The Einstein Myth
The story has become lore.
Albert Einstein was a rebellious student who chafed against traditional schooling and earned bad grades. After his university education, his brilliance was overlooked by a conformist academy who refused to give him a professorship. Broke and unemployed, Einstein settled for a lowly job as a patent clerk.
But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Free from the bonds of conventional wisdom, he could think bold, original thoughts that changed the world of physics.
The reality, of course, is more complicated.
Einstein was a rebellious student, but he always received exceptional marks in math and physics in school and on entrance exams.
Einstein did struggle after college, but he wasn’t turned down for professorships. What he failed to obtain after graduation was a university assistantship — which is, roughly speaking, a way to fund a graduate student while he or she works on a doctoral dissertation (like what we now call a research assistantship in American graduate education).
This was not a case of his brilliance being ignored, because Einstein was too early in his education to have done anything brilliant yet (the paper on capillary action he published the year after his graduation was mediocre). The main reason for his assistantship rejection was a bad recommendation letter from a professor who didn’t like him.
The key detail often missed in this story is that while Einstein was a patent clerk, he was continuing to work toward his doctoral degree. He had an adviser, he was reading and writing, he met regularly with a study group (pictured above).
The same year Einstein published his ground breaking work on special relativity (1905) he also submitted his dissertation and earned his PhD. Soon after he received professorship offers, and his academic career took off.
In other words, Einstein had to work a job to support his family while earning his PhD (an exhausting turn of bad luck), but his career from university to graduate degree to professorship still followed a pretty standard trajectory and timeline.
The Conformist Path to Innovation
The reason I’m telling this story is because it underscores a common habit: we like to cast innovators as outsiders who leverage their freedom from tradition-bound institutions to change the world.
In reality, innovation almost always requires long periods of quite traditional training.
Einstein was brilliant and original, but until he finished a full graduate education, he didn’t know enough physics to advance it.
The same story can be told of many other innovators.
Take Steve Jobs: the Apple II was lucky timing; Jobs didn’t become a great CEO until after spending decades struggling to master the world of business. Once his skills were honed, however, he returned to Apple and his brilliance had an outlet.
This is the hard thing about innovation. If we want to encourage people to change the world, we have to first encourage them to buckle down and work inside the box.
The tricky part is embracing this necessary conformity while somehow keeping that spark to think different alive long enough for you to get good enough to do good.