Earlier on the blog I talked about one of our most productive presidents, Thomas Jefferson, and what we can learn from his habits. I am still a firm believer in learning from history and past successes. So today I wanted to discuss possibly one of the most productive people of the 20th century, Thomas Edison.
Whether or not you like Edison as a person (his character and morality have been questioned more and more in recent years), you have to admit that the guy was incredibly productive. Edison received 1093 patents in his lifetime, an all-time record. What is even more amazing? Almost every single one of his patents are tied to commercial successes. Want a sampling of some of the industries Edison influenced? Well, he invented the phonograph and kick-started the recorded music industry which is now worth over 150 billion dollars. He created the company General Electric after inventing a marketable electric light. He experimented with batteries and portable energy. He also invented moving pictures and kick-started iron ore mining, telecommunications, office and copying technology, cement, and electrochemical therapy.
How in the world did Edison fit so much creativity and invention into one lifetime? Here are the top 10 principles that he followed:
1. Forget talent, genius is hard work
“Genius is hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense.” – Thomas Edison
Edison claimed that he was not born particularly talented. He was a firm believer in hard work and perseverance. It was character traits and good habits that made him successful, not some sort of genius gene.
What if you just aren’t as creative as him? Edison also claimed that “invention is two percent inspiration and 98 percent perspiration.” Those who knew him claimed he had zero tolerance for lazy people. Never write yourself off because you aren’t as smart or creative as the great successes around you. All you need to be great is hard work.
“There is no substitute for hard work.” – Thomas Edison
2. Stay in touch with your customers
We all know Thomas Edison as America’s great inventor, but some don’t know that he was also a marketing guru. In 1869, Edison invented an electronic vote counter with the ability to greatly reduce the hassle and time it took to vote. To his astonishment, the counter turned out to be a huge flop. Why? Because legislatures didn’t want efficient voting. They wanted time for deliberation and lobbying. From that early failure, Edison realized that his inventions must fix his customer’s real problems, not the problems that he assumed they would have.
“Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success“. – Thomas Edison
He forced himself to refrain for inventing anything purely for the sake of inventing it. Instead, he went out and found real problems people were frustrated with and designed his inventions to solve those problems.
3. Don’t be afraid of naps
Thomas Edison boasted that he slept for only a few hours each night and could work for three days straight. However, his dirty secret lied in an unusual ability to take power naps. Edison was famous for napping anywhere and everywhere. He sometimes napped for up to three hours, multiple times a day! One of his assistants insisted that his “genius for sleep equaled his genius for invention.”
This ability to power nap allowed him the flexibility to get into the zone and work for incredibly long periods of time. He could charge up on sleep whenever it was convenient or whenever he needed a creative boost.
“The best thinking has been done in solitude.” – Thomas Edison
4. Remember that failure is your friend
One of Edison’s biggest keys to success was his attitude toward failure. He saw failure as an opportunity to learn something and grow and was never discouraged by it.
“Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” – Thomas Edison
5. Never give up
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is to try one more time.” – Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison was the epitome of perseverance. He claimed to have tried thousands of different filaments before finding a cheap but reliable substance to use for his electric light bulbs.
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” – Thomas Edison
6. Take Notes
By writing your ideas and thoughts down on paper, you free your cognitive resources to stay focused on the task at hand. To date, five million pages of Edison’s notes have been found and preserved. He used notes for many different purposes. He kept organized files so that he would never have to do the same research twice. He also kept to-do lists and reminders to keep him on task. He also had messy notes filled with mixed up inventions, attempts at poetry and calligraphy, and the occasional new idea. It seems as if he almost used paper as a medium for better expressing the workings of his brain and finding new ways to synthesize ideas.
7. Challenge Assumptions
Thomas Edison endured all of twelve weeks of formal education in his life. Soon after he enrolled in school as a young child, his teacher complained that he was hyperactive and stupid. So Edison’s mother pulled him out and taught him herself at home.
Edison viewed his lack of formal education as a blessing. He said it helped him to be innovative, to challenge assumptions. When tackling a new invention, Edison tested wildly. He often tried (and occasionally succeeded in creating) things that scientists considered impossible.
8. Don’t work alone
One of Edison’s greatest inventions was the method he used to invent. He designed a dream laboratory and filled it with talented men, giving them the freedom to explore their own ideas. He built his space with huge open rooms where people could talk and work. There were no set hours, but all the men worked long and hard and seemed to enjoy it. It was, in a sense, the first research and development lab. Apple and Google both model their headquarters after Edison’s famous wizards park.
A lot of people compare Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. While Tesla was most certainly a brilliant inventor, he did not come near Edison in invention output over his life time. One of the key differences between them was that Tesla insisted on working alone, whereas Edison had the advantage of a team of guys helping him to get more done in less time.
9. Set expectations
Edison was a firm believer in to-do lists. Here is a peek at one he wrote in June of 1888,
Cotton picker, new phonograph, electrical piano, that is just a sample from one of Edison’s crazy to do lists. It may seem overly ambitious, but that was just the first page of his list! He had four more pages with over 80 invention ideas scribbled down!
Edison had what he called an “Idea Quota” that required him to invent a minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every 6 months. He is a testament to what human beings are capable of if we don’t settle for low expectations.
“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” – Thomas Edison
It is also possible that his high expectations and specific deadlines were the pressure he needed to get creative juices flowing.
10. Do what you enjoy
“I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” – Thomas Edison
Edison set high expectations for himself. His friends and family accused him of being a workaholic, and for good reason. However, he didn’t see it that way. He genuinely loved inventing. In fact, he claimed that he really didn’t work at all. He enjoyed everything that he did. So if you want to be successful, find something you are passionate about and pursue it with every ounce of strength in your being.
So you see…
Edison was a power house of creativity and invention. He accomplished an almost unbelievable number of projects in his lifetime. If there is such a thing as being too productive, Edison would be the perfect example. He was so focused on work that his family suffered much. He was not close to any of his children. In fact, one of his son’s used aliases all his life because he felt so disconnected from his father that he did not want to be associated with him.
Not only did Edison’s family suffer, but his employees were overworked, and not always given the credit due to them. Edison was so focused on success and invention, that he became overly competitive and sometimes resorted to shady deals and idea theft to get ahead.
While Edison isn’t a perfect role model (nobody is perfect), no one can deny that he knew a thing or two about getting things done. By taking his mantras and life lessons without his all overly extreme gusto, perhaps we can learn something and push ourselves forward to better productivity.