Albert Einstein’s “sense of separateness”

In Quirky, Melissa A. Schilling focuses on eight “breakthrough innovators”: Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Elon Musk, Dean Jamen, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs. While doing so, she draws upon an abundance of recent research. However different these eight geniuses may be in most respects, all of them (to varying degree) manifest pure creativity and originality, relentless (indeed tenacious) effort and persistence, and unique situational advantage. They also demonstrate what Schilling characterizes as “a marked sense of separateness, perceiving themselves as different or disconnected from the crowd.”

She duly acknowledges that “it is difficult to know to what degree these individuals experienced a sense of suffering or regret from their separateness – what people feel is not always what they convey publicly…By nurturing the independent thinking of the breakthrough innovators, separateness helped them to generate and pursue big and unusual ideas, By not belonging, they were buffered from the norms that help to bring groups to consensus and foster cooperation”…and possibly self-defeating compromise.

Albert Einstein offers an excellent case in point. As he observes in The World as I See It, “My passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility has always contrasted oddly with my pronounced freedom from the need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities…One is sharply conscious, yet without regret, of the limits to mutual understanding and sympathy along with one’s fellow-creatures. Such a person no doubt loses something in the way of congeniality and light-heartedness; on the other hand, he is largely independent of the opinions, habits, and judgments of his fellow-creatures and avoids temptation to take his stand on such insecure foundations.”

In this context, I am again reminded of this passage from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

“Do I contradict myself? Well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”

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Melissa A. Schilling is the Herzog Family Professor of Management at New York University Stern School of Business. She received her Bachelor of Science in business administration from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She received her Doctor of Philosophy in strategic management from the University of Washington. Professor Schilling’s research focuses on innovation and strategy in high technology industries such as smartphones, video games, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, electric vehicles, and renewable energies.

To learn more about her and her brilliant work, please click here.

PublicAffairs/Hachette Book Group is the publisher of Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World (February 2018).

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