Unlock Your Brain’s Power With The Einstein Technique
Einstein had this forgotten habit for 10 years before he got famous.
In 1905, at the age of 26, Albert Einstein had what we now call his Miracle Year. He published three academic papers that completely transformed the field of physics.
If you’re like most people, you attribute Einstein’s creative breakthrough to a mixture of his quirky genius and his daydreams (one of his most famous was visualizing what might happen if he chased a beam of light).
But, as you’ll see in this article, the actual story of Einstein’s creativity is much more interesting and instructive. It’s NOT the story of a genius doing something we never could. It is the story of someone using a set of strategies that anyone can replicate in order to have creative breakthroughs. These strategies are hiding in plain sight among many of history’s greatest scientists and inventors.
Granted, the odds of anyone reading this article coming up with the next Theory of Relativity is vanishingly small. Even Einstein couldn’t replicate his own breakthroughs later in his career. However, this doesn’t diminish the fact that using Einstein’s creativity strategies can make us dramatically more impactful and successful.
With that said, let’s dive into the revisionist history of Einstein’s miracle year and set the record straight.
Einstein Is Not Who History Tells Us He Was
Before he had his miracle year, the last word an outside observer would’ve associated with Einstein was “genius.”
His headmaster told him he would never amount to anything.
He dropped out of high school at 15 (and later had to finish his last year of secondary education elsewhere before being admitted to university).
He was one of the only students in his class not to get a job after graduating college.
So, he moved back home and after a few months of searching for a position he started to lose hope. In an act of desperation, his father wrote a letter to an esteemed professor almost begging for help:
“Please forgive a father who is so bold as to turn to you, esteemed Herr Professor, in the interests of his son . . . All those in a position to judge the matter can assure you that he is extraordinarily studious and diligent and clings with great love to his science . . . He is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means.”
Herr Professor did not respond.
Four years later, Einstein had his miracle year.
Let’s pause to consider how crazy this is.
Imagine a college grad today who is still living with his or her parents and just can’t seem to get it together. Then imagine an entire field of physics being transformed just a few years later by said person.
This just doesn’t happen.
And, it begs the question: How did such an “underachiever” make some of the most significant contributions to the field of physics?
To answer this question, we need to realize that while everything I just shared is true, it’s only part of the story.
Einstein Was Not an Overnight Success
When we tell the layman’s version of Einstein’s story, we oversimplify to the point of absurdity. You would think that Einstein was just randomly sitting around when he daydreamed his big ideas.
The little-known truths about Einstein are two-fold:
- Starting from an early age, Einstein had one-on-one tutoring in mathematics. Although, he showed a very large passion and talent for the subject, he did poorly on it in school.
- Einstein deliberately trained his visual imagination for 10 years before his miracle year. And throughout his career he looked at fantasy, not rational thought, as the secret to his creative impact. “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge,” Einstein explained later in his career. He added, “I never came upon any of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.”
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” — Einstein
So how exactly did Einstein visualize himself into genius territory? And how can we develop this ability within ourselves?
Let’s take a look at what Einstein did.
Einstein’s 10,000 Hours of Mental Simulation Training
“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” — Einstein
The school Einstein attended after being kicked out was an avant-garde school that emphasized visual thinking. It was here that he started visualizing how light works under different conditions.
In Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, researcher Gary Klein writes:
“At the age of sixteen, Einstein began to conduct thought experiments about beams of light. These thought experiments were mental exercises that helped Einstein appreciate properties of light and also helped him notice anomalies and inconsistencies. Einstein imagined different conditions and possibilities, pursuing these speculations for ten years.”
In his book Sparks of Genius, researcher Robert Root-Bernstein adds:
“The young Einstein was thoroughly schooled in what modern scientists would call ‘thought experiments’: seeing and feeling a physical situation almost tangibly, manipulating its elements, observing their changes — all of this imagined in the mind.”
As he conducted these visualizations, Einstein saw a conflict between his intuition and Maxwell’s equations, which at the time formed the prevailing theory of how electromagnetism worked. According to this article in the New York Times by his biographer, the tension Einstein experienced because of this conflict actually made his palms sweat.
After graduating from Zurich Polytechnic and spending several months unsuccessfully applying to academic positions across Europe, Einstein was finally accepted to a menial job as a Swiss patent clerk, where he worked for four years.
