Tag Archives: productivity

5 Lessons Learned from Einstein’s Work and Personal Life

This month I read (and listened to the audiobook of) Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. Here are some “lessons” I drew from it. Before reading this book, I knew very little of the man and process behind the theories. I was pleasantly surprised but also saddened.

Towards unification

Albert_Einstein_photo_1920What drove much of the curiosity and passion of Einstein’s work is the belief that the universe may be governed by a single law: a theory that unifies all the forces of nature without the messy uncertainty of the mysterious quantum mechanics and its ilk. He hoped for there to be a simple truth underlying all of nature. In a way, it is a hope that all of us share, because part of what makes existence so damn terrifying (in a existential philosophy sense) is how messy it is and how little we understand about it.

More practically, I think, the inclination towards unification can be applied day to day in your own life. The goal of searching for the unifying theory of whatever you do is a fruitful one in the long-term. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details as you specialize further and further in a particular subject or activity. Taking a step back to search for the bigger picture is often the most productive step you can take (even if it is technically a step “backwards”).

Work alone

Einstein was the ultimate outsider. Many physicists and academics in general prefer to work in rich collaborations. Even when the collaboration is not a direct one, the set of ideas with which scientists work is usually pulled from the pool of consensus. There are many disagreements, but there are also many agreed-upon assumptions. Einstein was able to step beyond the assumptions of the day to explore space and time solely through the power of his mind. It can not be overstated how difficult it is to ignore the agreed-upon belief of you brilliant peers (especially in formal theoretical fields like mathematics and physics).

Einstein worked alone in a literal sense but also in an intellectual sense. He was not burdened by the pressures of his scientific community except for the one-time hurried race (related to general relativity) between him and David Hilbert in November of 1915. This stubbornness/reclusion was a blessing for science at first, but in the eyes of some, a curse later, as he stubbornly resisted the quantum-mechanical description of the world for his whole life. The following is probably my favorite Einstein paper from 1935: Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? In this paper he suggested a simple thought experiment that (in his mind) invalidates the Heisenberg uncertainty principle that puts strict limits on how accurately one can measure the position, velocity, energy, and other properties of a particle:

Imagine that a particle decays into two smaller particles of equal mass and that these two daughter particles fly apart in opposite directions. To conserve momentum, both particles must have identical speeds. If you measure the velocity or position of one particle, you will know the velocity or position of the other—and you will know it without disturbing the second particle in any way. The second particle, in other words, can be precisely measured at all times.

The absurdity of quantum mechanics is overwhelming at every level. It would have been a show-stopping achievement if Einstein peaked behind the curtain of QM to in fact arrive at a theory that unified general relativity with electromagnetism.

Try a lot of things

“Most of my intellectual offspring end up very young in the graveyard of disappointed hopes” – Einstein, 1938.

The variety of ideas and approaches that Einstein entertained in his life is remarkable. Even the final years of his life that did not produce any grand theories was a story of bold exploration.

Obvious advice: Try new approaches to problems that you have failed to solve in the past.

This is advice that everyone knows is true, but most people don’t follow.  The better an old dog gets at doing its old trick, the less willing he is to learn a new one.

Inspiration and innovation can come from the strangest places, arrive suddenly, and pass just out of reach if you are not ready. So, be open to the freakiest possibilities.

Escape the emotional “whirlpool” of personal experience

The follow statement of Einstein saddened me. It is a cynical view of the balance between his work and his love life. At the age of 39, he declared (in a speech if I remember from the book) that scientific thought can be an escape from feeling:

“One of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness. Such men make this cosmos and its construction the pivot of their emotional life, in order to find the peace and security which they cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.”

It is interesting to think about the genius of Einstein as merely a way to deal with a world he was not emotionally equipped to deal with otherwise.

You can love passionately or marry comfortably

Einstein married twice, first was Mileva Maric at age 24 and then Elsa Lowenthal at age 40. The two women represented very different types of companion that a man can have. Mileva was a talented physicists who worshipped Albert in the way that is perhaps standard for any good love affair between strong minds. But she couldn’t create a simple, peaceful life for him where he could work in isolation. Elsa, on the other hand, had neither ability nor desire to understand Einstein’s work, but instead dedicated herself fully to serving the role of wife and caretaker to Albert, meaning she took care of everything and made sure that he could work when he wanted to work, and would not be disturbed. Their connection was purely of comfort. They slept in separate beds.

