Five Professional Lessons from Einstein’s Scientific Career

IT WAS THE TWILIGHT OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY. Albert Einstein was in Milan, spending his days loafing aimlessly for the most. Having abandoned his studies in Germany, young Albert had joined his family in Italy, where his father was running an enterprise assigned with bringing electricity to the streets of Pavia.

It is a commonly perpetuated fallacy that Einstein was a failure at school. Yes, he didn’t do well in history, geography and French (and off course he detested the regimental practices of his high school in Germany), but he was exceptionally brilliant in his favorite subjects: physics and mathematics. The punch line: Albert Einstein went on to become the greatest scientist of all times. 

Lesson One: Choose your niche early on in your career – just like Einstein identified his academic inclination at an early age, focused to pursue it­, and made it into an enduring scientific career. Whether you want to be a CEO or a technical expert should be clear to you in the first few years of your professional career. This will enable you to channel your limited personal resources: time, energy, attention etc. efficiently towards your chosen career objectives. 

In the year 1905– what he called his “Miracle Year”–Albert Einstein published five articles in the Annalen der Physik– the most prestigious scientific journal of the era. The first article was concerning the nature of light and photoelectric effect; the next two were attempted to prove the size and existence of atoms respectively; the fourth paper constitutes his Special Theory of Relativity; while the final one was his world famous mathematical equation: E= mc2. 

With five revolutionary papers published in one of physics’ most esteemed journals, a youthful Einstein expected an instant upheaval in the scientific community over his novel ideas. Nonetheless, what followed was an icy silence. Despite several efforts, he was unable to get even a modest employment opportunity as a science teacher­­– he was still a patent office clerk. It was heart-breaking. 

But Einstein was relentless in his love for science. For next couple of years, he continued publishing more scientific papers, before being finally accepted as an associate professor of theoretical physics at the university of Zurich. From there onwards, he never looked back and kept receiving employment offers from various prestigious universities. The patent office clerk became a renowned professor. 

Lesson Two: Do not expect immediate results from your efforts. Many, if not all, of our struggles go unrecognized before being finally acknowledged; this frustrates us so much that we either give up, or worse, start swaying between belief and disbelief. Do not spend the intervening period agonizing yourself; this will simply waste your time and energy. Instead try for your beloved cause even harder as Einstein did by publishing more scientific papers. 

By1910, Einstein was a well-known physics professor. His theories were being compared to the works of Isaac Newton – the father of classical physics. However, this comparison brought him his next challenge: while writing a summary of his theory of relativity, Einstein realized that his relativity theory was in stark conflict with Newton’s theory of gravity­, the later being regarded as an impeccable scientific concept hitherto. 

Confronting Newtonian Physics was quite a big deal, even for a man as brilliant as Albert Einstein. It took him ten years to resolve the conflict between relativity and gravity; ten years of attempts, errors, more attempts, more errors. But the reward was his greatest masterpiece: the General Theory of Relativity published in November 1915. Einstein was catapulted from a brilliant physicist to a global celebrity. 

Lesson Three: Accept challenges as opportunities. Albert Einstein was already an acclaimed scientist and a well-paid physics professor, but he accepted the challenge, kept trying while conceiving mistaken ideas repeatedly, and ultimately succeeded to present a theory tantamount to Newton’s law of gravitation. Our successes are composed of countless failures; with each failed attempt, we improve and draw closer to success. But as we succeed after weathering a number of failures, the journey doesn’t end there; it opens further challenges and more opportunities for growth.

Einstein’s theory of relativity propelled him to global fame; yet the concept remained esoteric for numerous years. In fact, the idea of relativity was so nonintuitive that it was even deemed as a conspiracy in some circles. These controversies kept him away from winning Nobel Prize notwithstanding several nominations. Eventually, in 1921, Einstein was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for his non-glamorous paper on Photoelectric Effect; ironically, there was no mention of the theory of relativity. 

Lesson Four: Do not frown if people fail to recognize your achievements; better accept the fact that you can’t control their views and biases. What seems important to you may not be important to your boss. Conversely, sometimes you perform certain tasks quite unambitiously, and the results are perceived so positively that you are rewarded for them; take these rewards as a compensation for your unrecognized efforts. Einstein’s Nobel Prize is often viewed as a consolation prize as well. 

One of Einstein’s 1905 papers laid the first foundation of quantum physics. However, it was Dane Neils Bohr and his disciples who formulated the related mathematical equations during 1920s. Despite being one of its pioneers, the concepts presented by Bohr & Co. seemed surreal to Einstein himself; he insisted on the existence of objective nature of reality while the newly proposed quantum theory suggested the subtle and ephemeral existence of objects such as electrons. 

The disagreement between Einstein and Bohr ignited an interesting academic rivalry between the two scientists that continued for more than a decade. A series of arguments and counter arguments succeeded through lectures, articles, and letters between the duo. In the end, Einstein–with a bitter taste in his mouth– had to concede that the new theory, while seemingly absurd, had no contradiction and was a giant leap towards understanding the nature of physical world. 

Lesson Five: Do not be stubborn in your views. Anyone can be wrong, even a genius like Einstein. A person who thinks that he knows everything about his trade can never grow further; by accepting the fact that your views can be wrong, you open the path for further growth and improvement. So keep your ego aside, keep moving forward. 

Einstein died in April, 1955. By his deathbed, they found twelve pages littered with equations, cross-outs, and corrections; he was still working on his unfinished Unified Fields Theory.