The Trap of Walking the Planck

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On March 17, 1905, Albert Einstein submitted for publication a paper on the particle/quantum nature of light that completely upended the classical understanding of physics, and for which he would later win his only Nobel Prize. He did this while working in his first steady job out of college — not as a member of academia or the scientific community, but as a lowly junior official in a Swiss patent office.

Interesting as that story is, this post is not about Einstein at all, but the man whose work formed the foundation of Einstein’s quantum discovery: Max Planck.

In 1900, Planck devised a mathematical equation that explained how radiation wavelengths related to temperature. In order for his formula to work, a mathematical constant, minute in size, was required. This tiny value, which Planck considered to be merely a calculation correction and not a measurement of any physical reality, is now known as Planck’s Constant and is “one of the fundamental constants of nature.” Max Planck was a physics giant in his own right.

And yet …

What Einstein saw as the revolutionary extension of Planck’s discovery, Planck himself refused to accept as valid for years afterward: Planck’s Constant was actually a measure of the light particle itself. (We now know them as photons.) While Einstein’s creative thinking rewrote the science of physics, Planck’s inability to let go of conventional wisdom left him behind the times as the new understanding of physics unfolded before his eyes. At the end of his life, Planck lamented this fact:

My futile attempts to fit the elementary quantum of action somehow into classical theory continued for a number of years and cost me a great deal of effort. Many of my colleagues saw in this something bordering on a tragedy.

How often do we as people, as leaders, and as organizations, do the same thing? A new way of thinking or doing things comes along — something truly innovative and unconventional — and we dismiss it out of hand because it can’t be reconciled with what we already “know”?

Kodak engineer invented the digital camera in 1975, but because the corporate leadership couldn’t let go of the classical view of photography (film and prints), digital photography killed Kodak instead of reinventing it.

Sony had, on the one hand, the creative history of inventing portable music with the Walkman, and, on the other hand, the legal rights to the music industry’s biggest artists. What Sony didn’t have was leaders who could imagine letting go of the conventional way of distributing music (via the forced bundling of record/tape/CD sales), even as the rise of Napster signaled the end of that business model. The opportunity to reinvent the music industry then fell to Apple — a computer company with no experience working in the music industry.

  • “Conventional wisdom”
  • “The way things are done”

You Don’t See Me Here

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Surprise a rabbit in your front yard and you’re likely to see neither Fight nor Flight but the third oft-forgotten option: Freeze. “Don’t move. Hide in plain sight. Blend into the background and survive” the amygdala screams.

This strategy isn’t just for surprised rabbits in suburbia. In organizations large and small where Fear and Uncertainty are the norm, hiding becomes an all-too-rational option for employees. When it becomes standard practice for companies to meet short term financial targets by laying off people (wrapped in the anti-septic euphemisms of “reorganization,” “restructuring,” or (the lamest of terms) “right sizing”), surviving becomes the focus of employees’ work lives. This means blending into the background, avoiding risk that could go wrong, and never sticking out. When the Layoff Lion comes as he always does, hiding in the middle of the pack is the safest bet.

Of course, bland, beige, conventional effort and ideas is the precise opposite of what companies need when they are failing to meet expectations … yet their choices in those moments setup the very cycle of their own demise.

No matter the size, no leader leads an “organization” — Leaders lead PEOPLE, and people react to uncertainty and fear in predicable ways. If it’s excellent work and creative innovation you need from your people, lead in a new way: quit stirring up the cortisol and build a large “Circle of Safety.”

Quitting Forward

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Quitting leaves such a bad taste in one’s mouth. It’s supposed to: without it, nothing worth doing would’ve ever gotten done. Quitting is associated with —

  • Failure
  • Weakness
  • Immaturity
  • Laziness
  • Mediocrity
  • Cowardice

These are all correct, of course. Too often, though, we only contemplate quitting as a two dimensional question: “Did you quit or not?” If yes, welcome to the weakness of failure, you mediocre coward. If that’s all there is to quitting, then it is certainly better to never be a quitter than to always be one.

But successful people know there’s more to it than that. For all the truth about being a negative choice, sometimes it is the necessary one. There is a third dimension to quitting beyond “quit / didn’t quit” and that is WHY. Elevating growth and success come when quitting can also be associated with —

  • No more throwing good money after bad
  • Ending toxic relationships
  • Letting go of an obsolete way of doing things
  • Achieving focus by curating away distractions
  • Leaving the security of a known comfort zone to seize an opportunity
  • Conceding a fight that really isn’t worth winning
  • Breaking the chains of past decisions in order to adapt to a new reality

If you’re in a rut, there is no valor in dutifully pressing onward. If what you really need to do is quit, this book is a great place to start:

Pure Simplicity

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The passion that captured the heart of the man who defined the modern understanding of physics wasn’t mathematics (he actually wasn’t a fan) — it was Mozart:

Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe itself. Of course, like all great beauty, his music was pure simplicity.

There were lots of smart thinkers in Einstein’s day trying to unlock the mystery of the forces at play in the Universe. The genius that separated Einstein from the rest was in the creative imagination and the appreciation of the beauty of simplicity that he brought to the most complex questions science had to offer.

Far too many leaders and organizations tackle the daily challenges they face with one half of their brain tied behind their back. The beauty of Simplicity is often ignored or even derided in comparison to the over-engineered complexity that is typical of modern life.

Ask yourself:

  1. what interest or activity do I invest time in that stimulates creativity?
  2. and (more importantly) how do I fold that side of me into my work?