“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”



Einstein’s talent for breaking rules was not always appreciated. He clashed repeatedly with academic and scientific authorities before becoming an international scientific superstar. And even when he was safe from the attacks of mediocre scientific minds, Einstein was harassed for his forward-looking political ideas. Driven from Nazi Germany into asylum in the United States, he continued to clash with the political establishment over issues of intellectual expression and nuclear war.

Einstein saw clearly the madness in the Cold War and any resolution short of peace. He was one of the few people brave enough to condemn Senator Joseph McCarthy’s inquisition, urging other intellectuals to refuse to appear before the investigating committees that were trying to identify communists. It is fortunate that Einstein was left relatively unscathed despite all his novel thinking. Many are not so lucky. Martyrdom is an occupational hazard of rule breakers. If you have conceived a great idea, you must also have a strategy to avoid suffering for it.

The fear of being martyred for your idea is a subtle but real obstacle to Einstein Thinking. You may avoid breaking key rules, growing a solution, or even honestly defining the problem because you fear the consequences. This is not an irrational fear.

Thinking something new can be perilous. Copernicus was bril- liant enough to figure out that the earth revolved around the sun. He was also clever enough to avoid punishment for his great con- tribution. He distributed his work anonymously. Scholars around Europe benefited from his thinking, and Copernicus was allowed to live.

The martyrdom scenario is repeated with sickening regularity throughout history. An important idea is branded as heresy, trea- son, or quackery. The discoverer suffers various injustices: death, prison, dismissal, or transfer to oblivion. Then the idea is adopted. Sometimes the creator is honored posthumously, although credit often goes to those who just kept their heads down until it was safe.

Einstein Thinking seeks solutions by violating established assumptions. When using it, your intelligence, at the very least, will be questioned. If you are not careful, you will be derided, demoted, ostracized, transferred, fired, jailed, or shot, depending on whose rules you are breaking.

But why risk harm for your contribution? Great solutions should be beneficial, especially to you. An important and often neglected aspect of great thinking is avoiding martyrdom. Your idea will be more successful if you can mitigate the personal negative consequences. You will also be more creative if you know it won’t hurt.

This chapter will explain techniques for avoiding martyrdom when using Einstein Thinking.


“Fear and stupidity has always been the basis of most human actions.” ALBERT EINSTEIN

Good ideas will be resisted. Rational, intelligent people will fight against brilliant, insightful, and correct thinking. We have already mentioned that great ideas start as skinny, weak, underdeveloped ideas. But even after your thinking has grown into a solid concept, you may encounter opposition because your ideas create cognitive dissonance in others. As we discussed, we are simply programmed to reject new ideas.

Rule ruts always have champions. Even the worst situations benefit someone. People like that have a vested interest in main- taining things as they are. They will fight to preserve the status quo, probably from a position of power. Even when radically new think- ing would seem to benefit the existing power base, it can appear threatening. The powerful are masters of the old thinking. They might be less knowledgeable, less connected, less necessary in the world if the new idea succeeded.

New ideas can also be bad ideas. Some changes should be opposed. But progress is an uphill battle. The slow decline of the command economy, or communism, provides several good examples of resistance to a better idea by an entrenched power base.

Persistent Bad Ideas

“In order to be an immaculate member of a flock of sheep, one must above all be a sheep oneself.” ALBERT EINSTEIN

Communism was an obvious economic failure, particularly in the side-by-side comparison states of East and West Germany and North and South Korea. So why did command economies persist? The simple answer is that those who benefited from communism also had the guns. They prevented beneficial change to maintain their own advantage.

But communists aren’t the only ones who have had trouble changing. Resistance to change is universal. The Western reaction to the decline of communism is a classic example of self-interest triumphing over reality. The evidence mounted for years that the Soviet economy was collapsing at accelerating rates. A junior analyst with the most basic grasp of history should have seen that dramatic political changes were a real possibility. Many probably did. But intelligence organizations ignored these possibilities. Data was “adjusted” so that the communists looked as frightening as ever. After all, these organizations needed the Red Menace to justify their existence.

When the Red Menace was publicly coming apart and Eastern Europe hung in the balance, Western governments still could not change. They continued to spend billions to more efficiently fight a war that would destroy the whole planet. Only token sums could be found to help millions of old enemies become friends. There were no well-connected beneficiaries of aid to struggling democracies, but plenty of important defense contractors.


“It is really a puzzle what drives one to take one’s work so devilishly seriously.” ALBERT EINSTEIN

If better ideas were so obvious, why didn’t people in Western defense agencies say, “This is stupid! Let’s do things radically dif- ferently”? Maybe they did. We may never know how much dis- sent existed. Organizations silence dissenters. Whether through jail, transfer, termination, or isolation, the purveyors of unpopular ideas tend to disappear. You can imagine what happens to the guy who says, “My analysis indicates that we are not really needed.” Being right is no protection from bureaucratic revenge.

Billy Mitchell was an early American proponent of air power. After World War I, he made all sorts of wild claims about aircraft controlling the seas and devastating cities. He even demonstrated some of his claims, sinking a surplus warship. Mitchell was right, but being right didn’t advance his career. He was called before a court martial for tirelessly advocating the future. Mitchell’s opponents were never tried for stupidity.