But the time didn’t go to waste. In the same New York Times article, Einstein’s biographer describes how Einstein started performing thought experiments about the relationship between light and time:
“Every day, he would attempt to visualize how an invention and its underlying theoretical premises would play out in reality. Among his tasks was examining applications for devices to synchronize distant clocks. The Swiss (being Swiss) had a passion for making sure that clocks throughout the country were precisely in sync. … More than two dozen patents were issued from Einstein’s office between 1901 and 1904 for devices that used electromagnetic signals such as radio and light to synchronize clocks.”
By learning Einstein’s story, we move away from the overnight success and eureka narrative, and find a learnable skill and habit that Einstein practiced and developed over time.
If Einstein were alone in this, we could attribute his mental simulation habit to a personal quirk. But as I’ve dug deeper, I’ve noticed how many of history’s greatest inventors and scientists spent years deliberately practicing mental simulation with mental models (see The Laboratory Of The Mind and Creating Scientific Concepts). By learning about some of the stories, we can get creative ideas for how to incorporate mental simulation into our own life.
The Greats Use Mental Simulation
The most common way that scientists and inventors use mental simulation is to model their craft in their head.
My favorite example of this approach comes from the autobiography of one of history’s greatest inventors, Nikola Tesla.
From a young age, Tesla developed an aptitude for conjuring imaginary people, societies, and worlds. He describes how he would spend hours each night traveling in his own mind, meeting people, seeing new cities and countries, making friends. By the time he was 17, he had practiced the art of mental simulation so much that he found it easy to turn this skill towards his own inventions:
“When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything. When I have gone so far as to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In twenty years there has not been a single exception.”
Another less common, but interesting approach to simulation is to build a model of other people in your head in order to more effectively connect, teach, persuade, and learn
Science shows that those who have a better theory of mind are better able to predict how others will respond in certain situations. It’s like a true-life version of the movie Next, in which Nicholas Cage’s character can see what will happen two minutes into the future. Before he approaches a woman he wants to pick up at a diner, he goes through all of the different approaches he could make until he finds one that will be successful. In a way, we all have this ability.
This ability is relevant to sales people who want to anticipate a customer’s reactions. It’s relevant to a parent who wants to get their child to do something. It’s relevant for any artist who wants to know how their creative act will be perceived. It’s relevant to an entrepreneur who wants to anticipate a customer’s needs.
It also increases our problem-solving resources by allowing us to tap into the wisdom of our role models. When you read, watch, and listen to your business role models, like I have done with people such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Charlie Munger, and Ray Dalio, you don’t just get their immediate wisdom. You also get a mental model of them that you can interact with and gain new insights from.
In a talk with students at Stanford Graduate School of Business, self-made billionaire, entrepreneur, and investor Marc Andreessen shares that one of his life hacks is having mental models of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs he admires (Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Larry Page), whom he interacts with when making decisions:
“I have a little simulation of Peter Thiel…He lives on my shoulder right here. I argue with him all day long.”
“You want to kind of construct a model of how they think and be able to be very objective and fair — where you can think things through from their standpoint. Then you have your own view on things. Then you try to run through in your head what you know of them and say, OK, here are the conclusions that they would reach. If you put enough time into that, you start to be able to have these conversations with yourself.”
We see this same pattern in one of the bestselling authors of the 20th century, Napoleon Hill. In his book, Think and Grow Rich, which describes his 20-year study of the most successful people of his age — including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison — he explains:
“Every night, over a long period of years, I held an imaginary Council meeting with this group whom I called my ‘Invisible Counselors.’ The procedure was this. Just before going to sleep at night, I would shut my eyes, and see, in my imagination, this group of men seated with me around my Council Table. Here I had not only an opportunity to sit among those whom I considered to be great, but I actually dominated the group, by serving as the Chairman…. In these imaginary Council meetings I called on my Cabinet members for the knowledge I wished each to contribute, addressing myself to each member in audible words.”
How You Can Use The Einstein Technique
“Survival machines that can simulate the future are one jump ahead of survival machines who can only learn on the basis of overt trial and error. The trouble with overt trial is that it takes time and energy. The trouble with overt error is that it is often fatal. Simulation is both safer and faster.” — Richard Dawkins (Evolutionary Biologist)
Whether you’re an employee, programmer, investor, consultant, designer, manager, or entrepreneur, you already have a model of how your field works although it may be mostly unconscious.
