A Brief Visit With Einstein

May 10, 2018

In the early months of 1955, just before Einstein’s sudden death from an aneurysm on April 18th, LIFE Magazine editor William Miller traveled unannounced to Einstein’s home in Princeton, NJ. He was accompanied by his son Pat, a Harvard freshman, and William Hermanns, a poet, scholar and long-time friend of Einstein’s. The reason for the trip was Miller hoped Einstein could impart some wisdom to his son, a science student who idolized Einstein and was struggling with the meaning of life. Hermanns was there to help them gain admittance. Long story short, they get in and have a fascinating back-and-forth about the nature of knowledge, religion, and the soul.

During the impromptu visit, in a conversation with Pat, Einstein casually shares one of his most enduring pieces of advice. “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”

I’ve always loved that quote, which led me to dig up the backstory to better understand the context in which it was said. It’s from Death of a Genius, an article by Miller in the May 2, 1955 issue of LIFE Magazine. The full article is worth a read. The part containing that famous quote is particularly compelling:

Towards the end of the meeting, Miller shares his son’s creeping nihilism, “…he can find no reason why he should strive to achieve.” This prompts the following exchange between Einstein and Pat:

Einstein looked at Pat and simply asked, “Does not the question of the undulation of light arouse your curiosity?” (The nicest thing about the question was his simple assumption that the boy would understand it.) “Yes, very much,” said the boy, his interest brightening.

“Is not this enough to occupy your whole curiosity for a lifetime?”

“Why, yes,” said Pat, smiling rather sheepishly. “I guess it is.”

“Then do not stop to think,” said Einstein, “about the reasons for what you are doing, about why you are questioning. The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity. Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value. He is considered successful in our day who gets more out of life than he puts in. But a man of value will give more than he receives.”

I love this interaction for two reasons. (1) The idea of popping into Einstein’s house unannounced to discuss the meaning of life is surreal to think about. (2) In our increasingly style-over-substance, me-first, find-the-shortest-path-to-success, self-promote-at-all-costs world, I find Einstein’s humble perspective to be needed now more than ever.