Top Ten Lessons from the life of Thomas Edison
By Frederic Marsanne
Published on February 17, 2017
Every once in a while, the market does something so stupid it takes your breath away.
Indecision and delays are the parents of failure.
Nothing is worth more than this day.
Only those who have patience to do simple things perfectly ever acquire the skill to do difficult things easily.
Eighty percent of success is showing up.
I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.
(Cambridge, MA) — Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) was an American inventor and businessman, who has been described as America’s greatest inventor. He developed many devices that greatly influenced life around the world, including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the long-lasting, practical electric light bulb. Dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, he was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production and large-scale teamwork to the process of invention.
Thomas Edison had a pretty unusual curriculum, generating lots of food for thought. Here are ten lessons you may draw from his life.
- Health matters. But you can overcome early handicaps.
Edison developed hearing problems at an early age. The cause of his deafness has been attributed to a bout of scarlet fever during childhood and recurring untreated middle-ear infections. He became the extraordinary man we know despite this early impediment.
- There are no small jobs. You never know how they’ll evolve, and they can constitute formidable testing grounds.
Edison sold candy and newspapers on trains running from Port Huron to Detroit and sold vegetables to supplement his income. He later obtained the exclusive right to sell newspapers on the road, and, with the aid of four assistants, he worked hard and printed the Grand Trunk Herald, a paper of which he was proprietor, editor, business manager, reporter, and printer
which he sold with his other papers. This began Edison’s long streak of entrepreneurial ventures, as he discovered his talents as a businessman. These talents eventually led him to found 14 companies, including General Electric, which is still one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world.
- Save a life. It’s one of the most beautiful feats you can accomplish, and who knows what impact it may have on your own life.
Edison became a telegraph operator after he saved three-year-old Jimmie MacKenzie from being struck by a runaway train. Jimmie’s father, station agent J.U. MacKenzie of Mount Clemens, Michigan, was so grateful that he trained Edison as a telegraph operator. No wonder some of Edison’s earliest inventions were related to telegraphy, including a stock ticker. Talk about serendipity. Be alert for people in distress. Always be willing to help.
- Work a Lot, Produce a Lot, Lose quite a bit, to Finally Win a Few and Transcend One
Adam Grant, in Originals: how non-conformists move the world (Viking, 2016), writes this: “…the most prolific people not only have the highest originality; they also generate their most original output during the periods in which they produce the largest volume … It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality—if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it—but that turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality. Original thinkers … will come up with many ideas that are strange mutations, dead ends and utter failures. The cost is worthwhile because they also generate a large pool of ideas—especially novel ideas.”
He also writes, “When the London philharmonic orchestra chose the 50 greatest pieces of classical music, the list included six pieces by Mozart, five by Beethoven, and three by Bach To generate a handful of masterworks, Mozart composed more than 600 pieces before his death at thirty-five, Beethoven produced 650 in his lifetime, and Bach wrote over a thousand… The more pieces a composer produces in a given five-year window, the greater the spike in the odds of a hit.”
The same pretty much applied to Thomas Edison’s life. The genius wrote, “The real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded into 24 hours…”
- You can create an industry, oops, make it several!
Edison was a prolific inventor, holding 1,093 US patents in his name, as well as many patents in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. More significant than the number of Edison’s patents was the widespread impact of his inventions: electric light and power utilities, sound recording, and motion pictures all established major new industries worldwide. Edison’s inventions contributed to mass communications and, in particular, telecommunications. These included a stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder, a battery for an electric car, electrical power, recorded music and motion pictures. Edison developed a system of electric-power generation and distribution to homes, businesses, and factories – a crucial development in the modern industrialized world. His first power station was on Pearl Street in Manhattan, New York.
- Take no victory for granted. There will be ups and downs even after major wins.
In 1866, at the age of 19, Edison moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where, as an employee of Western Union, he worked the Associated Press bureau news wire. Edison requested the night shift, which allowed him plenty of time to spend at his two favorite pastimes—reading and experimenting. (Read, read, read!) Eventually, the latter pre-occupation cost him his job. One night in 1867, he was working with a lead-acid battery when he spilled sulfuric acid onto the floor. It ran between the floorboards and onto his boss’s desk below. The next morning Edison was fired. Ah, nobody’s perfect. Edison’s careers would of course have to overcome other obstacles. So will yours, in most likelihood. Get psyched! You know the saying. What does not kill makes you stronger…
- Mentors and friends matter…
One of Edison’s mentors during his early years was a fellow telegrapher and inventor named Franklin Leonard Pope, who allowed the impoverished youth to live and work in the basement of his Elizabeth, NJ, home. Some of Edison’s earliest inventions were related to telegraphy. Henry Ford, the automobile magnate, later lived a few hundred feet away from Edison at his winter retreat in Fort Myers. Ford once worked as an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit and met Edison at a convention of affiliated Edison illuminating companies in Brooklyn, NY in 1896. Edison was impressed with Ford’s internal combustion engine automobile and encouraged its developments. They were friends until Edison’s death. Edison and Ford undertook annual motor camping trips from 1914 to 1924. Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs also participated. It can’t hurt to learn from other smart fellows…
- Never retire
Edison was active in business right up to the end. Just months before his death, the Lackawanna Railroad inaugurated suburban electric train service from Hoboken to Montclair, Dover, and Gladstone, New Jersey. Electrical transmission for this service was by means of an overhead catenary system using direct current, which Edison had championed. Despite his frail condition, Edison was at the throttle of the first electric Multiple-Unit train to depart Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken in September 1930, driving the train the first mile through Hoboken yard on its way to South Orange. This fleet of cars would serve commuters in northern New Jersey for the next 54 years until their retirement in 1984. A plaque commemorating Edison’s inaugural ride can be seen today in the waiting room of Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, which is presently operated by New Jersey Transit.
- The sky is the limit
It’s all worth the pain. Several places have been named after Edison, most notably the town of Edison, New Jersey. Three bridges around the United States have been named in Edison’s honor: the Edison Bridge in New Jersey, the Edison Bridge in Florida, and, surprise, the Edison Bridge in Ohio. In space, his name is commemorated in asteroid 742 Edisona, where I have yet to take a walk.
- Non-violence can’t…hurt!
Nonviolence was key to Edison’s moral views, and when asked to serve as a naval consultant for World War I, he specified he would work only on defensive weapons and later noted, “I am proud of the fact that I never invented weapons to kill.” Edison’s philosophy of nonviolence extended to animals as well, about which he stated: “Nonviolence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.” He was a vegetarian but not a vegan in actual practice, at least near the end of his life
- One more, just for fun: Edison was the author of wonderful quotes. Here are three, more food for thought…
“Our greatest mistake lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.”
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Check out the following two videos; they capture some of the spirit…
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I’ll let the racket do the talking.
To err is nature, to rectify error is glory.
Energy and persistence conquer all things.
You’ll never find a better sparring partner than adversity.
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.