Why Thomas Edison as a Role Model for Personal Development is Only Half the Picture

Picture of rival  inventors Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison

Rival Inventors: Nikola Tesla (R) and Thomas Edison (L)

You may have seen or heard the motivational quote to encourage persistence that cites the example of  inventor Thomas Edison. It’s doubtful that the encounter ever happened and the numbers of attempts reported by self hep gurus certainly vary. The story goes that Edison was asked how it felt to fail a 1000 times to invent the light bulb. Edison is said to have answered ‘I didn’t fail, I discovered 999 things that didn’t work’ or ‘the light bulb was an invention that took 1000 steps’. The general message is that you shouldn’t give up. You should never quit. Yes, persistence is important but so is your approach.

There were many fitting tributes to Thomas Edison when he died with one notable exception of Nikola Tesla, which was quoted in The New York Times (in 1931):

If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. … I was almost a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.

Of course Tesla, also an inventor, was purportedly a bitter rival of Edison. However the point Tesla makes is that Edison didn’t have to spend a 1000 attempts to solve a problem if he had refined his approach.

In recent years there has been much debate about the contributions of the two inventors most notably the Oatmeal comic has championed Tesla at the expense of Edison. Many of its claims are hotly contested by an Edison biographer. It’s not the aim of this post to attempt to settle the debate. I have provided the links so you decide. The aim of this post is to make the point is that for any personal or professional endeavour there needs to be a marriage of scientific method and persistence.

Book: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodI returned to studying psychology as a mature student and one of the first things I did was delve into the introductory textbook’s chapters on cognitive psychology. It made sense to me to use psychology to study psychology. In a few hours I discovered lots of tips that teachers had never told me. Up until this point my efforts at studying at all been about persistently plodding along. Cognitive psychology taught me a few short cuts. I had in Tesla’s words applied a little theory and calculation. Instead of the fly that repeatedly collides with a window trying to get outside, I’d become a baby learning to walk. The baby is a better metaphor for learning that the fly. My subsequent interest in (life) coaching came through teaching a class of mature students studying psychology. I had a chance to pass on my insights for study skills. I also learned better ways of building confidence and motivation by starting to train as a life coach.

The blind persistence approach is often encourage by the ‘positive thinking’ movement. Edison has become the self-help gurus’ because he most closely resembles the modern day entrepreneur, whereas Tesla died penniless. Now of course an attitude of persistence is important however it’s equally important to have an action-plan that begins with a working hypothesis. We need a blend of Edison and Tesla. Persistence, a focused and organized method plus an eye on the material world.

Links

About Gary Wood

Dr Gary Wood is a chartered psychologist, life coach and broadcaster specializing in applied social psychology, personal development and life coaching. He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence: Find the Keys to Lasting Change Through The Confidence-Karma Method (Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA ) Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his coaching and training practice and research consultancy.

Forget New Year-New You! Why Re-Invent the Wheel? There’s Plenty Right With the Old You, Read on. . .

Every year, buoyed by the significance of the first day of a brand new year we set our New Year’s resolutions. Magazines and books scream out at us to re-invent ourselves with messages of New Year, New You. I say forget it!

I’m not suggesting that we all do nothing. I’m a committed advocate of lifelong learning. We are always moving forward, whether we take control of it or not. I’m just asking the question ‘What’s so wrong with the old you that a bit of tinkering can’t put back on track?’ These messages to embrace total self-transformation embody the message that you’ve screwed up and it’s time to put it right. It’s bull! The New Year-New You (NYNY) philosophy won’t build confidence and esteem. In fact it may have the opposite effect. In this post I aim to tell you why it’s counterproductive to indulge the gurus that advocate total transformation. I’ll also suggest what you can do instead.

You’re here. You already made it

There’s an old saying ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bath water’. It’s sound advice. The NYNY approach sometimes goes as far as telling us to throw out the bath too! Seeing as you are already here then you must be doing something right. That’s the approach I take in coaching. We stock take. The stock in question is your skills, strengths, values and how you got to this place. The Pareto Principle states that we 20% of our actions yield 80% of the results. Through coaching or just by self-reflection you can tap into your key 20% Lots of self-help books will ask you to make massive changes on the assumption that this is the only way you will get massive results. I maintain that the small changes create knock-on effects that yield significant results. Bigger is not alway better if it’s not what you really want!

