I recently attended yet another in a long series of professional time management & productivity workshops I have been to over the course of my career. And while each has its own spin, they all promote some version of the same holy grail of an efficient work life: be focused, be persistent–and above all, be on time.
So it was with pleasant surprise that I read Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman’s new book A Mind at Play (Simon & Schuster). The book chronicles the story of Dr. Claude Shannon, a modest, quirky mathematician and engineer who was one of the founders of the information revolution, and arguably one of the lesser-known geniuses of the 20th century.
While you might not know Shannon’s name–you have benefited from his work. That’s because Dr. Shannon developed the idea of the “bit,” and it’s these millions of bits traveling through space that make this blog post possible.
Shannon wasn’t just a brilliant math mind, he was also a unicyclist, an inventor, a juggler, a stock picker, a gambler, a chess player, a pilot, and the co-creator of the world’s first wearable device. He was someone who passionately followed his interests, wherever they led him, and he built a life out of doing what he loved. It’s a life that has a lot to teach us about the prevailing wisdom of productivity, and why we just may have it all wrong.
Here are a few of the unconventional (and even counterintuitive) lessons from this 20th century genius:
In his graduate school days, Shannon would find himself in the middle of working on some thorny math problem, and rather than double down and focus even harder, he would step away–and play the clarinet. Later in his life, Shannon would come into his office and spend the morning engrossed in long games of chess or juggling.
He’s not the only one who used the distraction strategy. Albert Einstein would famously play the violin as a way of working through some challenging physics problems, and Darwin took long walks.
These breaks, as it turns out, are part of brilliance. Top-level minds treat their mental capacity the way a sprinter treats his muscles: with brief bursts of activity, followed by periods of rest. Today’s science confirms our instinct to pause after intense work. But geniuses like Shannon, Darwin, and Einstein knew it well before the experts proved it.
The right distraction (often considered a dirty word in the world of work) might just provide the important break you need, before your next eureka moment.
Be an amateur.
Dr. Claude Shannon had a PhD from MIT, worked at the hypercompetitive Bell Laboratories, and ended his career with a dual appointment in MIT’s world-renowned math and engineering departments. He won nearly every major prize in his field and was given the National Medal of Science by President Lyndon Johnson.
And yet, for all his professional accolades, Shannon was comfortable being something that we too often take for granted: an amateur.Shannon was “an amateur unicyclist” and “an amateur juggler,” and could often be found tinkering away at his home, building things from scratch such as a robotic mouse that could navigate a maze.
Successful entrepreneurs, experts, and businesspeople often feel the pressure to be successful in all parts of their lives. But one lesson from Shannon’s genius is his willingness to not be a genius–his willingness to try and test and play.
Walk away from your successes.
Shannon experienced a brief flash of fame after the publication of his seminal work on information theory in 1948. Life Magazine wanted him. He was put on national television. He even got a spread in Vogue magazine. If he wanted to, Shannon could have ridden the wave of his popularity for a long time.
But instead, he wrote a 350-word piece letting his colleagues know that things had gotten out of hand. A document–that flies totally in the face of Shannon’s self-interest. Shannon took it even one step further: He walked away from the field of information theory almost entirely and pursued other lines of research and inquiry. That decision led to some of the most imaginative, out-of-the-box work he ever produced.
How often do we feel the pressure to repeat ourselves, doing the same thing, the same way, for years, just because we are good (or great) at it? Shannon’s brilliance shows us that we shouldn’t be afraid to walk away. Our best work might just be right around the corner.
A Mind at Play show us that you don’t need to be a genius to learn from a genius. Claude Shannon’s inventive, vibrant life demonstrates how vital the act of play can be to making the most of work.