Einstein’s festival of ideas

Besides modelling my own hairstyle on Einstein’s, I’ve always tried to adopt his maxim we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. He always had a clear view of the problems he was trying to solve, and held the determination to solve them. He had a thinking strategy of his own and was able to visualise the main stages on the way to his goals. He regarded his major achievements as mere stepping-stones for the next advance.

He also had an amazing sense of humour and humility, many of his quotes sum this up, for example: I have no particular talent, I am merely inquisitive and When a blind beetle crawls over the surface of the globe, he doesn’t realise that the track he has covered is curved. I was lucky enough to have spotted it. How could Einstein think so lucidly and produce such insights, when everyone else couldn’t see what he could?

Einstein’s research and theories are well chronicled. His more important works include Special Theory of Relativity (1905), General Theory of Relativity (1916), Investigations on Theory of Brownian Movement (1926) and The Evolution of Physics (1938). Among his non-scientific works Why War? (1933), My Philosophy (1934) and Out of My Later Years (1950) are perhaps the most important.

For perhaps the hundredth time, I’ve tried to think like Einstein and see what he saw: A burst of light is seen by two people, one stationary on a platform, the other moving in a train. Assume the speed of light is the same for both. That’s it, that’s all you need to change forever our understanding of space, time, matter, and the universe. No large Hadron Collider, no CERN, no Hubble telescope, just the clear, sharp incisiveness of one mind.

Einstein learned how to see the burst of light expanding, traveling at the same speed for the two observers. To the moving observer on the train, the circle of light expanded equally on all sides. To the stationary one on the platform, the light expanded also, but in addition Einstein saw the movement of the train caused one side to meet the wave earlier than the other side.

The problem Einstein solved, giving us E=mc2 was an old one. A generation of scientists had been trying to understand why light always seems to be going at the same speed relative to the observer. It was one of sciences’ most important and baffling problems. No laboratory is needed, only the mind and the amazing power of pure thought.

What Einstein did, he did using tools available to all of us. He had no magic wand or secret subscription to Google. He used tools and methods available to everyone, the same books and research journals available to all scientists of his day. His principal tools were a notepad, a pen and pencil. He thought and wrote and calculated, and out poured his extraordinary achievements.

What made Einstein tick? Intuition, unconventional thinking, love of the mysterious for sure, but one of the main things was Einstein’s imagination, and his approach to visualise the issues before him –  ‘thought problems,’ where he would paint a picture of the problem he was trying to sort out. His thought processes were very much about coming up with odd questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability and courage to ask questions were just as revolutionary as his answers.

So how do we capture Einstein’s approach to seeing things others don’t, and crafting breakthrough ideas into our own everyday working lives, crafting new products and services to out think our competition? Here’s my Einstein disruptive thinking tool kit for entrepreneurs in his own words:

Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. The blokes over at Facebook, Apple and Google had all the smart computing skills and knowledge they needed to have successful careers in IT – along with tens of thousands of other techies. What makes Zuckerberg, Ives, Page and Brin household names is the fact they imagined – what if?…there was a better way to do things, and then they created it.

Look to the horizon and beyond the day-to-day I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details. Einstein didn’t waste time detracted on mundane details, he wanted to wrestle with the big things that made a difference. Einstein struggled with dyslexia, and since words are a challenge, he used a non-verbal approach to thinking and learning – thought experiments, pictorial metaphors for the ideas he was trying to understand, the best example being Schrodinger’s cat. He created the first mind-map, and painted the big picture.

Never top questioning The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One of the most important questions an entrepreneur can ask is How can I make it better? Whether you offer a product or a service, improving it is the only way to attract new clients and retain existing ones. A good example of this are windshield wipers that speed up as it rains harder.

Same problems, new ways of thinking We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Traditional book publishers printed paperback books based solely on hardback titles that had lost momentum. Ian Ballantine created Bantam Books when he realised he was limiting his profit potential by sticking to the old way of thinking. He decided to produce original paperback titles for mass-market sales. Einstein’s thinking like this resembles the Blue Ocean Strategy model.

