Friday, July 29, 2011

Learning from Albert Einstein

In reading Walter Isaacson's brilliant biography of Einstein, I came up with many great life principles. Here's one on strengths, weaknesses and discouragement that I just wrote and put up on the character site for teachers to use.

Albert Einstein: Life Lessons for the Rest of Us

Teacher Tips: Many students concentrate on their weaknesses and conclude that they're losers. But each of us have strengths as well. This story gives hope to those obsess on their weaknesses.

Don't tell students up front who the story is about. Just refer to him as a guy named Al. This helps them to engage the story. You may want to tell them half-way through that it's someone famous and ask them to guess. If they can't guess, tell them that it's Albert Einstein, then they'll be more impressed with the rest of the story.

Oh the Things that Poor Al Couldn’t Do

There were so many things that Al was either slow at or couldn’t seem to do at all.

Poor Al. Even as a young child, people recognized him as mentally slow. You know how parents brag at how early their child started talking? It took him so long to learn to talk that his parents consulted a doctor. After he finally started talking, he had a strange quirk of saying the sentence to himself before he said it out loud. (Mimic this.) No wonder the family maid called him “the dopey one” and other family members called him “almost backwords.” Language came so hard to him that some feared he’d never learn to speak.

Once he learned to speak and got into school, he didn’t fit in – neither with his fellow students nor with his teachers. Poor Al. Simply put, he was rather odd. Fellow students viewed him as a freak because they were obsessed with sports and he wasn’t interested at all. In academics, his school emphasized rote memorization rather than creativity, and he wasn’t good at rote learning. He did well in subjects he liked, not so good in things he didn’t like. As a result, one schoolmaster called him dull. In fact, one exasperated teacher went so far as to tell him tell him that he’d never amount to anything, was wasting everyone's time, and should drop out of school immediately. (See Albert Einstein: A Life, by Denis Brian, 1996, John Wiley and Sons, Inc.; also Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson. Page numbers refer to Isaacson.)

He hated high school so much that he took the teacher’s advice and quit, trying to take an exam to go straight to college. But he failed the test in several subjects and had to take a formal year of college preparation.

He finally made it to a tiny technical college and found that he did better when he studied with other students. His grades were again uneven - good at some subjects, horrible at others.(Isaacson, p. 36) He flunked a Physics class with a “1”, the worst possible grade. But he hung in there, barely passing his senior exams, one of the worst grades in his graduating class. (34)

Any guesses as to who I’m talking about?

Ever have a hard time finding work? Poor Al. He thought he wanted to teach science, but some of his teachers wouldn’t recommend him to teaching positions. After rejection after rejection for jobs, a friend finally got him a job in a patent office, where they decided if people's inventions should be patented. It would take him 9 years after college graduation before he’d get his first teaching job. (54ff).

As if all these deficits weren’t enough, Al was incredibly absent-minded.

  • Al was so absentminded that he was always losing stuff, even as a grown-up, like the keys to his room. If he went to visit others overnight, he’d forget his clothes, or even his entire suitcase. One family friend said, “That man will never amount to anything because he can’t remember anything.” (39)

  • He was so absentminded that when he got married, he lost the key and had to wake up his landlady to get into his apartment.

  • He was so absentminded that one day he went for a walk and couldn’t find his way home. Some days, when he walked home, his wife would watch for him to get close to the front door, only to forget where he was going and start back to work. She’d rescue him and walk him into the house.

  • He was so absentminded that he chose absent-minded friends. When one of his friends was sent by train to do a task, he got off at the wrong station and had to call back to work, not only to be reminded where he was supposed to go, but what he was supposed to do when he got there.

  • He was so absentminded that when he accompanied another friend on a train, they got to talking and missed their station. They had to hop another train back the opposite direction, but missed that station as well.

  • He was so absentminded that, when writing letters, he’d often conclude them by signing the person’s name he was sending it to rather than his own name. (227)

Poor Al. He also wasn't very good with long-term relationships. He admitted that he failed in both of his marriages, and didn’t do too well raising his kids as well. One ended up in an insane asylum.

He never drove a car; his wife said it was too complicated for him.

From what we've said so far, would you say that Al was a success or failure in life?

But all we’ve talked about is what Al couldn’t do. Fortunately, he didn’t focus on his weaknesses, but his strengths. His strength was creative thinking – imagining thought experiments that involved theoretical physics. Rather than thinking in words, he thought in pictures. He’d think about things that nobody else did:

  • like what things would look like if he were to travel on a bullet at the speed of light

  • or whether space might curve, making the distance between two points not necessarily a straight line

  • or whether time might be relative rather than absolute, so that if one twin went on a space trip near the speed of light, he’d come back a different age from the twin who’d been left behind.

With his incredible imagination, he helped to prove the existence of atoms and dreamed up science’s most famous equation: e = mc2. With his brilliant thoughts, he revolutionized science.

Al’s full name was, of course, Albert, Albert Einstein, considered by many the greatest genius who ever lived. In 1999, Time magazine crowned him the person of the century, describing him as "the pre-eminent scientist in a century dominated by science."

So, Einstein was like most of us – good at some things and really, really bad at others. Fortunately, he worked hard at developing his strengths, didn’t let his weaknesses hold him back, didn’t allow the criticisms of others to make him give up, and refused to give up when he was on a thought project, no matter how many years he had to fail in order to find a solution. He was also very humble, likeable, kind, played violin and could talk to anyone.

What do I learn from Einstein? I shouldn't get discouraged by focusing on my weaknesses. Instead, I should develop my strengths without letting my weaknesses get in the way.


1. What are some things that Einstein was bad at?

2. What was he good at?

3. Imagine you were Albert Einstein growing up. Would you have thought of yourself as smart or dumb? Headed for success or failure? Why?

4. Einstein became very successful in his field. What can we learn about success and failure from his story?

5. How can the principles we learned from Einstein help us with our own attitudes and life goals?

(Copyright July, 2011 by Steve Miller and Legacy Educational Resources. All rights reserved.)

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