The lesson to draw here is a complicated one for me. I too am an academic, and perhaps a difficult one to get along with at times. But at this stage in my life, I will always dive into the passionate love affair without consideration for the consequences. When a beautiful girl looks at me with admiration (even obsession), and I share that feeling, the impossible becomes possible. There is magic in that connection. Escaping the chaos of that for the comfort of a recluse intellectual life seems dull and life-draining, but perhaps I’m still just an ignorant teenager in a 30-year-old man’s body. Maybe I will grow wiser and more cautious one day.

I’ll close this blog post with the picture of the two ladies (first Mileva and then Elsa):

Mileva_Maric elsa-einstein


Priorities: Get Good At One Thing

“Find what you love and let it kill you.” – Charles Bukowski

I’ve had the good fortune to talk to and work with a few successful athletes and scientists in the past year. I didn’t delve deep into their psyche and long-term memory stores, but from our interaction I gathered that every one of them at some point in their life dedicate an enormous amount of time EVERY DAY to a single pursuit. Sure, any one day is filled with loads of minutia of meetings, travel, chores, etc., even for the most accomplished people. But amidst the chaos of those trivial tasks are long uninterrupted periods of productive work.

The more I put my own work out there, the more I’m humbled. I realize that I’m not special, that no one is special, in that there is simply no way around hard work. You have to put in the time, every day, to even have a chance at success. If you do what makes you happy, of course, the hard work comes naturally, but it still needs to be done every day. Wandering about from interest to interest, from goal to goal can be liberating and inspiring, BUT no real productivity can be achieved without an obsessed singular focus on one pursuit.

This cartoon shows precisely that. The Draugr are always training…


Let It Go: The Incentive to Resolve Conflict

In academia, in politics, in life, I often see two intelligent adults build a rift over a disagreement (large or small), fail to resolve it, and continue for the rest of their life with the rift in place.

It’s ego. It’s human nature. But it makes life more difficult. My advice (to myself and others) is to always let it go no matter what. Linger in the muck of anger for a few days, take a few naps, and then patch up the damaged relationship in whatever way that it will no longer be an anchor on your mind. The weight of conflict can take away the freedom to enjoy this short life and to form meaningful friendships along the way.

In politics, shallow bickering seems to be the modus operandi. Somehow it has become a commonly accepted notion that conflict helps win elections. Showing what someone else did badly is more effective than showing what you did well. Perhaps that might be the case in politics, but I still hold out hope for the personal interactions of regular human beings. There are very few conflicts I can imagine that cannot be resolved through a little swallowing of pride. It might hurt for a day, a week, a month, but it will make life more enjoyable, more productive, and more meaningful in the long term (years, decades).

I’m often reminded of the Borat clock radio “great success”:

There will always be someone with a clock radio that you can’t afford. Let it go.

A Lesson from Deadlines: Cut the Useless Crap Out

During the last two weeks I have been working intensely on a paper for a conference. At 15 pages, it’s about twice the length of a normal conference paper I’m used to, but that wasn’t the challenging part. Writing is easy. The hard part is all the thinking over a pen and paper, all the programming, and all the reading / learning that goes into just getting to where I can ask the right questions and all the work after that. Since the topic of this paper was a somewhat new area for me, this process was especially painful.

I learned (or rather re-learned) something important about how to get and stay productive. First is you have to love what you’re doing. “Work” isn’t really hard when you are enjoying it. But that’s obvious. Second is you have to cut all the useless crap in your life out and just get to doing the things that you want to get done and don’t stop until they are done. That seems obvious as well, but I think my brain is designed to deteriorate into a lazy, distracted mess if left unchecked. Here’s an inspirational video of Steve Prefontaine at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In case you were wondering what “distraction” is, it’s the process of you now clicking on that video:

Prefontaine did not click on YouTube videos, he just ran and ran and ran.

