Albert Einstein on Sifting the Essential from the Non-Essential

Why is it so hard to sift the essential from the inessential? Few things have more of an impact on your life and career than your ability to zero in on what matters most. And yet most of us spend time cluttering our minds with things that don’t matter, rather than focusing on the simplicity that does.

It can feel difficult to keep up. There is an ever-increasing amount of information coming at us. Occasionally we get motivated and try to reach inbox zero but the onslaught doesn’t stop and we are soon back to where we started from. Efforts like this are well-meaning but misplaced, focusing on more and more effort instead of addressing the most important tool in our toolbox: our mind.

A lot of people think that Albert Einstein’s greatest ability was his mathematical mind. It wasn’t. Granted it’s probably better than yours or mine, but in comparison to his impact on the world most people in the know consider his mathematical gifts average at best.

Einstein’s greatest skill was the ability to sift the essential from the inessential — to grasp simplicity when everyone else was lost in clutter.

John Wheeler points out in his short biographical memoir on Einstein that it wasn’t that he understood more about complicated things that made him impressive:

Many a man in the street thinks of Einstein as a man who could only make headway in his work by dint of pages of complicated mathematics; the truth is the direct opposite. As Hilbert put it, “Every boy in the streets of our mathematical Gottingen understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein. Yet, despite that, Einstein did the work and not the mathematicians.” Time and again, in the photoelectric effect, in relativity, in gravitation, the amateur grasped the simple point that had eluded the expert.

While it’s tempting to think that Einstein was born with this skill, that would be a lie.  In fact, it was developed consciously as an adult. “I soon learned,” Einstein said, “to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.”

“We have a passion for keeping things simple.”

— Charlie Munger

Where did Einstein acquire this ability to sift the essential from the non-essential? For this we turn to his first job.

In the view of many, the position of clerk of the Swiss patent office was no proper job at all, but it was the best job available to anyone with (Einstein’s) unpromising university record. He served in the Bern office for seven years, from June 23, 1902 to July 6, 1909. Every morning he faced his quote of patent applications. Those were the days when a patent application had to be accompanied by a working model. Over and above the applications and the models was the boss, a kind man, a strict man, a wise man. He gave strict instructions: explain very briefly, if possible in a single sentence, why the device will work or why it won’t; why the application should be granted or why it should be denied.

Day after day Einstein had to distill the central lesson out of objects of the greatest variety that man has power to invent. Who knows a more marvelous way to acquire a sense of what physics is and how it works? It is no wonder that Einstein always delighted in the machinery of the physical world—from the action of a compass needle to the meandering of a river, and from the perversities of a gyroscope to the drive of Flettner’s rotor ship.

Who else but a patent clerk could have discovered the theory of relativity? “Who else,” Wheeler writes, “could have distilled this simple central point from all the clutter of electromagnetism than someone whose job it was over and over to extract simplicity out of complexity.”

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The biggest mistake that most of us make is that we try to consume more information. We do this because we feel like we’re missing something. While we can all learn and improve our understanding of something, the constant search for what we don’t have and what we’re missing is also the natural response of someone who doesn’t truly understand what matters and what doesn’t. To understand what I mean consider investors.

The worst investors I know are focused on every news article, blog, or commentary on the company they own. Glued to their screen they look for some esoteric detail that others have missed. And because they are looking, they will eventually find something. Our brain convinces them that all of that effort paid off and they overvalue the new information. In fact, the vast majority of that time (9,999/10,000) that new bit of information won’t matter at all but they’ve lost the forest for the tree. Overvalued insight means unwarranted confidence. You can see where this is going.

On the other hand, the best investors I know focus only on company press releases and company filings. They know the few variables that truly matter and focus on monitoring those.

Simple. Effective. And efficient.

Clearly not every email in our inbox is important, not every moving part in a project will matter equally to the outcome, and not every opinion in a meeting is equally valid. We only have so much time. Giving things equal attention is not only inefficient but also ineffective.

Time is a great example of an overlooked simplicity. Sure, we learn a little bit about time in school. First we learn how to tell time and later we learn about time in the context of dates and speed. As we age, birthdays mark the passing of time. And of course, we have to be somewhere at a certain time, for a date, a flight, a graduation. That’s about the extent most of us will think about time until it’s too late.

Only when we’re older will we think about how we lived, what we worked on and who we worked with, and what mattered. Time is the simplicity before us that we ignore preferring to think about something more complex.

The skills to better filter and process are within our grasp: (1) focus on understanding basic, timeless, general principles of the world and use them to help filter people, ideas and projects; (2) take time to think about what we’re trying to achieve and the 2-3 variables that will most help us get there; (3) remove the inessential clutter from our lives; (4) think backwards about what we want to avoid.