We all need a little inspiration once in a while, particularly when everything seems to be going wrong, and one of the best ways to get it is by reading about the setbacks and problems that some very successful people had, and how they overcame them and went on to considerable success. One of the best examples is Albert Einstein. His early life was filled with disappointments and failures, but he struggled on and overcame them and eventually became the greatest scientist who ever lived.
One of his first disappointments came when he was only fifteen. His family had moved to Milan, Italy, and he had been left behind in Munich to finish high school. Depressed and lonely, he decided to follow them, and without telling them he boarded a train for Milan. They were glad to see him but disappointed that he had left school; he promised them, however, that he would take the entrance exams at the nearby Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. And in October, 1896, he travelled to Zurich and took the exams. They consisted of two parts: one on general information, and the other on mathematics and science. He did extremely well on the mathematical and science section, but failed the general information part, and as a result he failed the overall exam.
He was therefore forced to go back to high school to complete his last year, and he did this in the nearby town of Aarau. The following year he was able to enter the Polytechnic without retaking the exams. But he was not an ideal student; he was arrogant and cocky and several of his teachers soon grew to dislike him. Furthermore, he preferred to study on his own, and rarely attended lectures.
He skipped so many lectures, in fact, that he had to cram extensively for the final exams; luckily he had a friend who loaned him the notes. It was an experience that Einstein remembered as distasteful, and when the results came back he was disappointed. Out of the five people in his class, he placed fourth; the only person he beat was his girlfriend, Mileva, and she failed.
After graduation Einstein hoped to get a job as an assistant to one of his professors, but they had found him to be a difficult student, and nobody wanted him. Even his physics teacher selected mechanical engineers over him. He therefore began applying to various universities throughout Europe, but to no avail. One of the professors he applied to was Friedrich Ostwald at the University of Leipzig. He waited for several weeks for a reply, but did not get one so he wrote back to him, but still didn’t get a reply. Unknown to him, his father also wrote Ostwald, telling him that his son was very depressed and pleaded with him to “send him a few lines of encouragement.” He also received no reply. (Ironically, only a few years later Ostwald would recommend Einstein for the Nobel Prize.)
Out of desperation Einstein finally accepted a temporary job as a substitute teacher, but he soon found that he couldn’t get along with the school supervisor, and within a short time he had an argument with him and was fired.
Because of his problems he decided to try to get a doctoral degree. This required a thesis, but Einstein had been working on several research projects and decided to submit the results from one of them (it was on molecular forces). He took it to Dr. Alfred Kleiner of the University of Zurich, but Kleiner rejected it almost immediately. Einstein then submitted his “Theory of Relativity,” which he had been working on. It was not complete at this stage, but Einstein was sure Kleiner would be impressed. Kleiner looked it over, but could not understand it, so he passed it on to several of his colleagues and they could not understand it either, so he rejected it.
Einstein then found out that his girlfriend Mileva was pregnant. He wasn’t sure what to do, as he knew his mother was strongly against him marrying her because she was Serbian. So he kept it secret from her.
Finally a ray of hope came his way when a friend told him about a job in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. He would be examining patent applications to see if they had any merit — not the type of job he had expected. Nevertheless he applied for it and a few months later he got it.
Then, just as he was starting to get on his feet, tragedy struck again: his father died of a heart attack. He had been particularly close to his father and was devastated. He found it difficult to study, but he kept working on various scientific problems.
Then came 1905 — now referred to as one of the greatest years in science. During 1905 Einstein published five of the most important papers ever published in physics. Among them was his “Theory of Relativity” which soon revolutionized physics, and a paper that later earned him the Nobel Prize.
Einstein knew they were important, but the silence that followed their publication worried him. Gradually, however, scientists began to recognize their importance, and after years of setbacks and disappointments he soon became the most famous scientist who ever lived.