Einstein Made a Big Mistake Late in His Career That Limited His Potential. Here’s How to Avoid It

How to keep your innovative edge from start to finish.

Like many innovative thinkers in tech today, Einstein achieved success by stubbornly pushing back against industry norms and rejecting long-held conventions. But also like many of today’s innovative thinkers, he struggled to maintain this innovative edge as his career progressed.

In his Einstein’s Greatest Mistake, David Bodanis describes how Einstein was a radical and disruptive thinker in the early stages of his career. But in the latter stages, Einstein and his good friend (and physicist) Erwin Schrödinger rejected newer ideas of quantum mechanics such as the uncertainty principle (which asserts that there’s a limit to how much we can measure). As these ideas gained widespread adoption, Einstein dug his heals in and continued to reject them. Schrödinger, on the other hand, softened his stance on the uncertainty principle and admitted to being wrong. What followed, was a fresh wave of brilliant work where Schrödinger laid the groundwork for DNA and genetics. Like a well-lead startup, he pivoted his career to follow a new vision.

When building a tech startup, founders start as visionaries–those with new ideas for a future world that nobody else can see. But if you’re amongst the elite few who sees success, you will be faced with a different problem: you will become the old-fashioned one. As your priorities evolve from disrupting your industry and shift to focus on building a healthy business (and possibly, gasp, shareholder value!), you may find yourself becoming closed off to the radical ideas that you once cherished. Looking at the different paths of Einstein and Schrödinger shows us four ways you can maintain your innovative edge as you grow your startup.

1. Don’t let your past dictate the future.

Einstein had success by ignoring conventions in science, and his stubbornness led to massive breakthroughs. But this same mentality closed him off later in his career. The adage, “what got you here, won’t get you there” is paramount in tech because conditions change constantly. How you succeed will change as well.

2. Surround yourself with diverse thinkers.

Einstein was isolated in Princeton and didn’t have access to enough scientists to push his thinking on a regular basis. While this was certainly not his fault since he ended up in the U.S. to save himself from the Nazis, it provides an important lesson for founders. As you grow, continue to build your team with ideas that will push your own. Diversity in age, gender, race, and nationality can create atmospheres of continuous creativity.

3. Get inspiration from, but don’t copy, the competition.

Shrödinger didn’t simply watch what others were doing and join them. He used it to inspire his next phase of work but coupled that with his own background in physics. As your startup grows, other disruptors emerge that may not always be right for your business model. The biggest mistake you can make is to blindly copy. Instead, find what is behind the disruptive approaches and adapt it to your business (unless you’re Amazon, then you can just buy the competition).

4. Weigh the risk of being wrong against the upside of being right.

Ultimately, there was little risk for Einstein because his legacy was firmly in place. As you build a new product, your radical idea is what will create a new market and amazing opportunity. But as your product and company grow, holding firm to your ideas has much greater risk (remember when Blockbuster shunned Netflix?). Experimenting with new ideas carries the risk of failure as well, but lean methodologies make these experiments much safer and easier to recover from.

Stubbornly sticking to your vision is what creates a path for market success. But as you build innovative startups, the risk of making small errors is far lower than the risk of being stubborn. By understanding this risk and how to combat it, you can maintain innovation as your startup scales. And hey, if your entrepreneurial career ends up simply being like Einstein’s, that isn’t so bad either.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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