The Conventional Einstein

The problems we have can not be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them. – Albert Einstein

Yeah, I know this sounds like easy, fortune cookie wisdom consumed and regurgitated onto a bland blog post with a social media-friendly graphic. Apple riffed on the concept with their “Think Different” campaign (even making Einstein one of their poster-boys). If someone were to quote it to me as business advice, I’d easily nod in logical agreement. If I came across it online I might tweet, like, heart,+1, or pin it. But taken on its own, I doubt it would have any impact on the way I work.

That’s because, without context, without knowing why Einstein made this statement, or how he applied it in his work, it tells me nothing you and I don’t already know (i.e. Innovation happens when we break free from conventional wisdom).

I actually came across this quote while watching a documentary about someone else entirely, Jacque Fresco, a futurist and social engineer whose life’s work has been designing and discovering ways to combine architecture, technology, and communities to improve the human condition.

When he was a young man, before he even knew what a futurist or a social engineer was, Fresco had the opportunity to meet Einstein at the Nobel laureate’s home in Princeton, NJ.

For all his youthful enthusiasm and wonder about the human condition, Fresco wanted to know how Einstein thought about problems humanity faced. Problems of overcrowding, famine and the like. Einstein didn’t really have an answer and immediately brought the conversation back to what he did know, asking the young Fresco if he was interested in the mathematics. A somewhat disappointed Fresco replied that he thought of mathematics as one tool to be used in figuring out how to improve humanity. And that folks, is where that story ends.

We are all at risk of failing to think beyond our conventions. We all have days when we are so focused on one aspect of our work or life we fail to see the interesting things sitting right before us. We may get comfortable in the routines (of thinking) we create for ourselves. Writing this article for instance is making me painfully aware of my own conventions and beliefs.

Some advice can be passed as a gift from one person to another, happily given and eagerly received. This quote from Einstein, however is a different type of advice, passed as would a parent to a child, with the knowledge that it will take repeated reminders in order for it to be understood. And we all know our parents, or we ourselves as parents, don’t always follow the good advice we espouse.

That day, Einstein didn’t change his level of thinking in order to match the bright young mind sitting before him. A change that could have resulted in an historic collaboration that could have resulted in who knows what? The end of poverty? Homelessness? Hunger? We’ll never know.

What I do know, is that both men still went on to do remarkably innovative work and that gives me hope.


Even the most innovative and creative individuals and organizations can fall victim to conventional thinking…

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