When Albert Einstein died in 1955, he left behind a trove of 80,000 documents, including letters, papers, and articles. Last week, Princeton University Press announced the launch of The Digital Einstein Papers, a Web site where anyone can access more than 30,000 of those documents. (Most of Einstein's writings have been translated from German into English.)

One document that initially caught my attention was simply titled "The Nightmare." It was from Volume 6 of the collection, comprising Einstein's writings between 1914 and 1917, when he was between the ages of 35 and 38. I clicked on it because I naturally wondered what a "nightmare" might be for Einstein in his late 30s. By then, he was a well-regarded professor whose work would soon garner the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

As it turns out, his nightmare was the traditional final exam used in German high schools. This exam lasted five or six days. It consisted of written and oral tests. It covered all major subjects. In fact, for almost every subject--all but biology, geography, history, and religion--it was the sole test by which students were evaluated. 

Now you can see why Einstein calls it a nightmare. Here are two of his specific gripes:

1. A student's overall performance is a far better gauge of his efforts and abilities. "The teachers' impression of a student derived during the school years, together with the usual numerous papers from assignments--which every student has to complete--are a succinctly complete and better basis on which to judge the student than any carefully executed examination," he writes.  

2. Students become less likely to learn for learning's sake. Rather than pursuing their work in an intellectually curious, in-depth manner, they memorize and study for the sake of superficial knowledge. Which is great for acing the exam, but not so great for retaining the knowledge after the test. "Instead of an exclusively substance-oriented occupation with the individual subjects, one too often finds a lapse into shallow drilling of the students for the exam," he writes. 

Combing further through the Einstein archives, I enjoyed finding how this basic idea--the importance of learning for learning's sake, rather than (strictly) for the sake of high marks or on-paper achievement--was a recurring theme.

For example, in an address Einstein gave at Max Planck's 60th birthday in 1918, Einstein singled out Planck (who also won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918) as an exemplary physicist because his intellectual curiosity came "from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart." Einstein went so far as to liken Planck's passion for science to that of a religious worshipper or a lover.

(Fans of fiction may find an embodiment for this sort of passion in Benn Crader, the botanist character in Saul Bellows' More Die of Heartbreak.) 

You can find another indication of Einstein's emphasis on learning for learning's sake in a student petition from 1910 to retain Einstein on the faculty of the University of Zurich. Demonstrating that Einstein was hardly the stereotypical publish-or-perish climber eschewing his students in favor of his own research, the petition, signed by 15 students, says Einstein "has an amazing talent for presenting the most difficult problems of theoretical physics so clearly and so comprehensibly that it is a great delight for us to follow his lectures."

From all of this, it's easy to extract lessons in the twined provinces of management and leadership. Here are three that come to mind:

1. Training. The maxim: "If they haven't learned it, you haven't taught it." The goal of training employees in anything should not be that they can ace an exam or simulation; it should be that they've thoroughly digested the lesson and can apply it in their roles.

You can find a fantastic illustration of this maxim in Parcells: A Football Life, the new authorized biography of legendary coach Bill Parcells written by former Sports Illustrated writer Nunyo Demasio. When Parcells was 23, he was a defensive assistant at Hastings College in south-central Nebraska. In the week leading up to a game against Nebraska Wesleyan, Parcells drilled the defense to prepare for Nebraska Wesleyan's bootleg play, in which the quarterback fakes a handoff to a running back yet keeps the ball. 

But sure enough, despite the preparation, when Nebraska Wesleyan ran its bootleg play, the fake handoff still fooled the Hastings defense. Parcells screamed at the player who was most responsible for the error. The Hastings head coach interceded, telling Parcells, "Well, you obviously didn't go over it enough, because he didn't get it." 

The lesson--which Parcells calls one of the most valuable he ever learned--is to foster an environment conducive to retaining instruction.

2. Recruiting. You want to recruit intellectually curious employees. For one thing, they'll be more engaged; you'll get their discretionary effort. 

Carey Smith, founder and CEO of Big Ass Solutions, a $122-million, 500-employee manufacturer of colossal fans and light fixtures based in Lexington, Kentucky, once explained to me that one of his hiring strategies was employing people who possess two specific personality traits: curiosity and positivity. "Some of our best people are English majors," he told me.

"A liberal arts degree is a good thing. You're looking for people [who] are naturally curious, who want to know why. I love engineers; they're great. But with liberal arts majors, if they're really engaged and they really studied, they're curious."

3. Performance reviews and customer-happiness surveys. Assessments of employee and client satisfaction should occur far more frequently than once a year. You don't want your staff or your customers to feel as if their feedback all boils down to one annual list of questions. 

For David Niu, serial entrepreneur and founder of TINYhr, a 14-employee Seattle-based startup whose software facilitates these feedback processes (and makes sure they happen on a weekly basis, rather than an annual one), the headache of the one annual quiz was a key inspiration in founding his company. 

Before becoming an entrepreneur, he worked as a consultant in Andersen Consulting's Strategy Group. There, he advised Fortune 500 clients on strategy and implementation. So he got a firsthand sense of how difficult it can be to implement changes of varying scopes and sizes. And at the end of each year, in what he calls an "antiquated approach," he had to answer 50 online survey questions about his happiness as an Andersen employee. "You hit submit," he told me, "and you never know what happens to it."

The overall point is something all of us (including Einstein) can easily attest to from our school days: That it's far better to evaluate performances based on frequent conversations and correspondences rather than heavy-handed annual check-ins. That way, nightmares are avoided on all sides. 

Published on: Dec 12, 2014