There’s hope for those of us with messy desks

November 22, 2008 | By | 6 Replies More

There’s hope for those of us with messy desks.   This is a photo of Albert Einstein’s messy desk taken in April, 1955.

I enjoyed this anecdote regarding Einstein:

EINSTEIN came to Princeton University in 1935 and was asked what he would require for his study. he replied: “A desk, some pads and a pencil, and a large wastebasket to hold all of my mistakes.”

Linus Pauling had the same approach to coming up with good ideas: ““The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away.”

I have often heard that Einstein said that one should not memorize things that one can look up.   Here’s the story on which that alleged quote is based, as best I can tell:

ONE OF Einstein’s colleagues asked him for his telephone number one day. Einstein reached for a telephone directory and looked it up. “You don’t remember your own number?” the man asked, startled.
“No,” Einstein answered. “Why should I memorize something I can so easily get from a book?”

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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) said in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test that the secret was to get good and (shall we say) stoked, and write like a demon. Then throw away 95% of it the next day.

    Write profusely and edit mercilessly is ancient and oft repeated advice for all creative pursuits. As earlier posts on this site occasionally bring up.

  2. The last quote from Einstein is nonsense. You need to know the basics, so you can create more complex ideas. You can't connect information and create something new you if you have to look up the stuff all the time. And how would you able to hold yourself in an argument and defend your position if you didn't know your facts? "I kind of know you're wrong, but I would have to look it up first," wouldn't really convince me. Or, when you learn a new language, you should memorize the new words. Of course, you can look them up in a dictionary, but does that make sense?

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Proj, the Einstein quote leaves as unspoken, "…memorize something that I'll rarely need…". One common thread in biographies of geniuses is that they have the ability to determine what information is handy, and what is incidental. And simply discard the latter.

    How often do you need to use your own phone number? It is essentially a random number with no utility other than to identify yourself to strangers. I wouldn't know my own government ID code Social Security Number if I hadn't needed to write it on so many forms in college, where they used it as a student ID. Now, students carry ID cards with a mag stripe (or a chip) and a photo. They no longer need to remember the code number.

    Ask any American for their full 11 digit postal code. It is barcoded on almost every piece of mail they receive. The first 9 digits are often printed for humans, yet most people only know their own first 5! They have to look it up. Why would someone who ignores minutia bother to memorize it?

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Before I was married, I had to think a minute to recall my own phone number simply because I never called me.

    Many people do not think in symbolic or linguistic modes, but in concrete and spatial modes. At my office, there are several digital door locks, I have access to two secure areas and I don't remember the combination as a number, but as a pattern on the keypad.

  5. I know my own phone number, that's probably the reason why I'm not a genius…

    The distracted professor whose mind is occupied with great ideas probably has a wife at home who is taking care of all the petty stuff.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Niklaus: We changed our push-button locks at work last year. Many of us didn't know the number pattern of the old combination, but we knew the motor routine for pushing the buttons. We had to watch our hands go through the motions to remember the numbers of the combination.

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