Thomas Edison: Five Lessons for Us As We Create the Future
I just finished a biography of Thomas A. Edison, the inventor who introduced us to the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture, and 1,000 other patented inventions. Even when he was alive, he was a folk hero. Over 50,000 people visited his coffin in Menlo Park, NJ when he died. People across the nation turned off their “lights” at 10:00 pm the night of his funeral to pay respect to the man who ushered in the modern world. Indeed, he was called the Father of the Modern World. What an amazing man—the Wizard of Menlo Park.
The obvious lessons we learn from Edison are:
- He was curious and was always on the hunt to improve everyday life.
- He was willing to learn about arenas that were new and uncomfortable.
- He was a problem-solver who wanted to fix things people needed fixing.
- He didn’t let failure stop him from tenaciously finding creative solutions.
- He was ambitious, working well into the night for breakthroughs.
But there are little known lessons we learn, from his darker side:
He often couldn’t see past his own limited perspective. He discovered direct current, but refused to accept that alternate current had a practical use. This forced his electrical company to merge with another, and he left the business.
He was stubborn and refused to admit he was wrong. For example, he was blind to the biggest competition to his phonograph: the radio. He felt it was a “fad” that would go away someday. We are still waiting on that day.
He worked so much, he never formed a rich relationship with his own kids. After two marriages, he worked till midnight on his own wedding day. Some of his kids grew bitter, feeling their dad was absent from their childhood.
He was egocentric and self-promoting. While a decent businessman, he often wanted his name on inventions that others played a greater role in creating. He found it difficult to share the limelight, the fame, and the fortune.
What is our take away as leaders of the next generation?
My point is not to de-fame an American icon. I love Thomas Edison. But the truth is, when we succeed in our own world—as he did in his—we can fall prey to the same traps he did. In the book, Edison: A Life of Invention, we read: “By the 1920s the increase in scientific and technical knowledge had begun to make a generalist such as Edison increasingly outmoded.” He had once put together a team of clock makers and machinists (the world’s first R&D lab) adaptable to any task. Later, he lacked the more specialized and university-trained researchers to seriously investigate the questions that now faced mankind. He wasn’t prepared for the realms the 20th century was advancing into, fields that spawned new technologies and consumer products. In the end, he had created the first “model” of the modern world of research and development, but a more sophisticated model eventually overtook his.
What got you where you are may not be what gets you to the next level.
Always stay teachable; never get so stubborn as to refuse others wisdom.
Remember to balance your work with your most important relationships.
The greatest enemy of tomorrow’s success is likely today’s success.
Get over yourself. Conceit is a strange disease that makes everyone sick except the one who has it.
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