In 1915 Albert Einstein sent a letter to his son, Albert. Einstein was living with his second wife, and had not seen either of his two sons for quite some time. It was in 1915 that Einstein had finalized his theory of general relativity, and this letter to his son hints at that monumental achievement.

However, what strikes me about this letter (which I first saw in Farnam Street) is Einstein’s thoughts on learning that he shares with his 11 year old son. I know that quotes from Einstein are thrown around online, and in presentations by educators across the globe…but this particular letter gets to the root of what matters in learning. In typical Einstein fashion, he writes it with such clarity and confidence, that not much else needs to be said:

What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.

I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. Also play ringtoss with Tete. That teaches you agility.

In essence, learn what you are interested in, and it won’t “feel” like the learning we often partake in school.

What I find fascinating is how Einstein shares these sentiments after working eight years to prepare his theory of general relativity to be ready to share with the world. For Einstein, doing the work and learning, were tangled together. And, if it was work worth doing…something that he was interested in and challenged by, then it was worth working on for eight years.

Doing Work That Matters

I often struggle with what to work on… On the one hand there is work that I have to do (and usually want to do): There is my job. There are other work commitments I’ve made. There are speaking opportunities, and lots of great conversation to have.

But, no one is ordering me to write a book (or paying me before it is a finished product). No one is telling me to create a podcast. No one is begging me to learn to code. In fact, no one is telling me or paying me to write this blog post.

So, why (I ask myself) do I do it? Why do so many of us spend time doing work that we are not “required” to do, and often are not “paid to do?

These things that we do matter. They matter to us, and hopefully to a larger group of people as well. Call it passion. Call it purpose. Call it whatever you’d like to call it. I do the work because I care about the work.

The hard part is not only time, but how much time is spent struggling. When I’m working on projects and work that matters to me, I spend a lot of time frustrated. But I have to believe the struggle is worth it.

Prioritizing the Struggle

In a recent Leo Babauta post, he writes on the concept of work priorities and where we focus our time, energy, and efforts:

Of all the things you’re working on right now, or hope to work on soon … which is the single most important? What’s your priority? Now let me ask you these two simple questions:

  1. When you start work, do you start with your most important priority first? If not, when does it come up during your work day?
  2. How much of your working time is spent on your priority?

If the order of your work, and the time you spend on your work, doesn’t align with your top priority … how can you change that?

It’s just as important to ask these questions about your non-work time: what’s your top non-work priority? Do you do it first in your non-work time? How much of your non-work time do you spend on it?

Leo’s post reminds me that we all have the same amount of time to spend each day. How we choose to spend that time depends on our circumstances, but also on our choices.

If you are one of the many people who choose to spend their time struggling to do work that matters, I’m with you. I’ve been frustrated that it’s taken longer than I wanted to release my next book. I’ve struggled to make an impact in my new job. And I’ve struggled to make sure I’m giving my family my top priority day in and day out.

But, I’m happy that I get the chance to try and do work that matters. And I count that as a privilege. 

I think it is safe to assume all of us would agree Einstein’s work on relativity mattered (and still matters). During his lifetime he was criticized, denounced, and still today his work brings up debate. But, I believe the secret of success for so many people is focusing on doing work that matters to them. The bonus is finding work that not only matters to you, but also has an impact on the world around you.

Photo via Barry Cunningham


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  • Norah Colvin says:

    Prioritizing what matters to us, in work and non-work matters is definitely important. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  • From someone who loves to do work that’s meaningful, thank you!

  • John Bennett says:

    Two thoughts come to mind after reading this latest blog post: (1) I’m reminded of remarks made recently by University of Connecticut WBB Coach Geno Auriemma to the notion that it takes hard work from everyone involved to make the end results (winning and high rankings) seem so easy and effortless – i.e., so capable with confidence. His point was / is that those who accomplish great outcomes do so with a lot of hard work – as you do writing books, addressing your new job, getting it right with family and friends!!!

    And (2) I’m reminded of the late Stephen Covey’s Four Needs. Yes, one is education – learning and using knowledge and skills. But two others are physical and social needs – keeping fit, eating properly, keeping financially responsible, getting together with family and friends, … And the fourth, I call internal, is routinely asking yourself how the other three are going and what can be done to make them go better. The important point Covey made is that all four needs must be met to be satisfied / happy!!! Again, there must be a balance – fir you, for me, for everyone.

  • […] lot of professional learning is top down and decided for individuals. A.J. Juliani, in his post “The Struggle to Do Work that Matters”, shared this quote from Simon […]

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