Let’s take Facebook for example. The problem is not how much time I spend on Facebook. The problem is that I jump over to Facebook many times a day for 1-2 minutes, and by doing that, break the flow of thought that I had cultivated around the task I was working on. That’s the main lesson for me, from the past two weeks, that I’ve learned many times in life already, that it’s important to construct your day, week, and life in general in such a way that you get several uninterrupted spans of time during the day when you do nothing but a single task. You don’t move, you don’t eat, you just fill your brain with a single task. It’s basically just meditation.

By the way, I don’t mean to pile on Facebook. I think that it’s much much more than a shallow self-indulgent addiction. I think it connects us together, perhaps not as well as a beer on a Saturday night, but it’s pretty damn close. It gives a chance for introverts such as myself to talk to friends I don’t see enough, or jump into conversations that are too intellectually involved for in-person shooting-the-shit type of conversation.

Hikikomori: The Dim Underworld of Society’s Ghosts

I was introduced by a friend to the word hikikomori which is a Japanese term that refers to a person who seeks extreme degrees of isolation. Apparently, this is a widespread phenomenon in Japan.

After reading about it a bit online and watching some videos, this seems to be almost a part of their national identity, and is closely connected to the growing power of computer games to consume an individual’s life to the point that all other activities fall off the radar of interest. It’s a drug with the addictive power of hard drugs, but without the associated ability of those drugs to kill you.

I think many of my ex-girlfriends would characterize me as someone who doesn’t get out nearly enough. I think it’s important to hear that, and understand that, but it’s also important to be able to live life the way I want to without regret. I love good intelligent conversation with close friends. I love reading books that challenge me or fill me with awe. I love doing jiu jitsu and judo. And more than that, I love learning cutting-edge ideas and coming up with new ones myself in and around the field of computer science. Often times, all that somehow adds up to me having to say “no” to a lot of parties and social outings. This creates a perception of hikikomori, but I think that’s very far from the truth.

I’m not scared of life, of people, and of pursuing my passions with all the dedication I can muster.

But I very much find it fascinating that there is large mass of people who are pursuing their passions, and in so doing somehow gradually fall off the path that is healthy for their happiness and productivity, and find themselves trapped in the cage of their sterile habits and dim isolated existence. I suppose it is the danger that anyone with a singular passion risks. But a successful life requires successfully walking the line between crazy and happy.

The Diablo 3 Existential Crisis: A New Age of Evil is Upon Us

Diablo 3 will be released tomorrow, or as the following opening cinematic explains: “The powers of hell are on the way… It has begun…”

I have a long history with Diablo and Diablo 2, and so the pull of it is strong. I have very little time to play it, nor frankly does anyone have time to play it, because it’s not a game that you can play in moderation, unless you have some kind of superhuman self-restraint. Let’s be honest here.

That said… I told myself that I will play it but only if by the end of May I finish the journal paper I’m working on now, and also if I win a gold medal at the jiu jitsu World championship on May 31st. Both of these are difficult but achievable goals if I continue working hard. So I’m using the extremely addictive drug that is Diablo 3 as a reward to push myself.

Much like a drug addict who has beaten the habit, I have a certain approach to games like Diablo 3 that basically can be summed up with “will it really be worth it in the end?” In a way, the answer of course is no, but then again perhaps the same could be asked of life in general. Like many things we take on outside of work (and sometimes work itself), it’s an escape. It’s a chance to get away from the difficulties of the real world, whatever form they take, and immerse yourself in a universe where hacking away at demons with a giant sword somehow has meaning, and even more, can make you truly happy.

So, for at least another 2 weeks, I will let the fires of hell burn outside, and continue my peaceful life in academia, focused on publishing not slashing, occasionally running into a co-worker with dark circles under his eyes who has clearly given into the dark mystical attraction of another Blizzard title.

Coffee is a Way of Life

Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee per day or 146 billion cups per year. In terms of per capita consumption, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, and Brazil has us beat.

The most popular reason that women provide for drinking coffee is “it’s a good way to relax”. On the other hand, men go with the vague but aggressive “it helps get the job done”. That it does.

