Learning the Optimism of Failure

Amongst the many fascinating websites to which I can easily lose an hour (or three), Letters of Note has to stand somewhere near the top of the list. The resource is a fascinating and entertaining collection of postcards, telegrams, memos, and other “correspondence deserving of a wider audience”. I urge you to take a look for yourself, because I’m sure you'll agree.

Yesterday’s post featured a pair of letters exchanged in 1911 between Henri Poincaré and Marie Curie, renowned scientists of their day. The subject was Albert Einstein, who’s first published work- to change the course of physics forever- was only just beginning to take hold within the scientific community. The purpose of these letters was simply to provide reference for the still young professor, who longed to take professional residence at his alma mater in Switzerland but was running into some resistance.

While the whole of these letters certainly paint a glowing picture of what Einstein had to offer any university wise enough to take him on, it was this particular passage in Poincaré’s letter that caught my attention:

A problem which enters his mind unfolds itself into the anticipation of new phenomena which may one day be verified by experiment. I do not mean to say that all these anticipations will withstand the test of experiment on the day such a test would become possible. Since he seeks in all directions one must, on the contrary, expect most of the trails which he pursues to be blind alleys. But one must hope at the same time that one of the directions he has indicated may be the right one, and that is enough. This is indeed how one should proceed.

Immediately striking is the notion that Einstein should be celebrated for making a habit of failure. Further, he has displayed a commitment to failure, empowered by the optimism that arriving at any dead end should in fact be viewed as taking yet another step toward an imminent breakthrough discovery. Poincaré implicitly identifies the commitment to exhaustive research in his young colleague as perhaps his most admirable quality.

Could more of us strive to employ the same kind of courage and daring imagination that Albert Einstein is recognized for in this letter? Even more, could we learn from Henri Poincaré, offering patience and doing what we can to cultivate the mission of those around us who consistently take an indirect route to their ultimate destination?

I believe we should all challenge ourselves to do more of both.