How did you get to where you are now?

In coaching I use scaling questions. Simply, I ask you to rate your overall life satisfaction on a scale from one to ten. Where one equals very low satisfaction and ten equals total satisfaction. Before focusing on ‘what might be better’ we focus on how you’ve got to this point. So if you report a satisfaction of four, I would ask you ‘How have to got to a four? How did you do that? How come it’s a four and not a three, a two or a one?’ By exploring the question from this angle, we begin to tap into that all important 20% of what works for you. It’s about jogging your memory rather than negating your life experience. Usually coaching clients recall things (almost forgotten) that help to move them forward. It’s up to the coach to uncover these gems.

Once we have established that, I ask you what you imagine things will be like, half a point along the scale, or even a quarter. The aim is to get you to thinking about small steps that you can make. I also ask what score will be good enough for you. Does it have to be a ten? For many people a 7 or 8 is good enough. After all, if it’s a ten then where is there left to go? Despite sports people claiming that they gave 110%, there is no such thing as11 out of ten! Once we have established what ‘good enough’ looks like, we can begin to set goals. These goals will include milestones or sub-goals to maintain motivation and boost confidence.

Setting goals properly can boost self-esteem

Think of a goal as a journey. After all that’s where the idea of coaching came from. In transport, a coach gets you from A to B. A life coach gets you from A to where you want to Be. For any journey, preparation is key. Part of  this involves taking stock of your skills, strengths, values and life experience. This is where New Year’s resolutions go wrong. It’s the preparation that maintains the motivation when the novelty and euphoria wear off. Begin by considering if you’ve tackled a similar goal before recall. How did it go? What went right? How long did it last? What were the stumbling blocks? It’s common for people to get discouraged if they falter. However that’s part of the process. Setting a goal is not about demonstrating you have iron will power. A great deal of the goal setting is working out how to match the process to your particular way of doing things. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ blueprint. You are the blueprint. It’s a matter of playing to your strengths and managing your shortcomings. If you try to force the ‘black-and-white, all-or-nothing, pass-fail’ approach then you learn nothing about yourself. By being more flexible and using the knowledge about yourself along the way, not only will you meet your goals, you will also boost your sense of self-efficacy in the world.

Working as a life coach, although I have a range of standard (tried and tested) questions, tools and techniques, I do not practice an ‘off-the-peg’ approach. I work with you to co-create an action plan. It’s all about matching your needs and strengths to the goal. The reasons are simple: (i) it saves time and (ii) it builds self-assurance. The idea is that you should go away from coaching feeling empowered not dependent on the coach. Yes, the coach should offer you tools, techniques and an alternative way to view your world. However all of these should add to ‘your sense of you’, not take away from it. That’s why I shun the ‘New Year-New You approach’ popularized by lifestyle magazines and self-help gurus. It’s common in advertising to see products described as ‘New Improved’. This doesn’t make sense. Is it new or is it improved? Usually it means it is an improvement on an existing product. They didn’t start from scratch. They took all that was good about the existing product and tweaked it a little to make it better. That’s exactly the approach for lifelong learning. Forget ‘New You’, just improve on an existing classic!

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIf you enjoyed this post, please use the ‘like’ and ‘share’ buttons below to let others know. 

If you are looking for a complete personal development course, try my book: Unlock your Confidence or else just check out my Survival Kit for New Year’s Resolutions.

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Other life coaching posts by Dr Gary Wood

Testing versus ‘On the Job’ – Theory versus Practice?

The University of Life

Recently I overheard someone on the phone loudly proclaiming that ‘on the job’ training is better than ‘all this testing nonsense’ because it allows people to go at their own pace. Of course makes intuitive sense to many people, especially those who gained a ‘BScliche’ at The University of Life.

For me, the theory informs the practice (and vice versa). I graduated from a University in an applied psychology department as a mature student (with plenty of prior life experience).Whenever we decide to come down on the side of testing or on the job training we lose half of the experience and advance a half-psychology.

