How To Succeed By Trying Really Hard

Despite what you think you know of him, Thomas Edison succeeded despite himself

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A Story

I am an entrepreneur, I am also a voracious reader. Believe me, I have read all the books and stories on Thomas Edison.

“You do something all day long, don’t you? Every one does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and it is certain with most people, that they have been doing something all the time. They have been either walking, or reading, or writing, or thinking. The only trouble is that they do it about a great many things and I do it about one. If they took the time in question and applied it in one direction, to one object, they would succeed. Success is sure to follow such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have an object, one thing, to which they stick, letting all else go. Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.” - Inventor and businessman Thomas Edison on focus.

That is Edison explaining the “secret of his success” as told in the book “How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told By Themselves”. The main problem with that quote is that it is complete bullshit. Edison couldn’t focus on anything.

What he did have was stubborn perseverance. And he truly loved what he was doing, all the things he was doing, all at the same time. People often ask me how I was able to found 5 companies. That is nothing! Edison founded nearly 250 companies to promote all sorts of inventions. Almost all of them ending up in spectacular failure.

American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847 - 1931), in his laboratory at Orange, New Jersey.

My take on Edison was that he succeeded in spite of himself. If you read between the lines in all the literature that exists on him, you will find he was a plodding inventor and an even worse businessman. Yet he worked very hard at becoming good at both. Working hard is not the same as working smart. Of the thousands of patents, he filed and many hundreds of products he tried to market, to most people he is only remembered for one single invention: the light bulb. His saving grace was that he truly enjoyed what he did and it drove him throughout. His incredible intellectual curiosity and his unwavering willingness to try and risk failure on so many projects are what make him unique. He would be a terrible CEO, and even worse as a leader of a country, but as an inventor and (for the most part) hapless entrepreneur, he succeeded by force of will.

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A Fact

With water 1-degree difference in temperature can mean a lot. Boil water in a teapot on a stove and you can hear the difference. At 99 degrees Celsius (211 degrees Fahrenheit) all you have is a lot of hot water. Raise the temperature, one degree to 100 degrees, and magic transformation occurs. The water changes form. It converts from a liquid state to a gas state.

Many advances in human history are the result of increasing the temperature of water to 100 degrees and making steam. With steam, you can power a turbine. With a turbine, you can create electricity, power an engine, a myriad of things. With this harnessing of steam power, the entire world was transformed. However, take one degree away, and there is steam, no power for the engine, no electricity. One degree in the water temperature is the difference between success and failure.

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A Musing

I think Elon Musk is the modern, much-improved version of Thomas Edison. Even Donald Trump thinks so.

President Donald Trump told CNBC on Wednesday that Elon Musk is one of the world’s “great geniuses,” he likened the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX to Thomas Edison.

Musk is “one of our great geniuses, and we have to protect our genius,” Trump said in an interview with “Squawk Box” co-host Joe Kernen from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“You know, we have to protect Thomas Edison and we have to protect all of these people that came up with originally the light bulb and the wheel and all of these things. And he’s one of our very smart people and we want to cherish those people,” the president said.

True to form in the quote above, Donald Trump seems to be either giving credit for the invention of the wheel to Thomas Edison or alternatively advocating for his administration to “protect” the pottery makers from around 3500 B.C. in Mesopotamia who invented wheels many centuries before someone figured out to how to use them to build chariots. 

Dendera | In the Artifact Lab

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A Book

The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World by Randall E. Stross. Much of what is written about Edison heaps the praise on so thick and heavy that it becomes overwhelming. His fame and his role as the poster boy of the “hard-working American” looms large. This book, which I have read twice, delves deeply into the failures of the man and the inventions. Read with caution, you may not revere Thomas Edison as the demigod of all things good about American ingenuity after this read. What you will get is an honest portrayal of a flawed, yet an irrefutably exceptional human being.

Thomas Edison’s greatest invention? His own fame.

At the height of his fame Thomas Alva Edison was hailed as “the Napoleon of invention” and blazed in the public imagination as a virtual demigod. Starting with the first public demonstrations of the phonograph in 1878 and extending through the development of incandescent light and the first motion picture cameras, Edison’s name became emblematic of all the wonder and promise of the emerging age of technological marvels.

But as Randall Stross makes clear in this critical biography of the man who is arguably the most globally famous of all Americans, Thomas Edison’s greatest invention may have been his own celebrity. Edison was certainly a technical genius, but Stross excavates the man from layers of myth-making and separates his true achievements from his almost equally colossal failures. How much credit should Edison receive for the various inventions that have popularly been attributed to him—and how many of them resulted from both the inspiration and the perspiration of his rivals and even his own assistants? -

The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the ...

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