What can doctors learn from Albert Einstein?

EinsteinThe genius of Albert Einstein is without doubt.  A unique depth of knowledge, wisdom and approach to the field of theoretical physics quickly led to recognition amongst his fellow scientists.  It was this wisdom and approach which led to a level of fame which would be the envy of any modern celebrity.

Einstein had a passion for learning and for encouraging others to learn.  He was a man of great intellect who has become a widely quoted inspiration for politicians, managers, educationalists and many, many others.  Let’s take a look at one of his quotes:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible – but not any simpler.”

A significant element of Einstein’s genius was his ability to distil and articulate his ideas into ways which cold engage and stimulate learning with people who had little and even no previous knowledge of his subject.

What relevance does this have for modern doctors?

With classifications and sub-classifications of medical conditions recognised by the World Health Organisation now totalling over 16,000 and with thousands of treatment options, it is no surprise that each doctor increasingly becomes a unique specialist to a greater or lesser extent.  This holds true even when the practitioner has the word ‘General’ in their title.

Every doctor has a responsibility to support the development of both peers and juniors.  This brings about the challenge of sharing your individual depth and breadth of knowledge which has grown over the years in a manner that other can comprehend.  ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible – but not simpler’.

In his book Profound Simplicity (1979), Will Schutz described the development of ‘wisdom’ as being a three stage process:  Simplistic, Complex, and then Profoundly Simple.  This is a helpful model to bear in mind both from your perspective as a doctor who teaches and from the perspective of the learner(s).  During the Simplistic stage we often believe that we ‘know it all’ or that we ‘have it’ – a phase which can be accompanied by significant risk when practicing as a doctor.  We then move to the Complex stage when we have to face conflicting concepts, ambiguities and events when what we believed will work fail.  This can be a confusing, overwhelming and dispiriting time.  Profoundly Simple is the stage where we genuinely have a full grasp on the subject in question and can lead to great confidence.

Profoundly Simple would seem like the ideal stage to achieve before a doctor takes on any teaching role.  Where the teacher has reached this simple and profound stage they can communicate their ideas via a number of different tools.  Concepts can be explained, compared and contrasted.   Analogies help the learner to draw parallels to subject matters which are familiar.  Einstein did this to great effect.  Schematic representations are another method which can be employed to provide a starting point with detail added as and when required as comprehension grows.

However the teacher who fails to recognise that their learner will need to progress through the first two stages before reaching this level may cause even greater confusion.

Does a doctor have to wait until they have everything profoundly simple in their own mind before they can begin teaching?

The truth is that great teachers are not necessarily the people who have everything worked out.  Great teachers are in fact those of us who can facilitate and guide others to recognise their state of progression.  Great teachers lead learners toward their own, personal, profoundly simple wisdom.  This may in fact be a journey of joint discovery for both learner and teacher – a journey that can enhance the practice of both doctors.


Oxford Medical Training is the UK’s leading provider of high quality career development for doctors of all levels.  We specialise in advancing interview, leadership, management, teaching and communication skills in the medical environment.  We explore the subjects of learning and teaching in depth during our 2 day Teach the Teacher Courses for Doctors which are held throughout the year in London, Oxford, Manchester, Leeds/Wakefield, Glasgow and Belfast.