55:5 – Trying to understand Albert’s world saving formula

The Guy

My first guess is that you all heard of him. He was my idol when I was a child, and a some of that infatuation remained even when I grew up (sort of), but I am not sure if he would make My Top 10 Favorite Famous People list today. (A mental note: Jelena, compile that list!)

My other guess is that you have some similar feelings of respect and amazement with the guy.

He was just plain cool, beside being a charismatic genius. He also had quite a unique hair do; he was eccentric, but likable; he was branded as a mad scientist, becoming a prototype for one for years and decades to come.

Also, it is said that he was a womanizer, emotionally detached, sometimes engaging in bizarre behaviors. All that I do not really care about, all those personality specifics make him more human, in a way. And there are so many flawed characters around, let us not talk about those aspects of his life.

I do care about what he did and said that changed the world of science. Also, I care a lot about what he did and said that inspired so many people, forever. He is one of the most influential people ever. His greatness is indisputable. In 1921 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1999 Time magazine named him the “Person of the Century”.

What he said, among other things:

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds.

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.

Do you feel what I feel when you read these? There were moments when these thoughts gave me inspiration, helped me find strength when I felt I did not have it, reminded me that I should go on and follow my own silly little path, rely on my intuition, unleash my imagination, fail now and then, but get up and continue.


… why, oh why, did he say the following one… And did he say it exactly like that?

I see people quoting it now and then, but I am not sure if it wasn’t one of those things that get pulled out of context and start a life on their own. Or did I get it wrong somehow? It conflicts my logic and reason, and it also bothers that infantile part of me that just felt that Albert was The Guy for a year or two of my childhood.

When asked what he would do if given one hour to save the world, Albert Einstein supposedly replied that:

I would spend 55 minutes to understand and formulate the problem, and 5 minutes to come up with ideas/execute the solution.

Oh, no, that smells like Waterfall!

Now, now, dear Albert (or whomever might have pulled this out of some context – a bad bad person!), I beg to disagree!

Those 55 minutes of analyzing and 5 minutes of coming up with ideas and execution may work in math or somewhere else, for a static kind of a problem, but not in the world saving business. In those 55 minutes conditions might change seriously. Do not let me start with everything that might change rapidly, significantly, essentially.

Inspect, adapt and overcome!

Trying to understand

Strictly speaking, Einstein did not say that he would spend THE FIRST 55 minutes on understanding/formulation. Maybe he meant 55 minutes IN TOTAL.

Personally I have a hard time dividing the processes of Problem_Analyzing and Coming_Up_With_Ideas into two clearly separate categories, time-wise. I especially do not see them as Coming_Up_With_Ideas part strictly following after the Problem_Analyzing.

Now, the ratio is maybe correct. If you try to estimate the ratio of:

  • the time spent on analyzing, coming with ideas and testing them (while even taking into the consideration possible new inputs from the outer world) to
  • the time spent on pure execution (deployment) of the solution,

55:5 sounds about right. Still, I would put Coming_Up_With_Ideas part in those 55 minutes, not the other 5.

That means that much more time will go into the proper setup and problem solving part than the final deployments. Maybe the ratio is individual, and about 55:5 is correct in average. I know that many are using the 80:20 rule of a thumb today, it is not that far off the 55:5 one (well, everything is relative… both are comparable to 10:1 ratio, not 1:1 or 100:1. Close enough, IMO).

The plan B

So, if I am wrong, and Einstein did not refer to 55:5 minutes rule only in the ratio sense, but also as to an ordered 1. Analyze and 2. Come_With_Ideas_And_Implement sequences, he really would be in the Waterfall team in the case of the world going under within one hour.

In that case, I would go for my safe Plan B, as always: Bruce Willis – that guy never failed to save the world.


So, even if you said it and meant it as commonly interpreted, dear Albert, in my book – you are still cool. We all make mistakes sometimes. And, as you would have put it:

Everyone should be respected as an individual, but no one idolized.

My respect for you is deep, unharmed and true.


The quotes above I read/heard from different sources, during the past gazillion years. Those are the ones that really stuck with me. Then I verified my memory while writing the post simply by – googling, in fear of misquoting the great words of a great person.

One more Einstein’s quote, to end with, that is my husband’s favorite:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Now, if that is not pro-Agile, I do not know what is!

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3 Responses to 55:5 – Trying to understand Albert’s world saving formula

  1. johlrogge says:

    Personally I would go for a cross-functional team consisting of Albert and Bruce. And we need some other person that is really good with guns. You always need lots of guns when saving worlds.

    I thought a bit and maybe Albert meant in the Waterfall sense. After all, if you only have one hour to save the world you’re in pretty deep sh*t (together with everyone else) so how likely is it that you will be able to save it if you are realistic. One of the things Albert enjoyed in life was to think about stuff and maybe that is just what he intended to do 55 minutes of his last hour alive. Then since it’s not completely out of question that there is a way, not sparing 5 minutes to try would be infinitely cynical 🙂

    Ok, seriously I think you’re right that he meant a ratio of time. When reading other quotes from Einstein the 55:5 interpreted as 55 /then/ 5 minutes just does not fit in.

  2. PEZ says:

    One of my fav Einstein quotes:

    Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.

    The bla-bla part of this article was one of my best reading experiences ever. And, I do enjoy reading, as people who know me might tell you.

    Surely, I’m one of those flawed characters. Funny that I might happen to share that particular 55:5 flaw with Einstein! Because I tend to intuitively agree. I always spend most of the time trying to understand and formulate the problem. Facing a world saving problem and having only one hour I probably would go to the extreme with this. All this talk about daring to fail would not apply, right? Understanding the problem wrongly and face game over. Einstein thought simplicity was the key as indicated by the quote above. But finding the simplest possible solution is hard! And without a correctly formulated problem you’ll have to trust in luck instead. On the other hand really nailing the problem you might find that solution simple enough that you can implement it really fast. Of course, every problem and solution can be split up further. So you’re probably right in not assuming that it means “first 55 then 5”.

  3. Ashley Bies says:

    Critically, Dr. Einstein was referring to problem solving in the real world, rather than in an abstract context (such as programming, or even other forms of technological development). The hardest part of problem solving is identifying what the true, underlying, fundamental problem is – indeed, the hardest part of promoting problem solving is also getting people trying to work in the real world to put so much energy into figuring out what the real problem is. Indeed, most ineffective or failed efforts to fix something (including in human relations, however trivial the communication) result from failing to identify and communicate the fundamental problem. As my former professor, Dr. Jeffrey Hughes, expressed in his “Environmental Problem Solving” text (in which he cited Dr. Einstein’s problem solving quote), effective problem solving requires a process of: “Defining” the real problem, setting SMART “Objectives”, identifying “Constraints” that limit what can be attempted, brainstorming “Strategies” to achieve attainable objectives, select “Keepers” for testing, “Experiment” with these alternatives, and implement what works (“Yes!”). Since everything else follows from (and is limited by) how the problem is defined, Dr. Hughes (and I) strongly agree with Dr. Einstein: Real world problems deserve 11/12ths investment in understanding what the problem truly is, before the final 1/12th is committed to that sensitive and critical step of taking action in attempt to solve it. We believe that what remains of our world deserves this crucial perspective, respect and commitment.

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