No One Does Groundbreaking Work on a Phone

If Einstein didn’t keep a phone on his desk, maybe you don’t need to either.

In 1947 J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man best known for heading the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II, accepted an offer to become the director of the prestigious Institute of Advance Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

The overarching goal of his tenure there was to create the perfect place for intellectuals to tackle the most complex questions facing humanity. As Oppenheimer’s friend, diplomat and historian, George Kennan so eloquently put it: “a place where the work of the mind could proceed in its highest form—gracefully, generously, and with the most exquisite scrupulousness and severity.”

The Institute’s most famous resident scholar at the time, of course, was Albert Einstein. But Oppenheimer’s own fame and esteem soon attracted scores of the best and brightest minds of the time, eager to take up residency at the Institute as well. In the coming years Princeton would become the academic home to many more future and former Nobel Prize winners.

In pursuit of his mission Oppenheimer ran the Institute with fastidious care. One example of this stands out in particular. One day, having received yet another unsolicited call from a journalist, Oppenheimer made an announcement: all telephones were to be removed from everyone’s offices. From then on, the only way to make calls was to be from a single handset located in the hallway lobby. There were to be no more interruptions, not from the press, nor anyone else.

It’s hard to imagine today, when we are all surrounded by devices that feed us a constant stream of news, entertainment, tik-toks, snaps, tweets and texts, that a mere presence of a rotary dial telephone (yes, you read it right!) on your desk, in the late 1940s to that, would be that big of deal.

Sure, being interrupted by a sudden, loud, ringing noise—especially when you are in the middle of a complicated calculation—is as distracting as can be. But how many telephone calls were people getting back then? Two or three a day? It doesn’t seem like it would be a lot.

Maybe that was the whole point, though. That it’s never been just about the absolute number or intensity of interruptions, but that even the slightest distraction was one too many. Telephone calls will always break your concentration, no matter how smart you are. You simply cannot do groundbreaking work without long, uninterrupted stretches of time to think.

Today we cannot turn our electronic devices off completely. But we need to remind ourselves that each and every distraction they introduce, for however brief period of time, can harm our ability to sustain the kind of intensity of focus that leads to breakthrough ideas. The world has changed a great deal since the time of Oppenheimer and Einstein, but they way our minds work, well, probably not so much.

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Piotr Bakker

Piotr Bakker

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Product designer and occasional writer 🇪🇺🇺🇸