“A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”
This book will teach you to create solutions to your toughest, even impossible problems. You will learn techniques implicit in the solu- tions of Albert Einstein, history’s greatest problem solver. Einstein solved some of the world’s most bewildering problems. He was successful because he had a very different way of thinking. You can learn to think in the same way. You won’t become any smarter, but you will start seeing the solutions you have been ignoring.
These techniques, and those of others presented here, are not just for unraveling the mysteries of the universe. By learning new ways to solve problems, you can increase the profitability of your business, improve educational opportunities for your children, make artistic and creative breakthroughs, and enhance the quality of your life. Tough problems of all kinds can be resolved because one universal principle is at the core of learning to think like a genius: you’ve got to break the rules.
Einstein was one of the world’s most natural rule breakers, the James Dean of science. He didn’t just challenge physical laws. He flaunted tradition and outraged governments. Breaking rules caused him constant trouble, but Einstein’s audacious willingness to frac- ture any rule was at the core of his genius. He was a great problem solver because he was a superb rule breaker. It is a common trait of genius, and a skill that can be learned and cultivated. We can all think like Einstein, if we just learn to break the rules.
“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
If you can’t solve a problem, it is probably because you are stuck in a rule rut. We all have rules—ingrained patterns of thinking that we mistake for truth. Our rules form naturally. Ideas become rules with repeated use. When a rule rut forms, all conflicting ideas are ignored.
Rules are not always bad things. They are like railroad tracks. If you want to go where the track goes, they are perfect. But like destinations without a rail line, some solutions cannot be reached by following our rules. The only way to get there is to leave the tracks.
Rules stunt innovative thinking because they seem so right. They hide the numerous superior solutions that exist but are outside our rule ruts. These great solutions will only be found by breaking the rules.
No one is immune to rule ruts. Even Einstein was stymied for years by one of his prejudices. But to him, the offending rule seemed inviolable.
You may not be interested in discovering the laws that govern the universe, but you still have tough problems to solve. Your problems may even be tougher than Einstein’s. You may be competing against smart people, working in an environment that is constantly changing, or trying to make a big change. Your challenge may seem impossible. But there is an answer—if you can learn to break the rules.
Our biggest obstacle when we are faced with an impossible problem is inside us. It is that our experiences, mistaken assump- tions, half-truths, misplaced generalities, and habits keep us from brilliant solutions. The great new ideas, the vital solutions exist. They are just outside the prevailing thought. Otherwise someone would have found them already. You must break the rules to solve impossible problems.
BREAKING RULES AND SOLVING PROBLEMS
“I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
Saying that rule breaking was the secret to Einstein’s genius is a big claim. He was also naturally brilliant and extremely tenacious. How do we know that rule breaking wasn’t just an ancillary quirk of his genius? Let’s do a simple thought experiment to learn what was responsible for Einstein’s great ideas. Einstein loved thought exper- iments, so it is appropriate that he is the subject of ours. We will examine Einstein’s intelligence, knowledge, and rule breaking, and see how they affected his creative output. And we will do it without any complicated physics or math.
Einstein’s intelligence was consistently high throughout his life. We will represent this as a horizontal line in our thought experi- ment (Figure 1.1). Einstein’s vast knowledge of mathematics and science increased steadily throughout his life. We will represent his knowledge as a line sloping upward. So far this is just what we would expect from a genius.
But when we look at Einstein’s problem-solving output, some- thing seems wrong. Beginning in 1905, just out of the university, Einstein had a prolonged period of truly revolutionary thinking. With three papers, written in his spare time, he started science down the road of relativity, quantum mechanics, and atomic theory. For almost twenty years, he made important advances in science. In particular, he developed his special and general theories of relativity, which among other things make your GPS work. Even in the twenty-first century, experimental physicists are still finding new ways that the Einstein of this period was right. It is an incredible intellectual legacy.
And then, abruptly, Einstein’s problem solving dropped off. We will represent this decline as a downward sloping line. Einstein con- tinued to work hard on the important problems of physics. In fact, he claims to have spent a hundred times more effort on quantum physics problems than he had spent on relativity. He was still bril- liant. He knew even more about physics and math. He had unin- terrupted time for his work and constant collaboration with the world’s greatest minds. But he didn’t solve any more important scientific problems.
We would expect Einstein’s problem solving to correlate with his intelligence and knowledge. Instead, his problem-solving ability declined as his knowledge increased. Innovation was highest when knowledge was lowest. It seems wrong. We would dismiss the results of our thought experiment if the pattern weren’t repeated in the lives of so many brilliant people. People willing to break the rules solve impossible problems. They are usually newcomers to the field, without the baggage of years of precedent.
It wasn’t Einstein the wise old professor that first solved the mys- teries of space and time. He was a kid a few years out of college. He worked at the Swiss patent office reviewing improvements to laun- dry wringers. He did physics on the side. And he was breaking rules.
The problem Einstein solved that gave us E = mc2 was an old one. A generation of scientists had been trying to understand why light always seems to be going the same speed relative to the observer. Regardless of whether you are moving toward a beam of light or away from it, the light’s speed is the same. It was one of science’s most important and baffling problems. Many brilliant people came close to a solution, but they all failed because of a rule.
Hundreds of years earlier, Isaac Newton had decreed that time was absolute. It did not run faster or slower. It was the universe’s constant. Newton’s reasoning made sense, and the idea became firmly and deeply embedded in the mind of every scientist that fol- lowed. It was at the foundation of all scientific knowledge. Scientists couldn’t even imagine breaking the “time is absolute” rule, so they couldn’t solve the problem.
Einstein had no trouble violating Newton’s “time is absolute” rule. He simply imagined that time could run faster for one object than for another. That changed the problem completely. A few lines of math (which can be found in Appendix B) started Einstein down a road that has revolutionized our world. Einstein solved sci- ence’s most difficult problem by breaking a rule.
If rule breaking was the secret to Einstein’s genius, then we should expect his problem solving to decline when he didn’t break the rules—and that is exactly what happened. As physicists built on Einstein’s work, they created a new theory. At its core was the concept of uncertainty—that some outcomes couldn’t be predict- ed. Einstein found uncertainty troubling. Reason told him that the universe must be predictable. He hated uncertainty. He couldn’t believe that the universe was driven by random events. And so his discoveries stopped, and he became another smart man confused by his own common sense.