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Albert Einstein and the Importance of a Healthy Disrespect

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One of my heroes was Albert Einstein. Einstein wasn’t much of an entrepreneur although he tried his hand at it a couple of times. His family was entrepreneurial and his father was doing quite well as an electricity supplier until the Siemens company forced him out. What Einstein was, was supremely independent-minded. As a teenager, he despised the regimentation of the German education system and the mindlessness of the soldiers that would display their commitment to orders near his house.

He expressed his distaste for that so much in class that so much that he was asked to leave his school. He was told that his inability to obey orders would leave to an unremarkable life.

One day he decided to drop out of school and arrived on the door of his family who had moved the failing business to Italy. Einstein at the age of 17 even abandoned his German citizenship and was stateless for a while. Eventually he found a school in Switzerland where the open-mindedness of the education system allowed him to thrive.

He got into University but didn’t do well and really alienated his supervisor. He finished second bottom of his class with only his girlfriend at the time doing worse.

His family couldn’t stand his girlfriend, Mileva who was Slovenian and had physical defects. But Einstein was inspired by how fiery, smart and headstrong she was – fighting to excel in a man’s world. Once again Einstein rebelled and further destroying his career prospects, got Mileva pregnant before they were married. He spammed most of Europe with job applications which went unanswered and had to work as a tutor for a number of years before a friend scored him a lowly job as a clerk in a patent office in Bern. He married his girlfriend secretly against his parents wishes.

Man this dude couldn’t do a thing right! It was like he was rejecting every societal expectation and completely creating his own off-the-rails path. He didn’t seem to care about the consequences. He started a philosophy group he mockingly called the “Olympia Academy” with some random guys he met along the way and they used to get drunk while confidently challenging the assumptions upon which the modern scientific world was constructed.

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In his spare time (which usually meant during work hours), he wrote down some genuinely crazy ideas about physics concepts he had. He would submit them to scientific journals as “A. Einstein. Bern” and in those days, the journal review process was very democratic and anonymous. When he was 26 years old, he submitted four papers to the same journal. He also sent them to his friend who, like many young dudes his age would take the piss out of his friend who he called “half a man” and “frozen whale”. He described the four papers he sent as “inconsequential babble”.

That “inconsequential babble” eventually led to discoveries behind the GPS system, digital camera and DVD player you’re probably using. They would overturn 200 years of unquestioned scientific thinking.

Einstein had his personal flaws (too many girlfriends in his later years apparently!) but he was otherwise a great person. When an African-American lady was refused accommodation at a local hotel in Princeton, he put her up for the night. He refused to sign a code of allegiance to the Nazi party that most of his scientific peers in Germany did. He wasn’t a contrarian – he was just someone who did not waiver from his principles.

He had a great distrust for crowd thinking. He felt truth and opportunity were accessible completely from your own mind and research.

When I left Australia to go to Silicon Valley, I was almost a nobody. I knew no rich people, I didn’t have much of a network, I didn’t have a mentor, I had only been overseas once.

What I had was a sharp mind, and like Einstein, a whole lot to prove to myself. I also had a belief that if you were smarter than the crowd, you could in theory, achieve anything. You could learn fast, meet the people you need to, and people would soon recognise your smarts. As it turned out, that did happen for me and my friend and I eventually invested in Peter Thiel’s PayPal and helped him change the business model.

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There is only one lesson I draw from Einstein’s life. When you go against the flow of the river of life, expect to feel like you’re hardcore drowning sometimes, that you’re losing everything you ever created and don’t expect people to rescue you. If they do, try to resist accepting their help – they will only lead you back into the flow. When you finally make it to the river bank, exhausted and uncertain, you might be a long way behind those who went with the flow. But look around you. I guarantee you will find an emerging stream not far away that will lead you to a deeper and bluer ocean.

You’ve probably read hundreds of Einstein quotes. Einstein became very good at playing up to the press after he had moved to the US in his comfy older years. I prefer an angry one from a letter to his ever-believing girlfriend at the age of 22 after having his ideas rejected by yet another Professor he had respected. It’s a quote that more experienced people at the time would have dismissed as the mere frustration and whining of a impertinent, overconfident young man.

“From now on I’ll no longer turn to such people, and will instead attack them mercilessly in the journals, as they deserve. It’s no wonder that little by little one becomes a misanthrope”.

Keep that impertinent fire alive inside you – the future is open to anybody who chooses to seize it.

About Peter Davison


Peter Davison is a highly regarded entrepreneur who was a Seed Investor with PayPal, Founder of Fishburners - Australia's largest co-working space for entrepreneurs, and is an advisor to startups.

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