The trick now is to make it conscious and deliberately improve it. You can do this with the Einstein Technique. Here are the steps…
- Consciously build a mental model of how your field actually works.
- Test the mental model in your mind by mentally stimulating different scenarios.
- Test the accuracy of your mental model in the real world.
- Repeat steps 1–3 with the lessons you learned in steps #2 and #3.
Now, let’s break down each of these steps:
Step #1: Build a mental model of how your field actually works.
To build an overarching model, I recommend learning the most important mental models for your field. In a way, the core job of any knowledge worker is to build a model of their craft and domain and master it in their head before they master it in reality. For example, I have a mental model of what makes a good article that someone will love so much that they will share it. In addition…
- An automotive mechanic has a mental model of a car.
- An architect has a mental model of a building.
- An economist has a mental model of an economy.
- A cab driver has a mental model of the city’s streets.
Step #2: Test the mental model in your mind, by mentally stimulating different scenarios.
Mental simulation is so powerful because it takes the cost of experimentation down to calories burned in our head and time thus allowing you to increase the number of experiments you run.
For example, depending on our profession, you can simulate:
- How an audience will react to a painting, article, video, podcast, or any other creative act we’re working on.
- How a user will react to a change of the user interface or the addition of a product feature.
- How a potential customer will react to a marketing or sales message.
- How an investor will react to a pitch.
- How a sports opponent with react to our movements.
- How a strategic decision will play out in the future.
Step #3: Test the accuracy of your mental model in the real world.
And as I argue in Forget The 10,000-Hour Rule; Edison, Bezos, & Zuckerberg Follow The 10,000-Experiment Rule, over the long run, those individuals and organizations that do more experiments are more likely to be more successful. It is not a coincidence that the largest companies in the world are also the largest experimenters and that Jeff Bezos says, “Our success at Amazon is a function of how many experiments we do per year, per month, per week, per day.”
Step #4: Repeat steps 1–3 with the lessons you learned in steps #2 and #3.
When we simulate scenarios in our head, we immediately get a subtle gut instinct on what will happen and an emotion (ie — “something is off here.” or “This is perfect.”). When we experiment in the real world, we get qualitative and quantitative feedback.
When I edit articles, for example, I consciously simulate how specific types of readers will feel as they are reading the article. I will read an article 15+ times and each time from a different perspective. Each read through gives me something new. I stop rereading the posts once the voice in the back of my head is silent as I read. Finally, I refine my own simulations by having 3–4 people read and give feedback on every article I write before I publish it. I further refine it by reader feedback. More specifically, I read all of my comments and see how people share the article on social media.
Bottom line: we are born with an incredible ability to simulate reality using mental models. (yet, we often waste it)
“The mind is neither a logical nor a probabilistic device, but instead a device that makes mental simulations. Insofar as humans reason logically or infer probabilities they rely on their ability to simulate the world in mental models … This idea was first proposed a generation ago. Since then, its proponents and critics have revised and extended it in hundreds of publications.” —Princeton University professor Philip Johnson-Laird and researcher Sangeet Khemlani (source)
We live in an era that prizes rationality and logic as the highest forms of intelligence. In the last few decades, hundreds of cognitive biases have been identified that show just how irrational our intuition can be.
Yes, cognitive biases are important. Yes, rationality is critical. But, so too is imagination and insight! This article is a reminder that we should not overlook the miraculous native abilities of our brains. And, we should train our intuition — by learning the most valuable mental models.
Because, if you look deeply at many of our society’s biggest breakthroughs, before there were logically proven, there was often many years of wild flights of fantasy before they had the flash of insights they became known for.
The human mind is the most complicated, elegant, and amazing system in the world. Yet, we are never taught how to use it to its fullest capacity. In this article, I hope you now see new possibilities for using your brain’s innate power.
There is an old saying that we only use 10 percent of our brain. This has been proven false in a literal sense. It’s not as 90 percent of our gray matter is lying dormant.
But it may be true in a metaphorical sense. We have way more power than we give ourselves credit for.
Special thank you to Eben Pagan and Ben Clarke for help developing and thinking through this article.
This article was written with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.