Albert Einstein—young professional

Edward P. Salek, CAE, Executive Director | TLT Headquarters Report August 2017

The fledgling genius needed a break. He got it thanks to a reluctant mentor and a lecture at an association conference.

The principle that launched Einstein’s career in 1909 is still relevant for STLE members in 2017.

MY SUMMER READING LIST INCLUDED Einstein: His Life and Universe, a biography written in 2007 by Walter Isaacson, CEO of The Aspen Institute and a former head of CNN. He’s written a number of other biographies, including a more recent best seller about Steve Jobs. This earlier work by Isaacson came to my attention after watching an episode of the National Geographic network television series titled Genius, which was based on the book.

In one of the opening chapters, Isaacson describes Einstein’s struggles as a young professional in Switzerland during the first decade of the 20th Century. Einstein already had achieved a certain prominence by publishing more than 20 revolutionary papers that had been noticed by the giants in the field of theoretical physics. His list of admirers included Max Planck (the originator of quantum theory) and Arnold Sommerfeld (famous in the lubrication world for the number that bears his name).

Somewhat surprisingly, Einstein’s scientific research was basically being done in his spare time. To earn a living, he was working as a patent examiner in Bern, Switzerland. His repeated efforts to join the academic world had not been successful. At one point he even applied for a job teaching high school mathematics but failed to make it into the top tier among 21 candidates for the position.

Einstein’s luck changed thanks to assistance by Alfred Kleiner, a professor of physics at the University of Zurich, who had helped Einstein get his doctorate in 1905. Although eager to assist his protégé, Kleiner encountered some reservations after sitting through a clumsy lecture Einstein gave as a sort of guest instructor at the University of Bern. He informed Einstein that he was hesitant to nominate him for a faculty position in Zurich.

But Einstein persisted and delivered a February 1909 lecture to the Zurich Physics Society that turned his reluctant mentor into an advocate. Einstein was recommended for a faculty position, approved by a secret vote of the Zurich faculty and joined the university as a 30-year-old junior professor in October 1909. By 1921 he would receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. His remarkable achievements continued for the next 35 years until his death in April 1955.

What lessons can be learned from this sliver of history? For anyone starting a career, the message is that associations are a place where you can bring your skills to the attention of people who make decisions that affect your future. It was true in 1909, apparently, and it certainly is true at STLE in 2017.

For those more experienced people who are on the other side of the equation, take the time and have the patience to be a supportive mentor. Consider how different the world might be if professor Kleiner did not have a change of heart about Einstein after sitting in on his disorganized classroom lecture. 

Finally, be persistent. According to Isaacson, Kleiner’s criticism stung Einstein and caused him to take the Zurich society lecture much more seriously than the classroom lecture in Bern. There’s much to be said for requesting a second chance and then making the most of the opportunity as Einstein did in this instance.

Finally, a thought that applies to many situations: Judge people by their potential, not by their background, appearance or current position. In 1909 Einstein was a patent examiner with limited teaching skills, early signs of his trademark unruly appearance and an amazing capability to conduct thought experiments that would unlock the secrets of our universe. Try not to ignore substance because of the superficial.

If you’re looking for a good book to close out the summer, I can recommend Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. And, if you’re searching for a place to build your career, make STLE your professional home.

You can reach Certified Association Executive Ed Salek at