Intuition The only real valuable thing is intuition Einstein had to trust his intuition to move forward on anything. Trusting one’s gut has led to many of the C20th greatest advances. For example, in 1971, Gillette introduced the twin blade shaving system, with two blades instead of one. Twin blades give a closer shave because each blade performs a different function. The first blade pulls up the hair so that it is unable to retract into the skin before the second blade, set at a slightly different angle, cuts it off. The twin blades set off a still-ongoing competitive frenzy of multiplication in the shaving industry, and came from an instinct on how to improve the shave.

Strong, positive attitude Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. Einstein believed it took him ten years of thinking and effort to get to a point where he was satisfied with his final theory. He was restless to a point of perfection.

Willingness to try new things – and fail Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. The continued evolution of Amazon’s Kindle – which has the reading capacity of 16 tonnes of paper – from its introduction in 2007, to the DX in 2009, Kindle Touch, Kindle Fire and now Kindle Paperwhite reflects this focus of continued reinvention, keep pushing the boundaries to keep ahead of the game.

Maintaining balance If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x, y is play and z is keeping your mouth shut. Notice Einstein didn’t put absolute amounts on each of his variables – he lived his life by constructing ‘what if’?’ formulas to look at relationships and variables. He knew getting the ingredients and then working out their relationship would lead to success. He also knew the formula was going to change. Whatever the ratio of x to y to z, entrepreneurs cannot forget y. And maybe z.

Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein believed that to gain knowledge about the form of a problem, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. He was in good company: Da Vinci formed a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water: this enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves. Samuel Morse invented relay stations for telegraphic signals when observing relay stations for horses.

Prepare yourself for chance I never think of the future, it comes soon enough Einstein had particular strengths, an acute intuition that guided him to the fertile ideas and revealing experimental results he achieved. He had a characteristic tolerance and even delight in contradiction. He didn’t question willy-nilly, he simply refused to accept theories that weren’t borne out by work he had done himself.

Einstein tells me to think about what you’ve never thought about, but also to reflect that the most consequential ideas are often right under our noses, connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world.

For example, imagine a baby bottle and being told that it changes colour as the temperature of the milk changes. Why would that be useful? Because it would help to make sure that you don’t burn the baby with milk that is too hot. Now imagine you were asked the opposite question: How can we make sure not to burn a baby’s mouth with milk that is too hot? How long would it take you to come up with a colour-changing milk bottle? You might never arrive at the idea.

We all need to have new ideas, different ones, about what’s changing in our market, and how those changes could disrupt our business model. You also have to look at how your customers tastes and needs have and may change. Another of Einstein’s quotes provides great value to business: If you can’t explain an idea simply, you don’t understand it. Failure to concisely convey a business proposition is one of the main reasons why new products – seemingly a good idea to the inventor – don’t get the attention of customers as anticipated.

You also need to think about how you can disrupt yourself. For example, how many times have we been banging our heads against a wall for a long time with a particular problem? One of two things is true at this point, either we should keep banging our head and the wall will crumble soon, or we should do something different and hope things get better. Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, perhaps it’s time to reflect upon that.

Einstein constantly lived in the future. When we talk about taking the time to reflect and ponder about the future and new ideas for our business, this is exactly what we have to do. In Einstein terms, we need to work on the business, not in the business.  But don’t just sit there and daydream, think and picture the alternate realities – realities where what you are doing today is completely different tomorrow, in order to go and find the revolution before it finds you.

The world isn’t waiting for you to get inspired, you have to inspire it, and at the same time don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking – there are far better things ahead than any we leave behind. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, sometimes innovation starts with a critical decision to reinvent yourself and kick-start your business 2.0 – a moment of truth, flash of brilliance or the end result of a bout of determined reflection to make a difference. But whatever the trigger, take a leaf from Einstein’s play book: logic will get you from A to B, imagination will get you everywhere.