The difference between people who lead fulfilled lives and people who live empty lives is simple. People who act and do things are fulfilled, people who don’t are not. Albert Einstein believed people should not be too conscious of why and how they want to accomplish something. They should just do it. In 1905, the year he discovered relativity, Einstein was living in a cramped apartment and dealing with a difficult marriage and money troubles.
He worked long hours for six days a week as a patent clerk in 1905 while, in the evenings and on Sundays, he wrote four papers that were destined to change the course of science and nations. “It’s not that I’m so smart,” Einstein once said, “It’s just that I work hard and stay with problems longer instead of doing nothing and waiting for great thoughts.”
Einstein discovered that when you actively work on a problem you are passionate about, you will start to notice more and more things that relate to what you are working on. With an infinite amount of stimuli constantly hitting our brains, we need the ability to filter that which is most relevant to us. And our mind is that filter. Often these connections can seem like coincidences, but cognitive scientists tell us it is simply that part of our brain that screens out information we are not interested in and focuses on the things that we can use. These connections give you different ways to look at information and different ways to focus on it. In Einstein’s case, it enabled him to understand the underlying realities of his theoretical premises.
Had Einstein been consigned instead to the job of an assistant to a professor he might have felt compelled to churn out safe publications and be overly cautious in challenging accepted notions. Special relativity has a flavor of the patent office; one of the theory’s charms for the fascinated public was the practical apparatus of its exposition, involving down-to-earth images like passing trains equipped with reflecting mirrors on their ceilings, and clocks that slow as they accelerate—counterintuitive effects graspable with little more math than plane geometry.
An elementary school teacher once told me a story that reminded me of how our brains get turned on by action. The teacher asked the children to make up a story each day and recite it before the class. Justin was a painfully shy boy who insisted on waiting until he was inspired to make up the perfect story. After many refusals the exasperated teacher finally asked Justin to stand in front of the classroom’s piano and make up a story about a dog. In a trembling voice, Justin told a story about a dog who jumped on a piano keyboard and stepped on the keys up and down making music and learned how to play the piano. The class loved his story.
Each time Justin was asked he would tell the same story using different animals over and over: the cat who learned to play the piano; the rabbit; the mouse; the squirrel; the pony and so on. One day there was a subtle change. Justin told the story about the dog who taught her puppy how to play. Then it was back to the same old routine: the cat who taught her kitten how to play the piano; the bird who taught her hatchling and so on.
Finally, at the end of the year, the teacher announced a story-telling contest. Everyone would tell a story and the class would vote. When it was Justin’s turn, everyone expected one of the same old animal variations of his story. Instead, Justin told a story of how a grand piano taught a baby piano how to play. The children clapped and cheered. Unanimously, they voted Justin’s story the best of the year.
Justin’s repeated story telling turned on his genes that responded to his challenge until he made the unanticipated connection of inanimate pianos teaching their young when no people are around. As the teacher related, the story got her class to wondering if big clouds teach young clouds how to rain; whether big trees teach saplings how to whisper in the wind; and whether ripe bananas teach green ones how to ripen.
When Justin was producing make believe stories, he was interacting with his classroom environment which turned on certain genes which otherwise wouldn’t be turned on; in fact, they would be turned off if he remained stubborn and did not act. By forcing himself to make up stories he was replenishing neurotransmitters which are linked to genes that are being turned on and turned off in response to what the brain is doing, which in turn is responding to challenges. When you go through the motions of being creative, you are energizing your brain by increasing the number of contacts between neurons. The more times you act, the more active your brain becomes and the more creative you become.
What a person thinks or believes is of no consequence. The only thing of consequence in life is what you do.