My buddy Jeff at age 29 could learn a good deal from Einstein. Not about science, but about life itself.
Jeff was extremely ambitious. He was one of those people that’s so ambitious and determined you just want to slap them and say, “There are other things that matter in this universe that matter besides you and your goals!”
Luckily for us all, Jeff was at least self-aware. He would go off on a longwinded rant about wanting to become a supremely important political leader. When he realized you were losing interest, he’d catch himself. “I’m going into Targareyan mode again,” he’d say, referring to Game of Thrones. “I do that sometimes. Fantasize about conquering the world with my dragons!”
His big goal, as you might imagine, was politics. (It doesn’t really matter for our purposes what party he was in. The parties embody different values, but they attract equally ambitious types.) In our late twenties, he worked in corporate America, but previously he had worked exclusively in politics. He was active in the state governors association. He worked on numerous federal campaigns in Washington. A few years before, he’d picked up a master’s in public affairs from an Ivy League university. He’d started a semi-influential Political Action Committee (PAC) with some classmates.
All of which is to say that Jeff had been very passionate about politics. But when he was graduating from that master’s program, he had a substantial number of student loans. So he started looking for positions that would allow him to service that amount of debt, ruling out public interest jobs with smaller starting salaries.
Jeff stumbled upon a position as Government Affairs Analyst for a corporation near me in Texas. We’ll call the company MegaCorp. (Similar to the point above with political parties, the industry doesn’t matter for our purposes.) MegaCorp had been around for almost a century and was one of the largest companies in the world. As such, it was extremely hierarchical, very conservative, and moved very slowly. It was your typical corporate behemoth. A giant machine, unfeeling and unfun.
Not long after I met Jeff, he confessed to me that he hated his job at MegaCorp. He was tasked with an extremely monotonous and humble job. He was supposed to gather newsclippings every day about MegaCorp and its competitors. These clips were presented to the executives as a daily news briefing. His role was not highly respected. All he could do was “mess up” by not using the preferred format for the newsletter. Whereas political life had been active and sociable, Jeff felt like a drone. He spent hours alone in his office cutting clips and poring over uninteresting news.
Jeff could not believe that he was being tasked with this job instead of an intern, especially when he had an Ivy League degree! How could such a big company be so cold to its young talent?
I mentioned earlier that Jeff was self-aware, and I think he generally was. But when it came to his job satisfaction, he could drone on and on without realizing how much he was bumming me out. “I’m not on the right track…I’m not being respected…I need to get back to Washington, D.C…it’s so boring and tedious…I need to get into the game…I should have a platform by now…people should know me!”
In my late twenties, I was not well-equipped to tell Jeff that I thought there was an opportunity to think differently about his current job. Usually I just tried to appear sympathetic and gradually change the subject. But if Jeff came to me now, I would have used the example of Einstein.
In his mid-to-late twenties, Einstein worked in the patent office in Bern, Germany. It was a monotonous job—filled with the drudgery of reviewing technical patent applications. And it was a job Einstein didn’t want to work. Einstein was only stationed in the patent office because he was repeatedly denied a secure position as an assistant doctoral scientist. The patent office job was boring and dead-end; not at all where he wanted to be.
Yet, during the seven years Einstein spent as a clerk in the patent office, he wrote the four papers that revolutionized physics. Papers one through three detailed the behavior of particles, and have been applied to manufacturing for the past century. But everyone remembers the fourth one: his Special Theory of Relativity. This is the theory that, quite literally, changed the world.
Einstein was able to use his time during his tedious job at the patent office to be very productive. Looking back later on life, Einstein was likely thinking of the patent office when he offered this assessment.
A few clarifying additions to the quote… Einstein suggests that monotony stimulates the creative mind. But I would add this caveat: it doesn’t unless you let it.
Jeff had the opportunity to use his time at MegaCorp to work on his political ambitions. Although the job was dreary, it was a typical 40 hour work week. In other words, he still had some free time outside of work to get involved in local campaigns, or to write about his political subjects. I believe that Jeff, if he wanted to, could have written about his political positions in such a way as to become an influential voice in the online discussion. He might even have found that the monotonous job cutting clips would allow his creative mind to develop in such a way that he had more interesting ideas to write about for his PAC. It would have been difficult, no doubt, but Jeff could very well have used the tedium of his job at MegaCorp as an opportunity to advance some of his goals. In other words, his boring job could have given him an opportunity to “pull an Einstein.”
Throughout the whole time that Jeff was at MegaCorp, he constantly applied to positions in the political sphere back in D.C. I wonder what Einstein would have had to say about this. I don’t think he’d be unsympathetic to Jeff wanting to look elsewhere—after all, we know that Einstein applied for that assistant professorship position he coveted.
But I do think that, with the benefit of retrospect, Einstein would have told Jeff to make sure to take advantage of his time in the humble position at the corporation. He might even have said that Jeff should appreciate this relative low-point in his career and consider it a blessing.
It isn’t easy. Being productive during a monotonous portion of life requires us first to accept the reality that this is where we are at this point in time. But accepting career down-time can lead to fantastic results. We might discover the mystical relationship between space and time, build a winning political coalition, or conquer all of Westeros with our dragons.