Getting inspired by the methods of a genius
Earlier today I read an article titled Sir John Hegarty: Einstein didn't have a brainstorm session. Probably not as terrible of a title as something you’d see on the Daily Mail, but certainly click-baity. Using a big name to get readers. Sure.
First of all, Einstein did brainstorm sessions. It probably just wasn’t called that, and he certainly did not invite his entire department to give an opinion. But Einstein was often corresponding with his peers on the subject of his work, and he did not only ask for feedback in writing, he also consulted in person with some esteemed colleagues when he was stuck with a particular problem. It was usually no more than three minds per meeting. Often, the people in the room were experts on the general subject, but they were working and focused on other problems. They would think together for hours, test their ideas separately and sometimes reconvene. If it lead anywhere, they would work on it alone. It was less workshop and more bootcamp.
It’s not the idea of getting minds together to solve a problem that is wrong. The problem is the way these sessions are commonly being held. You don’t need to have people from every single department - or worse, entire departments - in the room. Einstein often struggled with the advanced maths of his own equations, so he had someone to go through his problems. But that person wasn’t in the room when the problem was theoretical. For each problem he had, he consulted a different expert.
It’s not that you need kill off these gatherings; you don’t. What you need is to do them sparsely, with a clear problem to solve and the right people - which usually are very, very few - during a considerable stretch. Something similar to the dynamics of a pitch, but with considerable less people, and a clearer purpose than win.
But look, Einstein was a very peculiar character, and his individual methods are hardly supposed to work for everybody. He would sail for hours alone to think, and often be stranded because the wind had had a turn and he couldn’t go back. Search parties had to rescue him more than once. He would walk and talk to himself. When he first graduated, he couldn’t get a teaching job, not even as primary school teacher. It took him 8 years to find his first job as a physicist - 3 years after he published the papers that revolutionised science. Even so, he kept working. It took him another 10 years to further develop one of his theories. And 6 more years for him to be awarded the Nobel prize.
Consulting peers or isolating himself to think were just some of his many methods. Einstein would see the practical aspects of theories, in what is called thought experiments. Legend goes the first one was when he was still a kid, and was ill in bed and wanted to understand how a compass worked. You see, the thing about Einstein is that not only he was a hardworking genius, but he was really curious, and he really cared about his work.
We may not all be Einstein (even though too many people in advertising would like to think they are), but we can certainly learn a lot from him. And if there is a formula to solve problems in pretty much any discipline, that should be it: be curious, be resilient and really give a fuck.