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Einstein's Mistakes

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

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Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein made so many mistakes during his immensely successful career that we could be amazed that he is regarded as the greatest physicist of the 20th century. The wonderful book "The Human Failings of Genius" by Hans C. Ohanian covers them in great detail:

1905 Mistake in clock synchronisation procedure on which Einstein based special relativity

1905 Failure to consider Michelson-Morley experiment

1905 Mistake in "transverse mass" of high-speed particles

1905 Maths mistakes made to deduce the size of molecules

1905 Mistakes in the relationship between thermal radiation and quanta of light

1905 Mistake in the first proof of E = mc2

1906-1946 the list of mistakes grows

As Ohanian says

"If 1905 was the year of miracles for Einstein, it was also the year of mistakes. Four of the five famous papers he produced during that year were infested with flaws"

So what's the point?

Einstein was at the forefront of his field at the time and challenging the status quo. Max Planck, the mentor of Einstein apparently viewed the mistakes as the price paid for

"introducing real innovation..."

For me, Ohanian's post-mortem hits the mark and is as relevant for the modern business workplace as it was for 20th-century academia. He concludes by saying the mistakes did not prevent Einstein from making his groundbreaking discoveries and that whilst he had poor knowledge of some of the details he has a superb grasp of the larger picture.

Innovation and challenging the status quo

I have written before that leaders challenge the status quo previously, and like Einstein, they are going to make some mistakes along the way. When things are going well people typically resist major changes and so it is impossible to prove them wrong. Whereas those that are continuously looking to improve things, challenging the norm cannot be expected to be right all the time and hence those mistakes will stand out and be subject to scrutiny.

Don't let those mistakes go to waste. Have your team analyse them, establish a process for carrying out post mortems to check the decision-making process. For example:

  • Were the inputs flawed?

  • Was feedback ignored?

  • Were assumptions not rigorously challenged and reviewed?

  • Did you miss the chance to pivot?

  • Did you encourage dissenters or did everyone go along with the plan?

Mistakes are inevitable but should not be lazy ones and you certainly shouldn't make the same mistake multiple times. The pursuit of perfection is a fool's game so don't beat yourself up if (when) you and your team make mistakes.

Establish a learning environment, encourage different opinions and new points of view, create processes to cut the chance of mistakes occurring especially during a crisis and make sure there are lessons learned from each and every one. Lastly, if everyone agrees with the plan then, without doubt, you will have missed something important, so go and check again!


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