Have you ever experienced a really profound dream – one in which you’ve stumbled upon the hidden mysteries of the universe, and one so intense that it actually woke you up in the middle of the night? Upon awakening, you think to yourself “This is it – I’ve discovered the secret! Yes, it all makes sense now!” Then you roll over and go back to sleep, and when you wake up in the morning, you’ve completely forgotten what your dream was about. I had one of those dreams a few weeks ago, but this time it happened just a few minutes before I was supposed to wake up, so I was able to remember it. It doesn’t seem as profound now as it did when I was dreaming it, but for what it’s worth, here it is…
In my dream, I uncovered a secret inspirational message contained within Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Of course, since Einstein died in 1955, we can’t ask him if it’s true, so this will be nothing more than the whimsical nocturnal speculations of my overactive imagination.
I suspect that I was able to connect the dots because I’m a fan of Leonard Bernstein and had recently been watching his Harvard lectures. In 1973, this Harvard alumnus delivered a series of lectures at his alma mater called The Unanswered Question. In the first lecture, Musical Phonology, he told the students that the principal thing that he learned from his masters at Harvard was a sense of interdisciplinary spirit, and that “the best way to know a thing, is in the context of another discipline.“
It was in a similar interdisciplinary spirit that I was dreaming about something very analytical, which appeals exclusively to the left hemisphere of our brains – Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – from a decidedly right-hemisphere point of view. I was contemplating relativity from a new and unique vantage point: the self-help section of a bookstore.
Even if you don’t understand it, you are undoubtedly familiar with Einstein’s relativity equation: E=MC² It states that energy (E) equals mass (M) times the speed of light (C) squared. It’s also important to know a couple of facts about the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second, or about 300,000 kilometres per second. Einstein stated that the speed of light was always constant, and that nothing (or at least nothing with any mass) can travel at or faster than light. I admit that it does seem strange that there could be a maximum speed for anything in the universe, but the concept of light’s maximum velocity can be illustrated in the following graph:
This graph displays speed along the x-axis (horizontally) and energy along the y-axis (vertically). The faster an object travels, the more energy is required to reach that speed. As you can see, there is a vertical asymptote at c (the speed of light). I’m sure that you already know that a vertical asymptote is a vertical line that the graph plot approaches but never actually touches (because its value would have to be infinity in order to reach it). In this graph, it means that it will take an infinite amount of energy to propel anything at the speed of light. That’s why nothing (with mass) can travel that fast – there just isn’t enough energy in the universe to do it.
And now, the essence of the dream… was Einstein an even greater genius than we thought? While E=MC² was certainly a groundbreaking equation for physicists, it could also be interpreted as an important social statement. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity might actually be a parable – much like one of Aesop’s Fables – disguised as an equation. I had finally decoded the secret, inspirational message contained within the equation, because I (much like Leonard Bernstein’s professors) was examining it within the context of another discipline.
The 80/20 Rule and Project Management
If that graph looks familiar to you, then this might be why. If your job is at a manager’s level or higher, then you probably know about the 80/20 Rule, known formally as The Pareto Principle. It’s embraced by many different industries, and each one places their own personalized spin on it:
- 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your clients
- 80% of network traffic occurs during 20% of the day
- 20% of computer code contains 80% of the errors
In project management, there is a popular maxim paraphrased as follows “80% of a project can be completed in 20% of the time… but it’s that final 20% that requires 80% of the project’s timeline (or even more, in many cases)“. This graph illustrates that maxim quite well.
Take a look at the graph from a Project Manager’s point of view, but relabel the x-axis as “Percent Complete” and the y-axis as “Time”. At the 80% mark, the project time requirements start to skyrocket, and soon it becomes clear that delivering every feature (flawlessly) within the initial time frame will not be possible. Compromises are inevitable. Did Einstein leave this message for Project Managers in his Theory of Relativity?
We all know people who are perfectionists, and I’m sure you’ll agree that they can often be trying. Some of these folks – those who insist that others should rise to their perfectionist standards – can be annoying or even insufferable. Personally, I think that perfectionists are generally not very happy, since they have set for themselves, a goal that cannot realistically be achieved, and therefore exists in a continual state of disappointment.
In that same graph, let’s relabel the axes once again and assume that the x-axis represents our own perceived level of perfectionism, and that the y-axis represents the time, money and energy required to reach this level of perfection. Since we are all imperfect beings, targeting 100% is a pointless exercise. In fact, I would love to show this graph to a perfectionist and say “Study this graph, and then please abandon your quest for perfectionism. None of us will ever be perfect, so stop trying. As you can see, you can reach and maintain a fairly respectable level without even breaking a sweat, but soon as you set your sights on 100%, the effort (relative to the gains) rises exponentially. The graph is speaking to you!“
Could Einstein have coded into his equation, this sage and practical advice for the perfectionists in our lives?
For more than a century, Einstein’s concept of relativity has been viewed only one way. Could it also be examined within a social context? I’m going to propose that Einstein embedded a behavioural allegory in his Theory of Relativity, and that the following is his hidden personal and motivational message for all of us: What relativity really means is that you must measure yourself relative to those around you, and not on an absolute scale of perfection. Since none of us is perfect, then your life is really a lot better than you realize. If you’re a perfectionist, then trying to achieve 100% perfection is merely an exercise in futility. Do the best you can, but as you can see from the graph, anything more than that will take a disproportionate amount of time, energy and money.
Einstein was certainly a genius, but I’m going to propose that he was also a cross-disciplinary visionary who purposely designed his Theory of Relativity to appeal to both hemispheres of our brain. This theory challenged Newtonian physics and also contained an inspirational message for everyone. It simply took the rest of us a century to decode this second component. Who could have guessed that analyzing a graph of the speed of light might make us a little more… enlightened?
And now, I’d like to pose what I call The Grand Unifying Question: should books about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity also be placed in the self-help section of your local bookstore?