Go Your Own Way
By Paul Reali
Famous in the canon of enduring historical myths is this one: that Albert Einstein was a lousy student who was bad at math. In fact, Einstein was a child prodigy. As recounted in the New York Times:
"Contrary to a popular legend that has given comfort to countless slow starters, young Albert Einstein was remarkably gifted in mathematics, algebra and physics, academic records recently acquired from Swiss archives show. The records, contained in a collection of the great theorist’s papers now being prepared for publication at Princeton, confirm that Einstein was a child prodigy, conversant in college physics before he was 11 years old, a “brilliant” violin player who got high marks in Latin and Greek. But his inability to master French was the bane of his school days, and may have been chiefly responsible for his failing college entrance examinations." (Source: The New York Times)
I bring this up for two reasons. First, because it’s always good to dispel the mythology that surrounds creativity and innovation, concepts which are widely discussed but not widely understood. And second, because of another story making the rounds this week about Sir John Gurdon, who shared this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Gurton is best known for the groundbreaking work on the development of cells and organisms, which led to the cloning of Dolly the Sheep, and continues to pave the way for developments in the diagnosis and ethical treatment of disease.
It seems that when Gurton was 15 years old, he had a science teacher who thought that the idea of the lad becoming a scientist was “ridiculous.” Here’s what the teacher said, back in 1949:
"It has been a disastrous half. His work has been far from satisfactory. His prepared stuff has been badly learnt, and several of his test pieces have been torn over; one of such pieces of prepared work scored two marks out of a possible 50. His other work has been equally bad, and several times he has been in trouble, because he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way. I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous, if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be sheer waste of time, both on his part, and of those who have to teach him."
What’s the lesson here? One possibility is that what we’re seeing is an example of a typical 15-year old and a strong role model: an undisciplined, bored, contemptuous youth who got from his teacher just the kick in the behind that he needed to strive for something greater.
Another possibility is that we’re seeing John Gurdon was misunderstood, as Einstein was at the same age. Here’s the clue: “he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way” (italics mine). This is the essence of the creative thinker, breaking from the established patterns and ways of thinking, trying things out in new ways, even though things might go wrong. Gurdon at 15 was ready to push the boundaries, ready to try things his own way, and willing to fail along the way.
And maybe it’s both. The only framed document on Gurdon’s office wall is the framed school report from 1949. About this document, he said, “When you have problems like an experiment doesn’t work, which often happens, it’s nice to remind yourself that perhaps after all you’re not so good at this job and the schoolmaster may have been right.”
Sources: The Guardian, Mirror News, and, to see the report card itself, The Daily News