’re sitting around and waiting for a catalyst, you’re not putting in nearly enough time to nurture the conditions under which creativity thrives.
The best way to create is by treating it as a job. Pick a time, show up, and get moving.
Seek Relationships Between Existing Ideas
Creativity is often used synonymously with originality, and that’s why most people fail to ever come to terms with their capacity for it. They can’t image coming up with something from nothing. It’s a daunting prospect no matter who you are. Luckily, it’s also completely off-base.
At its core, creativity is just a new and useful way of combining old ideas. It isn’t imagined out of thin air, and it isn’t completely abstract or disconnected. It’s a fresh way of making sense of the existing components of reality that have yet to merge.
In 1945, Einstein wrote a letter in response to a survey by a French mathematician who was trying to understand the thinking patterns of famous scientists. It can be found in Ideas and Opinions, a collection Einstein’s writings, and in it, he speaks about his process.
“The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined.
It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.”3
In clearer words, he saw invention as a product of what he called “combinatory play.” He would detach his existing ideas from the grips of language, so he could freely visualize and mix these old elements of information to arrive at some new logically connected concept.
If you think about creativity as the ability to develop meaningful connections between existing parts of your reality, you can start to realize that creativity isn’t just reserved for the likes of Mozart and Picasso. It’s something that impacts all of our lives. It’s something we all practice.
Hone your mental inventory of knowledge and let it mingle in absurd ways.
Be Willing to Produce a Large Volume of Work
Like anything else in life, the only true way to master creativity is to put in the work.
The difficulty, however, lies accepting the production of subpar work. Nobody likes to fall short of expectations, but it’s all the more daunting when it comes to creating because the result is a tangible output, like a painting or a research paper. It’s more than a forgotten practice session.
One way to challenge this difficulty is to realize that we’re not the only ones that produce bad work. When we see a great creation by a genius, it’s useful to remember that they worked on more than just one piece. They produced a lot of really unsexy work that no one talks about.
John Hayes, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, conducted a study to analyze thousands of musical pieces between 1685 and 1900.4 He was curious about how long it took for a musician to produce something that would be considered world class.
He narrowed it down to 500 masterpieces by 76 composers. By mapping out a timeline for each individual, he looked at when each piece was produced. Outside of only three artists, each composition was written at least a decade after they started to take their work seriously.
In follow-up studies of poets and painters, he found the same result. He termed this “The ten years of silence” – a period with a high production of work but very little recognition.
In Einstein’s case, over the course of his career, he published over 300 scientific papers and more than 150 non-scientific papers. An archive of his non-published work contained more than 30,000 unique documents, and he wasn’t always right.
In Brilliant Blunders, Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, predicts that about 20% of Einstein’s papers contain mistakes of sorts. A byproduct of his effort to think in unconventional ways was that his work was sometimes imperfect.
The myth of the creative genius that wakes up and always produces a masterpiece holds little truth, especially not in the beginning. Getting to a stage of mastery often takes years of unrewarded and mediocre work, and even then, the result isn’t always a masterpiece.
To really cultivate creativity, you have to be willing not just put in the time to create great work, but more importantly, you have to be prepared to produce a large volume of bad work.
All You Need to Know
Creativity is one of the most valuable life skills, and yet, few concepts are more poorly understood. It’s not limited to just writers, musicians, and painters. It’s something we all make use of in one way or another, and it makes most of us better off in life.
Albert Einstein is the face of modern science. His work redefined how we study the natural world, but it wasn’t because of his reasoning ability or his great knowledge of physics. The difference was in the level of creativity he displayed in coming up with his theories.
If an artist is someone who produces something fresh and novel, then few people in history fit the definition like Einstein. Artistry was the source of his genius.
This is what his story can teach us:
I. Don’t wait for inspiration to get moving. Creativity is a process. Even the seemingly sporadic insights – like the ones we get in the shower – rely on what came before them. Inspiration doesn’t just strike for no reason. It relies on a consistent pattern of work that sometimes manifests itself in the form of those rare moments. To truly practice creativity, commit to a schedule, show up, and get to work, whether you want to or not.
II. Seek relationships between existing ideas. Nothing new is completely original. Creativity is simply about producing something using a combination of the existing elements of your reality. Start by developing a mental inventory of relevant knowledge, work to connect the dots, and then support those connections with a logical structure.
III. Produce a large volume of work. Creativity doesn’t work unless you do. Produce in the face of failure, and produce in the face of subpar results. It’s easy to forget that not every piece of work created by a genius was all that great. A lot of it wasn’t. It’s just not talked about. Creating bad work is necessary in order to uncover great work.
The first step in cultivating creativity is understanding what it is. Once you do that, you open yourself up to an entirely new realm of possibility; a kind of possibility capable of inspiring solutions to almost any problem that you encounter in life – personal or professional.
Mastering creativity is in some ways itself an art, and like any art, it can empower you.
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