Albert Einstein was not the man we often think of. He was not some magician, mad scientist, or unnatural superhuman who could use a larger percentage of his brain than the rest of us. Contrary to popular belief, we all use the same percentage of our brain as the man we compare all modern-day geniuses to: 100%.
That’s not the only thing you’ve got in common with this guy, though.
Often times when we think about Albert Einstein, we see the man in his later days with a smoking pipe in his mouth, a wild puff of hair on his head, and a tired look in his eyes, contemplating his greatest achievements and looking to the next great leap for mankind.
I bet he looks something like this in your mind right now:
This man that we see has already laid the groundwork for the atomic bomb, has already accepted his Nobel Prize for Physics, and most certainly has been teaching his Theories of Relativity to younger students that would succeed him in their genius.
The Einstein we see above is older, wiser, more experienced, and has more than earned the grey hairs that are standing up straight on his head.
That’s the point, though… he earned those grey hairs. Through years of hard work, struggles, and plenty of failure he earned those hairs; and when we start to look at his life we realize he’s not that different from the rest of us at all.
A Lie: Only the “Special” Can Succeed
“Failure is success in progress” – Albert Einstein
How could a man that is often said to have lived with dyslexia, autism, schizophrenia, ADHD, and a dozen other mental illnesses, a man who achieved massive success throughout his life because of those so-called handicaps, have any understanding of what “failure” truly is? How is he qualified to speak on that subject at all? Or be quoted by millions to this day, just as I did a few sentences ago?
The quote from him up above loses nearly all significance if we come with a perception that Einstein was so entirely unlike us that he was bound to succeed from the start. After all, if Einstein was a genius from birth, or if he had a chemical imbalance (or, again, a mental handicap) that forced him to act in ways that geniuses typically act, then success isn’t found through failure at all… it’s reserved for the people that aren’t “normal”. People that aren’t like the rest of us. People like Einstein.
When we look at Einstein’s photo, without even admitting it to ourselves or out loud, we recognize a man that was set apart from birth to change the world. As the fictional Teddy Roosevelt would say in the movie Night at the Museum, Einstein was one of those men that was born to be great. He was autistic, or dyslexic, or otherwise special, after all… and we all know those people always end up being incredibly intelligent.
This statement couldn’t be further from the truth.
Besides the fact that there is no evidence that shows Einstein was ever mentally handicapped in any way (there are only hypotheses based on conjecture), it is also true that Einstein did not fail miserably as a child. He could speak and comprehend German fluently at a young age (many believe incorrectly, as I did, that he couldn’t speak well until he was 12), he was reading books at the age of 10 that would set the foundation for his explorations into vast worlds of scientific study, he could seduce women with ease, he was perfectly capable of scoring in the highest percentile of his classmates at school, and he completely killed it on the violin:
This heavily retouched photograph shows German-Swiss-American mathematical physicist Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) as he plays a violin in the music room of the S.S. Belgenland en route to California, 1931. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Yes, he did fail the entrance exam at Zurich Polytechnic Institute… at the age of 15, a full year and a half before he was even technically allowed to join the program there. And yes, his application was rejected by the University of Bern, but only because he refused to send in a thesis paper with his application, which was an explicit requirement at the time.
He was absolutely incredibly intelligent, albeit stubborn, and in his life he met dreams that many of us could never imagine happening for ourselves.
Stop right there, though, and keep yourself from believing that this means he had a greater imagination than us “normal” folk, giving him the ability to dream bigger and therefore achieve bigger goals. If there is one thing Einstein likely understood better than anyone, it was that everyone had the ability to dream and achieve great things, but only a few of us would sacrifice the time and energy that was necessary to cross the finish line.
He knew that because, like all of us, Einstein put a lot of his life into his passion, the study of physics, before he received the payout that he so desperately sought after.
It took him years…
16 years after Einstein began his great adventure in the world of science, he finally achieved his annus mirabilis (or his “miracle year”). 16 years! Many of us give up on our dreams after just a few months (or at most a few years) of not seeing grandiose applause, or we wallow away in endless negativity every time we are dissatisfied with our work.
But it was for 16 years Einstein dealt with trials, refusals, rebutting, and, I am sure at times, a great lack of hope. He experienced the struggles of normal human life with a full-time day job, a family that was struggling financially, and a turbulent romantic relationship (which his parents were staunchly against).
All of this, for 16 years, while trying to redefine how we all look at the Universe. Meanwhile, we find ourselves trying to redefine how we look at each of ourselves individually, and then quit after we hit a few roadblocks and fall over a few hurdles.
Einstein was similar to us because he experienced the human condition, he was not a deity after all; but he was different from many of us because he continually pushed forward towards his goals. Even after losing a child (born out of wedlock against their parents’ wishes), even after being rejected dozens of times for various jobs and positions in the scientific community that he applied for over the years.
He did not begin to taste success until more than 1/3rd of his life was behind him.
Then there’s this:
After his annus mirabilis, when much of the scientific community began to recognize his name and speak highly of him, Einstein still had to work for another 4 years before he was able to quit his day job as a paper pusher at a patent office, and begin to pursue future scientific discoveries full time as a Dr. of Physics.
Again I wonder how often we believe we stop growing in our careers, how often we believe we’ve “made it”, when people begin to call out our names and applaud our achievements, no matter how small or great those achievements are, and in all actuality we’ve only just begun the journey.
Let this sink in for just a moment: Einstein took 20 years before he could fully envelope himself in the scientific community as a career physicist.
Yet many people believe today that in order to be a success like Einstein, or this distant character in our minds that we call “Einstein”, we must be breaking through milestones and cementing ourselves in careers even before we reach our mid-twenties; that we have to have been born with some superhuman mental capacity or lots of money; or that we must absolutely know the exact day that we reach monumental success.
What is failure?
I often wonder how many times Einstein looked at his life to question his successes and failures. Until the age of 26, he hadn’t really achieved much of anything. He was a genius dreamer with an idea that only a few people believed in. Even in 1921 when he received a Nobel Prize in Physics, it was for his understanding and explanation of the photoelectric effect (the basis for quantum physics) and not his Theory of Relativity (which, even as a major contribution to science, wouldn’t be accepted by his scientific peers until later in his life), or even his papers defining E = mc2.
If that same thing happened today his supporters would be outraged and Einstein would probably get on Twitter to rant about how little respect he had from his peers. Instead, he continued to grow as a scientist and contributed over 300 additional papers to various journals and publications around the world.
According to Einstein, “Failure is success in progress.” Nothing is truly failure until we quit, and we only quit when we believe that the sacrifice of time that is required of us in order to see our dreams become reality is not worth that outcome.
Luckily for us, Einstein never quit following the vain passions of his 10 year old self.
At the age of 76, while he was writing a speech for Israel’s 7th anniversary that he would never have the chance to present, Einstein suffered a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. When he died, Einstein left behind a legacy and a life that spoke about more than just scientific equations and theories of a physical universe; his life also told the story that we must all be prepared for a long journey towards success, a journey that might look and feel like failure for a massive portion of our lives, if we ever want to be written down in history as one of the great contributing members of the human race.
Einstein journeyed for years through a life full of failure; it’s because of those failures that we can now tell his stories that are full of success.
What’s your story gonna be like?