Many people I know are already complaining about the “interruption” of the coronavirus. Life is on hold. Classes have gone virtual or gone away completely. It feels like society is not making progress.
But really—this is totally up to us.
I don’t mean to sound flippant during this pandemic when many are facing self-quarantines. I just believe that if we handle this interruption well, we might be surprised at what can be accomplished that would have never happened in our normal and busy routines.
Did you know that Isaac Newton was a college student during the Great Plague of London in 1665? Although it would take another 200 years for doctors to understand what caused the sickness, folks had enough sense to send students home to practice social-distancing.
And that’s when the magic happened.
Cambridge sent students home, so Newton returned to Woolsthorpe Manor, his family’s estate about 60 miles northwest of campus. Without his teachers to guide him, Newton flourished. The year he spent away was later referred to as his annus mirabilis, the year of wonder.
First of all, he continued working on math problems that he’d begun at Cambridge University on his own. Believe it or not, the papers he wrote became the creation of calculus.
Second, he acquired some prisms and began experimenting with them in his room, even boring a hole through his shutters so only a small beam of light could shine through. From his explorations emerged his theories on optics.
Third, outside his window was an apple tree. Yes, the apple tree we’ve all heard about. While parts of the narrative are an urban legend, his assistant confirmed much of the story is true. It was while sitting under that tree an apple fell, which launched his thinking. “The same power of gravity which made an apple fall to the ground was not limited to a certain distance from the earth (to a tree) but must extend much farther than was usually thought. ‘Why not as high as the moon?’ he said to himself.”
From this apple, Newton developed his theory on the law of gravity and his laws of motion.
Back in London, a fourth of the population would die of the plague between 1665-1666. It was one of many outbreaks during the 400 years that the Black Plague ravaged Europe.
But today, we’ve all benefited from that outbreak.
Isaac Newton returned to Cambridge in 1667 with his theories in hand. Within six months, he was made a fellow. Two years later, he became a professor—not bad for a man in his twenties. We have all been improved by his time alone during a pandemic.
So, what could you do during this time of social distancing?
The concept is so simple it eludes us. It was actually because Isaac Newton couldn’t stay busy with his normal work that he made some of his most important discoveries. A big interruption became a big introduction to discoveries and advantages. But he had to choose to make his problem a possibility, to make his obstacles opportunities. He had to invest his time, not waste it. The stumbling block to his education became a steppingstone for new learning.
So, how did he turn life in his favor?
1. He had time and solitude to muse and to create.
I think most people run from solitude. We are conditioned to put our earplugs in and make noise. Turn the radio on. Drown out the boredom. While there’s nothing wrong with this, it frequently prevents original thinking. Neuroscientists tell us that it’s during times of boredom our brains develop empathy and creativity. Fortunately, Isaac Newton had no video games or television with which to squander his time. When nothing and no one consumed his time, he had the time to imagine and come up with some timeless ideas.
2. He had ownership of his day to pursue what interested him.
When no one is around to tell us what to do, we ought to experience our greatest moments. We own those moments. Isaac Newton pursued the things he wanted when he wanted. He didn’t squander his freedom. I’m sure he took time for fun, but his tasks were fun because he was in charge of them. Call it metacognition. Ownership creates initiative. Good things can happen when we have autonomy—we can master a passion.
3. He had margin to observe and to experiment.
A college student’s life is usually full. A combination of classes, clubs, studies, and sports leaves little margin in the week. Newton’s life came to a halt, just like yours and mine, during the pandemic. He leveraged his days experimenting with light, exploring mathematical equations, and writing new theories about how the world works. And it paid off. With brain bandwidth to observe and investigate, he was promoted twice in three years.
Today, I am so grateful Isaac Newton had some spare time. What will you do with yours?