A website is nothing without a tagline, or so I thought when I launched my first website: ASimpleModel.com. The objective, as the name suggests, is to remove the mystery surrounding financial models and expose them as simply as possible for the sake of education. I needed a quote that captured this perfectly, and I found it in the introduction to Howard Mark's book titled The Most Important Thing Illuminated.
Mark's text opens with this quote, and the book follows suite. It is a quick and entertaining read on account of his ability to describe otherwise complex concepts simply and incorporate real-life context. As an example, on the subject of worst-case scenarios:
We hear a lot about “worst-case” projections, but they often turn out not to be negative enough. I tell my father’s story of the gambler who lost regularly. One day he heard about a race with only one horse in it, so he bet the rent money. Halfway around the track, the horse jumped over the fence and ran away. Invariably things can get worse than people expect. Maybe “worst-case” means “the worst we’ve seen in the past.” But that doesn’t mean things can’t be worse in the future. In 2007, many people’s worst-case assumptions were exceeded.*
To the best of my ability I applied this approach to the content I created for ASimpleModel. Over time, to emphasize this goal, the Einstein illustration became more prominent and eventually became the footer for my email newsletter. Suddenly I felt like a phony. I was quoting Howard Mark's use of Einstein's maxim. So I turned to the author known for making phone books of peoples lives, Walter Isaacson.
At 551 pages, Einstein: His Life and Universe is about 300 pages longer than I prefer a book to be. But it's just awesome. My favorite details thus far (I am 356 pages in) concern Einstein's thought process. Einstein generally did not start with data when forming radical world-changing theories. In fact, Isaacson writes that his most famous paper contained no references to previous work or literature. On the topic of Einstein's most famous paper, "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies," Isaacson writes:
For all its momentous import, it may be one of the most spunky and enjoyable papers in all of science. Most of the insights are conveyed in words and vivid thought experiments, rather than in complex equations. There is some math involved, but it is mainly what a good high school senior could comprehend. "The whole paper is a testament to the power of simple language to convey deep and powerfully disturbing ideas," says the science writer Dennis Overbye. *
Einstein is not described as a lab coat scientist, quite the opposite. His light bulb moments were the product of thought experiments:
"I was sitting in a chair in the patent office at Bern when all of a sudden a thought occurred to me," he recalled. "If a person falls freely, he will not feel his own weight." That realization, which "startled" him, launched him on an arduous eight-year effort to generalize his special theory of relativity and "impelled me toward a theory of gravitation." Later, he would grandly call it "the happiest thought in my life." *
For a man so dedicated to science it may seem odd that he seemingly ignores the progress of others in developing new theories. Of course, this was also his strength. Contempt for authority, his rebellious nature and conviction provided an advantage over his contemporaries.
More specifically, Einstein's scientific successes had come in part from his rebelliousness. There was a link between his creativity and his willingness to defy authority. He had no sentimental attachment to the old order, that was energized by upending it. His stubbornness had worked to his advantage. *
Einstein, by contrast, was able to cast off Newtonian misconceptions. "His conviction that the universe loves simplification and beauty, and his willingness to be guided by this conviction, even if it meant destroying the foundations of Newtonian physics, led him, with a clarity of thought that others could not match, to his new description of space and time." *
Talented authors quoting brilliant minds on the power of simple language makes a witty concluding quip all the more challenging. So I leave you with this: simple is sexy. (Einstein would be proud.)
Footnotes denoted by asterisk and listed in order:
Ibid., p. 145
Ibid., p. 317
Ibid., p. 133