Let me preface this essay by saying I’m not a “genius,” “theoretical physicist,” or “great thinker,” but I decided to pick up Einstein’s biography to learn about someone who’s been called all three. In 2008, the famed biographer and writer, Walter Isaacson, published Einstein’s story in a whole new light. His book catalogues the many triumphs, tribulations, and everyday struggles of the man who has become so revered.
As I read this 704-page tome, the very essence of Einstein came alive. Isaacson is a skilled writer, but he was homing in on something unique about his main character. Einstein extolled and lived for a simple life.
Albert Einstein is remembered for his brilliant discoveries in the field of physics. Without going too far into the weeds, he theorized about relativity and gravity. He felt they overlapped and coalesced. For instance, that light would bend in travel because of the sun’s gravitational pull. At the time, these were maddeningly complex ideas with little experimental support. Despite the novelty and unknowns, he stuck his neck out — time and time again. He didn’t bend or sway to convention, and it ultimately made him famous around the world.
Throughout the book, Einstein is heralded for derision of power, authority, and status quo. Even greater, he seemed to attack the fundamental strictures and culture of materialism. It’s clear that his simple living values made him a better, more unique thinker. Without a doubt, Einstein was an early pioneer for minimalism in the face of excess. And here are 5 reasons how he was a minimalist:
1. He idealized simple lifestyles
Einstein was fascinated with bohemian living. Even in early letters to his first wife, he professed that they shouldn’t ever be trapped by society’s expectations. He seemed to love the idea of eschewing what so many wanted. Einstein loved bohemianism, as he found creativity and passion in literature, music, and science. He commingled the three and crafted magical mental imagery of difficult physical constructions. Self-described bohemians were countercultural, just like the beatniks, hippies, and hipsters of generations to come.
2. He disliked bourgeois pursuits
He consciously avoided upper class trappings. This is captured perfectly by a quote in the book. When traveling to another city, he stayed on an office couch instead of a hotel. His friend said, “This was probably not good enough for such a famous man, but it suited his liking for simple living habits and situations that contravened social conventions.” Fame didn’t mean he would suddenly change his way of living. The rebel inside him allowed for success.
3. He gave away much of his wealth
He feared that fame and wealth might affect and degrade people’s ability to live creatively. Einstein gave generously and even dedicated all the Nobel Prize winnings to his first wife. He didn’t crave wealth, nor did he live by its swings. Einstein enjoyed good coffee, cigars, and conversation. Money allowed for those staples, but otherwise was relatively unnecessary. The power of wealth could’ve purchased many conveniences and statuses, and yet he downplayed its ability. Take this passage from the book: “From Prague, Einstein took the train to Vienna, where three thousand scientists and excited onlookers were waiting to hear him speak. At the station, his host waited for him to disembark from the first-class car but didn’t find him. He looked on to second-class car down the platform, and could not find him there either. Finally, strolling from the third-class car at the far end of the platform was Einstein, carrying his violin case like an itinerant musician.”
4. He ignored conventions
Much like the Mark Zuckerbergs of today, Einstein didn’t follow social norms for dress. Comfort was the more important factor. His hair grew unruly in later life. It was iconic for him, as he was this renowned genius, but I believe that this was a subtle rejection of cultural mores. Einstein wanted to show he was unique in both thought and modest dress.
5. He took time for independent thought
Above all, Einstein’s genius was in his ability to isolate and focus. For days and weeks at a time, he could hole up in his study and work. He didn’t eat regularly, nor did he pay attention to much around him, but in that solitude, he solved some of the greatest questions of all mankind. His habits often made him cold and cantankerous, but it also cultivated a lifelong independence. Simple time alone was vital to discovery.
I’m nearly finished with the book, but these discoveries were too hard to hold back. I figured I’d share them with you as soon as I could. Within these passages, quotes, and stories, I see a man that feared the trappings of privilege. He was a social advocate, scholar, and seeker.
In a way, I wonder if I share something with Einstein: a fear of ever having more than enough. I fear what money can do, and how some people embrace elite statuses at the cost of others. If Einstein were alive today, I’d ask whether he feared he might lose his creativity if he lived more lavishly. My guess is that he would say “yes.”
Oh, one more thing, read his biography: Einstein: His Life and Universe.