In 1905, Albert Einstein wrote a series of papers that changed our view of the universe forever. Historians refer to Einstein’s 1905 as annus mirabilis, the miracle year. In one year, Einstein discovered the special theory of relativity, the quantum theory of light, and the groundbreaking equation E = mc2 (and these are just the highlights…read more about Einstein’s Miracle Year).
He did all of this while working a 40-hour week as a clerk in the Swiss patent office. For those in career transition, the most interesting part of this story is what Einstein was doing before 1905.
Einstein as Office Drone
I already mentioned that Einstein was working as a patent office clerk — not exactly a job suitable for a genius. Well, the famous physicist didn’t even land that clerk job on his own. A friend had to pull some strings for him because Einstein’s university grades were so low (one teacher famously told him that nothing would ever become of him).
Einstein was barely making enough money to support his wife and young child. And in 1904, he was passed over for a promotion to patent clerk second class.
Luckily, the young genius never gave up on his passion for physics. Whenever he had a spare moment during the workday, he would jot down notes and hide them in a drawer that he jokingly called his department of theoretical physics.
He managed to get a few physics articles published in his spare time, but they didn’t make much of an impression. He was reportedly always aiming for grand linkages that he couldn’t quite prove.
Einstein’s Big Breakthrough
Then, on a spring day in 1905, everything changed for Einstein (and for the world). He met his best friend Michele Besso for one of their regular long discussions. Einstein had been working on a theory and felt like he was on the verge of understanding. However, after hours of brainstorming with Besso, he felt no closer to a breakthrough.
It was only later, inspired by memories of a streetcar ride and the view of Bern’s famous clock tower receding into the distance, that it all came together and Einstein’s theory of relativity was born. Einstein spent the next six weeks working furiously on the first draft of what would become one of the most important scientific papers of all time.
Unfortunately, Einstein’s 1905 achievements were not immediately recognized as the work of a genius. He kept his day job in the patent office for the next few years (though he did get a promotion in 1906). In 1908, Albert Einstein finally moved into academia to focus full-time on an extraordinary career as a physicist and undisputed genius.
Career Lessons from Einstein
Could your Miracle Year still be ahead of you? As you can see from Einstein’s story, even geniuses face career setbacks and often have to struggle for success.
I love this Einstein quote: “There’s a Genius in all of us.”
Even if you’re no Einstein, you have some unique gift to share with the world. Don’t give up on your passion — even if you’re forced to work in a patent office for a few years to pay the bills.
In fact, most of history’s greatest geniuses had to overcome failure and tragedy to achieve great things. In case you still doubt your ability to triumph, here are great quotes from two more geniuses to inspire you:
“Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it.”
– Horace (great Roman poet)
“Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than a whole one.”
– E.B. White (great American writer)