“The important thing is not to stop questioning.”


We have been using Einstein Thinking on tough problems that require much directed thought and many iterations of work. But thinking like Einstein also works on smaller, everyday problems. The key to using Einstein Thinking on small problems is to quickly identify and break the rule that makes the problem so annoying. Try one of the four small problem techniques below. They are modeled on four rule-breaking techniques we learned earlier.

Do What You Want

You have an annoying problem. You probably aren’t dealing with it the way you would like to because of some rule that you find inviolable. Violate that rule and do what you want!

During the Battle of Copenhagen, British Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson ignored an order from his commander. When a withdrawal was signaled, Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye. Seeing no order, he proceeded to do what he wanted with great success. So however you justify it, do what you want!

Do Nothing

If you think you must solve an annoying small problem, then the opposite rule hack would be that you do nothing. Create a new rule that states: “This problem will not be solved by me.” That’s it.

Scientific American once held a contest for the best explanation of Einstein’s theory of relativity in three thousand words or less. Einstein reported, “I’m the only one in my circle of friends who is not entering. I don’t know if I could do it.” For Einstein, the whole problem of the contest just disappeared.


The easiest hack for solving a small problem is to delegate it to someone else. The problem is solved, but you don’t bother with it. You have circumvented the rule.

Is there someone that should be helping you more than he is? Delegate the problem to him. Is there someone who would appreciate the challenge and responsibility of a problem that you don’t find interesting? Delegate the problem to her. Or there may be someone who also wants the problem solved. Offer to help him if he takes care of the problem. It’s a good deal for both of you.

What Would _________ Do?

In the rule-breaking chapter, we went through an exercise where some highly competent person like James Bond was given our problem. The exercise was to develop a rule-breaking attitude, but it is also an excellent hack to deal with small problems. Pick a person who handles problems very well as a role model. When you have an annoying little problem, just ask yourself what your role model would do. Give yourself special permission to act just like her. As you develop this attitude, you will find it an excellent way to solve small problems. Just don’t shoot anyone.


“A life isn’t significant except for its impact on other lives.” JACKIE ROBINSON

You can’t use Einstein Thinking and rule breaking to solve problems without some amount of risk. Einstein freely broke rules in his personal life that caused others much grief. Einstein did exactly what he wanted. He had a tough time recognizing limitations. If what he wanted to do was difficult, he did it anyway. If what he wanted to do was noble but dangerous, he did it anyway. If what he wanted to do was unfeeling, he did it. He simply didn’t allow rules to get in his way. But rules like courtesy, consideration, and kindness should not be dispensed with lightly. They may be the more significant solutions.


“To be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it.” RENE DESCARTES

Einstein Thinking came naturally to Albert Einstein. He found that he had to shave very carefully because he always had good ideas while shaving and often cut himself in the excitement. The rest of us can be just as creative. We just may need to work harder at it. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to build the Einstein Thinking habit. Practice, change, and tools can help you think like Einstein more easily and with greater effect.

Isaac Newton was once asked how he was able to make so many great discoveries. “By always thinking unto them,” he replied. It is good advice for all problem solvers. Like everything else, your ability to break the rules and get out of ruts improves with practice. The more you do so, the easier it will become. Incorporate one or more of the following simple exercises into your daily routine. Use them to practice thinking like Einstein.

Solved Problems

“Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.” ALBERT EINSTEIN

Resolving problems that already have a solution is excellent Einstein Thinking practice. Identify something that you do, like washing the car. Try to re-solve this common problem with Einstein Thinking. You might conclude that a regular rub with a dry chamois will give your car a superior finish, the underlying reason for washing your car. Thinking expansively, you may re- solve this by realizing that washing the car is a great solution for kids who claim to have nothing to do except play video games. You could even decide to move to Seattle, realizing that moving both satisfies a higher-level need and reduces the necessity of washing your car.

Use all the hacks of Einstein Thinking to create a solution. Define the problem, generate new ideas, break the rules, and grow a solution. This exercise can be more than just practice. Problems are solved when there is a need. Perhaps no one has thought seriously about this problem for a long time. There has been no need—the problem has a solution. But there is probably a vastly superior solu- tion. You could find it. Just break the rules.

Stupid Questions

“But they [computers] are useless. They can only give you answers.” PABLO PICASSO

Stupid questions are a great hack for finding rules that need break- ing. Confucius noticed that many of his students were afraid to ask questions for fear of revealing their own ignorance. He taught his students: “Know as know, I do not know as I do not know, that is knowledge.” Understanding one’s own ignorance is also knowledge. If you don’t know, ask. Only believing that you know enough is true ignorance.

To find more answers, ask more questions. Ask for clarification every time you don’t understand. Why questions are perfect for getting to the root of a problem. Ask stupid questions. Question everything. Probe and pry into the real reasons behind superficial explanations. Stupid questions can be especially wise. They strike at the core of the unquestioned assumptions that may be the cause of the problem.

Set the alarm on your phone to go off at the same time each day.

Ask at least one stupid, probing question before your alarm goes off. The only truly stupid question is the one that is never asked.

Einstein Dice

“God does not play dice with the universe.”


Regardless of whether God plays dice with the universe, the random throw of the dice is a good hack to help you think more like Einstein. Dice are small, cheap, and easy to keep around. They are wonderfully random. When you think about a problem, roll a die and use the cor- responding Einstein Thinking technique in Figure 12.1.

There are many ways to use dice to break out of a rule rut. Instead of pursuing your main option, think of six alternatives and make your selection using the roll of a die. Or simply use the number you roll in your solution. Leave the dice on your desk to remind you to inject boldness into your thinking. Physically rolling the dice will prepare your mind to start breaking the rules. And it will help keep you out of a rule-breaking rut.


“Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”


Practice Einstein Thinking during your commute. Select a problem from your problem list to solve along the way. To spur innovative thinking, use the letters and numbers on the license plate of the car you are following in the solution to a problem. License plates are wonderful idea seeds, and you have time to think while you watch the road. If you need a clever theme for a trade show display and are following a car with an L in its license plate, then create solutions that start with L. Your display could have a distinguished Louvre museum theme with replica of the Mona Lisa or use laughter to draw crowds. A laboratory motif could emphasize the science in your product or perhaps a Louisiana Cajun feast would get more attention. Use a license plate seed idea to break your old patterns of thinking.

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