Well, well, well, you old coot. Einstein's been in the news a lot recently, riding on the coattails of Nobel Prize winning physicists who detected gravitational waves, and now because of a little note he left a messenger boy with a tip on it. That tip is now officially worth $1.5 million.
But this wasn't just any tip. In 1922, Einstein was on a lecture tour, and staying at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo. He had recently learned that he had won the Nobel Prize in physics. When a bellboy was dispensed from his service at the hotel, Einstein fished around for a tip, but found no cash. Instead, he wrote out his "Theory of Happiness" on some hotel stationery.
The note read, in German: "A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness." Now, this could have been in response to fears that the Nobel Prize would complicate or energize his life in ways that would be adverse to his work. Or the genius was looking back at his life, and remarking on its vicissitudes.
But what about the other permutations to this theory? Is there more happiness to be got from a life defined by the pursuit of success, the attainment of that success, and maybe just a little bit of stress here or there? A life free of restlessness, but dogged, single-minded passion? And how modest? Dirt poor? How calm? sedated? There was a lot to unpack, but Einstein was busy and probably in a rush.
Either way, Einstein assured the bellboy that, in light of his recent accomplishment, the note might be worth more than any old regular tip. It's possible that the bellboy thought this was a crock of hoo-hah, but understandably wouldn't want to offend the esteemed guest. You could have written the note and then found the bellhop later and tossed him a schilling?
Well, Einstein was right. That note was brought to Winner's Auctions and Exhibits, based in Jerusalem, and sold for $1.56 million. It was the bellhop's grandson who cashed in big on his grandfather's stiffed tip.
The note had initially been estimated by Winner's to only fetch $5,000 – $8,000. But that mark was blown out of the water. In fact, Gal Weiner, the head honcho of Winner's, said that the starting bid was set at $2,000 and went on for no less than 25 minutes. People wanted to know the theory of happiness, and they would pay any price for it!
What exactly did Einstein do with the money he got from the Nobel Society? Did he...spend it at an auction on a letter Van Gogh scribbled to the lady who cleaned his room, something that might read, "Enough with the dusting already"? No. He actually gave it all to his first wife, Mileva Maric, and two sons in the divorce terms.
Einstein's first marriage was a troubled one. He mistreated Mileva, and felt that she (and the boys) were a distraction from his work. In donating his money to her, there is some speculation that Einstein felt indebted to her, and that she even co-authored some of his most seminal papers.
How much exactly was Einstein awarded? He got the equivalent of $32,653.76. At the time, that scratched out to approximately 49 annual Berlin salaries. 49 regular people jobs makes for one Nobel Prize. Disparity? Think so.
It should also be noted that Einstein was prophetically skeptical of capitalism as an economic model — arguably the same model that enabled the wealthy, anonymous buyer to purchase the note. After emigrating to America from Nazi Germany, he appreciated the freedom afforded by a free market system, but was wary of how that freedom could be exploited.
Einstein was very vocal about how a capitalist system with little oversight or government intervention could benefit the rich beyond equitable measure, leaving the poor with little hope of upward mobility. As far as his economic leanings were concerned, he skewed left towards socialism. He wasn't a fan of Russia's brand, or Germany's nationalism, however, and was equally in favor of democratic and personal freedoms.
It should also be noted that, though Einstein was aware his note would be worth a great deal one day, he did not relish in that fact. He was skittish around fame, and even decided to skip the Nobel Prize ceremony. On the day he learned of his selection, he makes no note of it in his diary, in which he wrote assiduously.
There's also an urban legend that Einstein coined the phrase, "Compound interest is the 8th wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it. He who doesn't...pays it." Now, Einstein was certainly a great wit, but the authenticity of the phrase is much debated. Still, it's true nonetheless.
If anything, Einstein's words need remind us that often the simple life is to be the most sought after. After all, the man worked in the post office for a number of years. Can you get more simple than that? Now you can't even work at a post office, the jobs are getting scarcer and scarcer. And modesty? Good luck. Nothing's sacred anymore. Besides, who wouldn't want to cash in on a $1.56 million dollar scribble? Simple?!