I was listening the other day to an old episode of the always brilliant Strong Towns podcast and buried in an otherwise amazing discussion about the need for economics to move past its “Newtonian” phase, was an interesting little aside about Einstein’s time in the patent clerk’s office, which is where he came up with the theory of relativity. The host, Chuck Marohn wondered aloud about what would have happened if Einstein hadn’t been sequestered in this relatively boring, relatively isolated place for years? What if Einstein had instead gotten a low-level unsatisfying job in physics? Would he have had the time and freedom to come up with his theory?
This reminded me of another apocryphal tale from the band Oasis. According to legend, lead songwriter Noel Gallagher had a terrible job in a similarly boring and isolated office environment. Eventually, to stem boredom he started bringing his guitar to work, and in his isolation and boredom he wrote most of the songs from Oasis’ first album, including the monster hit, “Live Forever.”
These are hardly isolated incidents. J.K. Rowling supposedly came up with a huge portion of the Harry Potter epic while staring out the window on the long train from London to Edinburgh. Even Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook during a period of relative social isolation.
So is boredom and loneliness a prerequisite for genius? Is there a logic to artists and thinkers seeking isolation and freedom from distraction when they’re looking to create? And if so, is our hyper-connected world an obstruction to big ideas. Is the ability to connect at will to the collective global hive-mind actually a hindrance to the sort of thunderbolts of genius that have so often moved humanity forward?
Or are these rare occurrences, and true innovation comes from groups of people working together to drive humanity forward? What are your thoughts?