Einstein’s Happiest Thought
Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman published the below on Linkedin on April 27, 2018.
A week ago, the LinkedIn editors asked me to respond to this question and one other for an email newsletter called the Weekly Rundown:
In your opinion, is it better to have a professional specialty or to be a ‘Jack of all trades’ within your field? Is it wise/necessary to develop a specialty or is it more of a personal choice?
More than a specialty, it’s essential to have a craft, whether it be analyzing, building, designing, drawing, cooking, coding, teaching, selling, singing, presenting, or writing.
Finding your craft is different than the old chestnut to follow your passion, because a craft is more mundane than that, more durable and less grand. It’s what you’re good at, what you like doing from moment to moment, year after year.
It took me a while in my own career to find my craft. At one point growing up I wanted to be a novelist, until a friend asked if novel-writing made me happy.
“If I could get my novel published,” I said, “then I’d be happy.”
“But what about when you’re actually writing your novel,” he said. “Are you happy then?” I wasn’t. I realized that no matter how much I loved the idea of being a novelist, novel-writing wasn’t my craft.
Designing software was. It was still creative, but less lonely. It made me forget to eat lunch. It made me forget myself, which was what I could never do as a would-be novelist.
Often now, I meet young people who want to be something more than they want to do something. What they really want, not unreasonably, is to progress in their career.
What they don’t realize is that this progression will end, but their career won’t. Without further promise of major promotions or raises, we all keep working into our forties and fifties, at worst for subsistence, at best to practice our craft.
This point in your career is like being alone again in an empty nest with your spouse, a prospect that is either bleak or loving, depending on whether you married well. And what we become married to in our careers is not one particular title or company but our craft.
Just as a good marriage gives you a base for being adventurous in your life, a craft gives you the confidence and latitude to develop other parts of yourself.
In this way, a craft isn’t limiting, it’s liberating. Often, when I feel myself panicking about a problem I have no idea how to handle, I think about how to solve it using my craft.
If drawing is your craft, turn problems into pictures. If it’s math, every decision becomes data. If it’s writing, your ideas barely exist until you write them down. People who seem to be a jack of all trades often just have one trade that they apply in many different ways to many different problems.
The deepest problem in the universe was solved in this way: Einstein couldn’t generalize his theory of relativity until he realized that there is no way to tell if your weight in some imaginary outer-space elevator is because it’s accelerating up, or the earth is pulling you down.
He turned a mathematical problem about gravity that he couldn’t solve, into one about acceleration that he could, because his real craft was seeing connections between concepts that the world had thought of as separate: mass and energy, space and time, gravity and acceleration. This was what he later described as his happiest thought.
If you’re stuck in an elevator, and you can’t tell if it’s going up or you’re just being pulled down, your happiest thought may be to focus on whatever it is you like doing more than anything else. And then just do that.