“If A is success in life, then A = x + y + z. Work is x, y is play, z is keeping your mouth shut.” ALBERT EINSTEIN

People clever enough to create solutions also understand the political risks inherent in rocking the boat. They know what happens to the bearers of bad news, so many innovators censor themselves. They hide their ideas to protect themselves. This must not be. We need those solutions. Your fear of punishment for your idea could be a major obstacle to growing it into a great solution. Here are four strategies for escaping martyrdom due to thinking like Einstein.

Give Someone Else the Idea and the Credit

Benjamin Franklin suggested this wise and selfless strategy. Instead of enthusiastically supporting your own idea, pretend it came from someone else. Then enthusiastically support it. Assigning credit is especially effective if the idea is attributed to a powerful person.

This strategy works well for two reasons. First, it removes the suspicion and jealousy that you are supporting the idea because it is your own. Second, people support their own ideas. If you make your idea their idea, they will fight for it.

Giving others the credit will line up all those egos so that they support you. Ego reigns supreme over reason. Some people will do almost anything to avoid a perceived inferior position. Egos inflate auction prices and add billions to the cost of corporate deals. And when the ego of a national leader becomes involved, the cost can be incalculable. Millions have died so the big guy doesn’t look bad.

It isn’t hard to transfer your breakthrough to someone else. Just engage your boss in a conversation. Work through your thinking on making the product appealing for younger customer segments. Suggest your idea of a new youth brand as though you hadn’t seriously considered it. When she comments on it, get visibly excited. Tell her that she has added the key piece to the puzzle. Then spread “her” idea around the company. Become an enthusiastic supporter.

Use Fear

“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”


Another strategy for deflecting the retribution for a good idea is to give a competitor the credit for your innovation. If your problem was finding ways to differentiate your bank, then attribute your solutions to gossip about your competitors. Say you heard that the rival bank is considering offering artificial intelligence based portfolio management Then express doubts about the idea, but point out how damaging it would be if the idea worked with busy high- income people and your organization was not prepared. People are much more fearful of losing to the competition than they are of losing an opportunity. Your colleagues will consider anything they believe a competitor might try. Create a competitive threat to spur consideration of your idea.

Create a Benefit for the Powerful

“He that dies a martyr proves that he was not a knave, but by no means that he was not a fool.” CHARLES COLTON

Your idea will be more rapidly accepted if the powers that be rec- ognize the benefits to themselves. There are people who will self- lessly champion a breakthrough even to their own detriment. But don’t count on finding one of them at your inquisition.

Behind every big change is a bigger severance package. In Eastern Europe, diehard apparatchiks finally abandoned communism to become rich. They sold state assets to themselves, maintaining their privileged positions while changing systems. Communism would have never crumbled as it did if these very loyal party members had been turned out into the street.

Create a benefit to the powerful as a key part of your break- through. Today’s authorities must be better off.

Allow an Outsider to Break the News

The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger seemed an unsolvable mystery. A blue-ribbon panel of experts was convened to determine what had gone wrong and why. Einstein probably would have been asked if he were alive, but another genius, Richard Feynman, was included. Feynman reviewed the wreckage and scrutinized the films. He read stacks of reports and listened to armies of witnesses. But the cause of the explosion still eluded him.

Of course, the actual cause of the explosion was immediately known inside NASA. The only real problem in unraveling the Challenger mystery was how to break the news. No one was will- ing to compound the tragedy of the disaster with the tragedy of destroying his career. Finally, an Air Force general who had been secretly told what went wrong invited Feynman to his home to look at a weekend project.

The general planted the hint, cold O-ring seals, and Feynman’s fertile mind solved the mystery. Feynman quickly demonstrated his breakthrough: the shuttle’s cold O-ring seals had shattered. Challenger’s unusually cold O-rings must have allowed hot gases from the solid rocket boosters to escape, triggering the explosion. The mystery was solved.

The need for outsiders to break bad news drives much of the consulting industry. Unlike insiders, consultants look best when they can point out serious problems. Surveys, polls, and focus groups are also safe ways to break bad news. The voice of the people is the voice of God, and who wants to argue with God?

Anonymous disclosure is a less attractive way of breaking bad news. It does get the idea out, but reflects poorly on the idea itself. And you can’t easily support an anonymous idea. Attribute your idea to some- one else, like a competitor, rather than releasing it anonymously.

But by all means, circulate your breakthrough concept. Give others the chance to refine it, to poke holes in it. Your idea needs cerebral sex to develop. Just don’t get yourself hanged in the process.

Your Strategy

“Although prepared for martyrdom, I preferred that it be postponed.” WINSTON CHURCHILL

“The first duty of a revolutionary is to get away with it.”


To grow your idea into a solution, you need a way to avoid the negative consequences of innovation. Create a strategy that will allow you to actively develop the idea, gather support, and avoid inquisitions. After you have your strategy, stick with it. The solution is more important than the glory.


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Author: Billy Walters