A collection of short stories and journalistic commentaries depicting my simple life
and how I fit in with the modern day universe of our times

COGS



In 1895, Albert Einstein’s father received a discouraging appraisal from his son’s teacher…

“It doesn’t matter what Albert does, he will never amount to anything.”

Hermann Einstein needn’t have worried though. Within ten years, young Albert had blossomed into an intellectual giant and was already beginning to unlock the secrets of the universe. And in the fullness of time he became the foremost Theoretical Physicist of the twentieth century (other than Sheldon Cooper of course), and his is the name that comes to most lips when the word genius is mentioned.

Likewise, his stage and film career spanned a total of 76 years, during which he made 31 musical films. He was named the fifth Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute. Gene Kelly hailed him as the pioneer of dance on film. And yet when Fred Astaire arrived in Hollywood, the director giving him his first screen test, summed up his potential as follows…

“Can’t sing, can’t act... Balding... Can dance a little.”

I was reminded of these somewhat wayward assessments today while reading about Sir John Gurdon who recently won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his groundbreaking work using DNA. Like Astaire and Einstein, he had also been subject to an appraisal of his abilities which proved to be somewhat wide of the mark.

As a 16 year old schoolboy, Gurdon had received a report from his Biology tutor containing the following withering assessment…

“It has been a disastrous half. His work has been far from satisfactory. His prepared stuff has been badly learnt and several of his test pieces have been torn over; one of such pieces of prepared work scored two marks out of a possible fifty. His other work has been equally bad. I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist. On his present showing this is quite ridiculous, and it would be a sheer waste of time both on his part and of those who have to teach him.”

So how did Gurdon become such an accomplished Biologist? Indeed how did Astaire and Einstein achieve such great success in their respective careers after receiving such damming criticism from on high? Well I don’t have any insider information here for you, but I believe the answer may lay in a sentence I omitted from Gurdon’s 1949 report, and here it is…

“Several times he has been in trouble because he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work his own way.”

And here’s what separates out the great achievers from the also-rans… the thing that carves a clear divide between the cogs in machines and the creators of machines – Doing things your own way.

Do things the way everyone else does them, or the way they’ve always been done in the past and you will never be responsible for breaking new ground, no matter what field you operate in. The furthest you can ever go is as far as others have gone before you. All you can ever be is a cog in a machine which someone else has created for you. But insist on ‘doing work your own way’ and there’s no end to what you might discover and accomplish.

Having said that, teachers are cogs, programmed no less to create nothing but more cogs out of us. Indeed, everyone in authority from the government down, tend to put systems in place to churn out compliant and homogeneous cogs. The world needs cogs, and it needs lots of them. And so it tends to criticise and punish those who refuse to conform to the norm – at least in the short term. But what Astaire, Einstein and Gurney all had in common was their refusal to conform to expectations, and their insistence on doing things differently – in their own way. In short, they were more interested in what could be than what already was. Subsequently, the results speak for themselves.

A word of warning though – this only works if independence of thought and action is married with effort, application and ability.

It isn’t enough just to be different. But there are millions of individuals in the world who tirelessly work away as facilitating cogs in a pre-existing machine, when they could so easily have the potential to be architects of new, improved machines of their own creation. It’s only the fact that they have been indoctrinated into conforming to a particular mode of operation that prevents them from doing so.

So if you find you haven’t yet had the breakthrough moments you’d hoped for in your life, it could be worth considering whether doing things right, your own way, rather than following a well worn path, might be worth a try. After all, Einstein himself once said,”Insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.” 

So do it your way. You can be sure of encountering severe resistance, and it certainly won’t be easy – but then the things that are really worth doing rarely are now are they?




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Its my own fault really, its all about what I see in the world, and how it all translates for me.

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