How to Stay Focused from the Lonely Inventor


He invented dynamite, his family profited from war; and he was called “the merchant of death.” Despite it all, Swedish chemist and inventor Alfred Nobel believed in peace – creating the world’s most famous award which bears his name – the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nobel, who once said he was unimportant and lived without friends, lacked a high level of education but could speak six languages, write poetry and invent.

How did he do it? Nobel’s philosophy on thinking and working, more than a century after his death, is surprisingly relevant today in helping us stay focused in a world of distraction.

Worry is the stomach’s worst poison.

One of the reasons so many of us lack focus is that we spend our days worrying. Millions worry about money, work problems and an uncertain future. The mind’s preoccupation with things unlikely to ever occur deprives it of concentration and discipline needed to succeed. The cure to worry lies in mindfulness – the ability to think on the matter at hand. At the young age of 24, Alfred Nobel did just that, filing his first patent for a gas meter he invented. When worry is replaced by focusing on building, solving problems and creating – our lives are enriched, our careers take off, and we discover a purpose.

My home is where I work, and I work everywhere.

Even though Nobel died in 1896, he could have easily written this today. For many of us, especially freelancers and contractors, the office is a laptop in a coffee shop one day – and on a smartphone at the beach, the next. Focus comes when we’re in the right environment – free of distraction. The idea for your business, the key to completing a project, or developing a plan, are all best created when you’re in a place that is friendly, comfortable and conducive to mind relaxation. Nobel lived in Europe but travelled extensively throughout the world, making every place he visited, his mind laboratory.

Contentment is the only real wealth.

Although Nobel was financially rich, not only from inventing dynamite, but also investing in oil fields owned by his brothers – he believed that money was something to ultimately be given away. One of the world’s first great philanthropists – Nobel believed that leading a contented life was the highest form of wealth. That belief allowed him to focus, not on the pursuit of money, but rather, his inventions. Today, we chase the almighty dollar. The irony is that by doing so, we lose focus on the very work that could improve our income. Focus not on the money, but on excellence in your craft.

Alfred Nobel led a solitary life, never marrying. He did have several lovers but all would ultimately reject him.

It is believed that one girlfriend, Nobel’s former secretary, convinced him to ensure at least one of his prizes would be a peace prize. (The woman, Bertha von Suttner, was a leading figure in the Austrian peace movement who would later be awarded the Peace Prize herself in 1905).

In a bizarre poem he wrote, Nobel referred to himself as a “half-creature” who should have been put down from the moment he was born. He said his greatest failing was not having a family, and his biggest accomplishment in life was not being a “burden to anyone.”

Perhaps it was Nobel’s preoccupation with explosives that made him self-loathing.

When his brother Ludwig died, the French newspaper reporting the death had mistaken Ludwig for Alfred, printing an obituary which said “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

Nobel, who was still very much alive, didn’t care for the newspaper’s description of him. It was then that he decided to shape a better legacy for himself and leave his fortune to prizes that would recognize accomplishments in science and literature, designed to improve the plight of people and the planet.

Alfred Nobel, long gone, continues to put the focus on a better world.

The year was 1868 and Alfred Nobel filed U.S. Patent 78,317 in which he stated: “Be it known that, I, Alfred Nobel, of the city of Hamburg, Germany, have invented a new and useful Composition of Matter, to wit, an Explosive Powder.” Nobel left a fortune to promote peace but once said, “I am skeptical as to its results.”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article is one of a series I wrote on historical figures in 2016 and 2017. Their content is as relevant, or more so, today. I will publish one essay per week. Let me know if you appreciate these and if there is a person from history you would like me to profile. 

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