My own experience with coffee has evolved over the years. Something about the process of drinking coffee, almost just the habit of it, focuses my mind on what I’m doing. It has become part of my comfort zone, a key element of a productive environment. When I smell coffee, my brain goes into the mode of “okay, time to get s*** done”. But “focus” doesn’t just mean focusing on work. I enjoy reading over a hot coffee, thinking about life, and how insanely absurd everything is. It puts my own little problems into perspective and helps me consider the things that really matter in my life.

Of course, the taste of coffee ain’t bad either. I look forward to waking up, making a fresh cup of coffee, and sitting down to eat steel-cut oatmeal while thinking about something I’ve read the night before.

Hard Work or Hardly Working

Main point: Everyone has a personal definition of words like “productive”, “busy”, “hard work”, but progress is driven by the evolution/expansion of these definitions.

Yes, here comes another obvious “wisdom” of the relativist variety.

I like to use sport for analogy, because sport somehow boils down the basic struggles of life into a concrete measurable game of skill and chance. So let’s talk about the treadmill (here’s me running on a treadmill). I used to think that an 8 minute mile was hard. I mean I have friends that are runners and can keep a 5-6 minute mile pace for several miles, but I never even acknowledged that as reality.

To me an 8 minute mile was something I could do, but would have to put in a lot of “hard work”. Anything faster than that was for physical freaks, who I completely ignored in my analysis. The reality however is that those people struggled with an 8 minute mile as well at some point in their life. But unlike me, they did not settle with this limit. They changed their definition of “hard” first to 7 minutes, then to 6, and finally to bellow 5.

I did the same a couple years back with a 6 minute mile. I just one day decided that I will run at a 6 minute mile pace for as long as I could. I would not quit until my body completely quit. It was torture, but I actually did it.

I think the same is true with everything we undertake in life. I too often settle for my idea of what is “hard work” and don’t try to push the limit. But that’s where growth happens: trying to do the things that seems obviously impossible. It turns out that some of them are actually possible.

Since I don’t run much, and suffer through it every time I do run, I like to use running as an indicator of my mental toughness (or lack thereof). For this reason, I hope to one day be able to run a 5 minute mile. Of course, my real goals are all surrounding research and academia, but those are a lot more difficult to put into words and numbers than the time it takes to run a mile.

The Best and Worst of The “One Percent”

Main point: Money is not a measure of a man in that wealth is neither an indication of productive genius nor morally flawed character.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is born out of the frustration at the growing income inequality in America.

More than anything else, in my mind, this is a reflection of our society’s relationship with money. The “market” values a CEO much more than it did 30 years ago. Big banks have gained power not because they somehow went against the values of the masses, but because they went with them.

I think the arguments on both sides have been trivialized to the point of absurdity. To me, the top 1% of income earner is no better or worse than the 99%. I respect productive genius. Some individuals that represent that are in the 1%. Some are in the 99%. Money is one of many possible indicators of greatness. A wealthy person is one who has often excelled in a business venture. That is admirable, but no more admirable than someone who has excelled in a scientific field, an olympic sport, or in the arts, all of which are quite likely to produce little income unless the person is also able to make a business of their skills and achievements.

Our society has great men and women: the real 1% (of which I’m not one). That 1% should be admired, respected, striven for, and never confused with the top 1% of income earners.

So I don’t mind the OWS protests when they are solely about money, and not about putting down the best that our civilization of proud ants has to offer.

Turn Off Facebook When It’s Crunch Time

I’ve turned off facebook temporarily by adding the line www.facebook.com to my hosts file.

The reason? I have two major presentations coming up. One on August 24th and one on September 7th. The list of to-do items for those is not unmanageable but every to-do item in the list is a major undertaking that’s consuming all my time and mental energy. I mean all my time. My only non-work activity is sleep and occasional exercise.

Despite what it often looks like, I actually don’t use Facebook that much. Most times, it’s a quick view, quick comment, 3-4 times a day. However, turning off facebook has been a symbolic gesture for my brain, to make sure it knows that there’s no messing around… I have to focus, for long stretches of time, day after day, and get this s*** done.

I recommend this to others that are coming up against a tough deadline. It helps.