99% Perspiration

Thomas EdisonA man who truly understood the importance of failing better, Thomas Edison is often credited with inventing the light bulb. He did not, in fact, invent the light bulb. If as many as twenty-two other inventors created an incandescent lamp, then why do we associate Edison with this ubiquitous invention?

Historians make plenty of speculations, but one plausible explanation is this: Edison’s team didn’t just stop with the components but created an integrated electrical lighting system.

Even a working light bulb could only burn as long as a generator fed it electricity, and other factors like the sophistication of the inventor’s tools, the power of the vacuum within the bulb, and the amount of resistance within the power distribution system itself either enhanced or sabotaged the light bulb’s efficiency.

In his search for a filament material that would burn for an acceptable length of time, Edison imported exotic botanicals from all over the world, and before he tested a filament of carbonized cotton thread that burned for fifteen hours, he claimed to have tried over 6,000 “vegetable growths,” not to mention various metals. His success rate finally landed somewhere below .0167%—a dismal percentage by anyone’s standards.

Edison wasted countless hours of his own time and that of his team. He meet payroll along the way, without or without success, and he also had to pay for materials, research, and facilities.

Edison was a Board of Directors’ nightmare, yet by the time of his death in 1931, Edison had patents for 1,093 of his inventions, which include the microphone, telephone receiver, phonograph, mimeograph, storage battery, and of course his
electric lamp, patent number 223,898.

We associate Edison with incandescent lamps because he made them affordable and brought them to the masses.

But we have the luxury of hindsight, unlike the New York Times reporter who asked Edison, “How does it feel to have failed seven hundred times?”

Edison answered, “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Though Edison’s response shows remarkable poise and wisdom what intrigues me more about this exchange is that no one remembers the reporter’s name.

I doubt this now-anonymous person was trying to lampoon Edison, but time isn’t kind to the people who pride themselves on asking “the hard questions” and pointing out the flaws in other people’s work. I dub these self-important critics and naysayers “dementors” because they suck out one’s vitality.

They claim to have a firm grasp on “reality” and to concern themselves with the practical details of any project or endeavor. They’re more than happy to tell you that you’re inefficient; you’re wasting time and money. You’re burning through valuable resources at an alarming rate without any clear ROI (Return-On-Investment).

Significant work seldom consorts with that beast called efficiency. I doubt that Michelangelo stressed about the number of hours he invested in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I doubt that my parents thought, “We’re putting way too much time into rearing our three children.” If we had any clear idea of what a Sistine Chapel or child was going to require of us, most of us would decline the invitation.

But we know better, don’t we? Significant work almost always asks more of us than we think we can give. I doubt Edison walked around with a slaphappy smile on his face at all hours: “Isn’t this great, men? We’re inventing!”

I’ll bet he fretted and shed a few tears and prayers over his ledgers and apologized again and again to his family for long hours at the lab. He often spent the night there.

One of Edison’s teachers called him “addled,” implying that he was slow. His mother took him out of that school and taught him herself. Edison struggled with poor health during his childhood, and by his early teens, Edison had lost almost all his hearing. His deafness made him shy.

Edison had a disability, but he didn’t use it as an excuse.

How can a person like Thomas Edison exist? What was his secret? Some people can bounce back from an occasional failure, but if the light bulb was any indication, then the volume of his failures would have been enough to drown anyone. How does one become an Edison?

It would be easy to say that Edison ran off of some inborn battery of perseverance, that he was different from the rest of us, that he was special. He certainly had intelligence and tenacity, but I don’t want to let the rest of us of the hook so easily and discount his hard work.

That, of course, is one of the primary reasons that Edison succeeded: he was willing to work very, very hard. He said so himself in Harper’s Monthly in September 1932: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

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