Einstein & Elephants

Right now, you can access a quality that made Albert Einstein a genius. We all do. Do you believe this?

At least part of Einstein’s genius was his flexibility. He could reliably access the innate human capacity to question assumptions. With practice he got very good at questioning assumptions. We can too.

Einstein reportedly said something to the effect of, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” He was telling us that we have to get mentally flexible—that if we want to grow, evolve, and make positive changes, we have to challenge our status quo.

Consider the story of enslaved elephants kept from their freedom by a thin rope tied to one leg. Realizing the flimsy tether could not restrain the enormous beasts, a man passing by asks their keeper why these majestic creatures make no attempt to break free. He’s told that the elephants were conditioned from an early age to believe that they cannot break away, because this thin rope was enough to keep them from doing so when they were young.

Given their current size, the rope can no longer restrain them, but they long ago adopted the belief that they were powerless to escape.

Powerful metaphor, right?

Like captive elephants, we humans tend to bind ourselves to inherited thoughts and beliefs without applying our own contemplation and experimentation. And even when we do consider, test and adopt new ideas for ourselves, if we don't allow the possibility that they too may need to evolve, we become prisoners of outdated thinking.

Even the most intelligent among us fall prey to this mental trap—like other physicists of Einstein’s day who came up with many components of his thinking, but could not make the full leap to the theory of relativity because they clung to misconceptions of a Newtonian paradigm.

We humans attempt to solve emerging problems (both internal and external) with outdated perspectives and wonder why our efforts don’t produce results we want. In this regard, we behave more like those captive elephants than free human beings.

As I see it, an essence of Einstein’s genius was his ability to be radically human.

We can be too. By courageously testing our assumptions. By practicing mental flexibility over and over again (and having compassion for ourselves when we get stuck), until this fluidity becomes a habit of mind.