Performance Improvement by Testing

Testing gets a bad reputation from in some quarters because it is seen as stressful and lacking ecological validity, that is, real-word relevance. One of the most common tests taking, even for those not academically inclined, is the mundane driving test. The stress mainly comes from not knowing what to expect. That’s why we have mock tests under near-test conditions. However the driving test is heavily reliant on practical abilities. The test sets objective standards that a learner needs to meet.

Critics of testing most often comment of the meaningfulness of the test and the unnecessary stress placed on the learning. Of course with school testing there is a political and financial dynamic which the learner shouldn’t be burdened with. The great benefit of testing, when done properly, is that it sets out, transparently, an objective standard. It also helps us to set goals that stretch us. Inevitably this involves a degree of stress. However, a little stress is good for improving performance. We often talk about a performance-enhancing adrenaline rush. The secret is to keep the stress within optimal limits.

So often it is not testing that it is the issue but how it is communicated and implemented and how it is related to the real-world. The key feature of testing is that it offers feedback. Research has shown that feedback improves performance irrespective of age. A little well-applied testing can give us that extra push.

On the Job Training

We learn most things by on-the-job training. Learning to talk, walk, swim and just about any other skill are from on-the-job training. We learn to how to interact with each other in the same way. A night on the town can be on-the-job training. However culturally there are many standards of conduct to which we adhere. We often use the phrase that ‘some people test us’. So ‘on-the-job’ training is rarely devoid of testing.

The main pitfalls of ‘on-the-job’ training are that it depends on the mentor, the feedback and the motivation. How well does the mentor give the appropriate feedback? is there a personality match between learner and mentor? Do their learning styles match? Perhaps most importantly, does learning ‘on the job’ mean that the learner just does what is necessary rather than pushing the limits?

Theory, Practice and Performance

I used the phrase ‘theory versus practice’ but testing and examination can be something that develops practice. Repetition and review are important factors when learning, however recall is improved by deeper levels of processing that testing offers. Conversely, ‘doing’ aids understanding. So, looking at learning from a holistic viewpoint, just as with the humble  driving test, we need a combination of both ‘on the job’ training as well as testing. Both are essential. The key is that each should inform the other in a way that is meaningful to the learner.

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Feedback Improves Performance Irrespective of Age

Recent research into learning supports an established principle that  task-related feedback can significantly improve performance. More importantly it goes some way to challenge the negative stereotype that age-related decline is inevitable. Feedback can improve performance irrespective of age.

Published in Psychology and Aging , investigators at Rice University (Houston, Texas) found that taking tests (and getting feedback) is more beneficial for learning than just studying information or simply re-reading it. The benefits were observed regardless of age, level of intelligence or whether or not people attend college. Jessica Logan, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rice, said the findings show that training can help older workers obtain and maintain job-related information, adding the study also revealed” that employees regardless of age can greatly benefit from testing activities as a way to sharpen their on-the-job skills”.

The research emphasizes that learning is an active process rather than a passive absorption of knowledge. In my work providing academic coaching, I suggest techniques that increase interest and engagement with learning materials rather than passively reading through notes.

The research also has important implications for older people no longer in work too. Getting involved in new learning and getting feedback can have important implications for cognitive functioning. Learning is a lifelong process. Learning new skills increase confidence and esteem at any age.

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A Place on The Great Bull – My Crowning Achievement?

Pic: Dr Gary Wood on Big Brother's Little BrotherWhen stand-up comedian, James Cook, sent me a Facebook message that read ‘I think we may have something in common’. I was intrigued. I’d attended James’s Stand-Up comedy course, partly as a bit of research for some courses I was writing about confidence and partly to see if I could stand up and make people laugh. Anyway I digress. I’d kind of assumed that we already had quite a lot in common – apparently not –  so what new revelation might ‘a click of the mouse’ hold?

The Great Bull Map of Birmingham 'Celebrity'

The Great Bull – The Crowning Achievement of Dr Gary Wood

It was a link to the ‘Birmingham it’s not sh*t’ website. This looks promising, I thought. (Not!)

The post entitled The Great Bull mirrors The Great Bear, where celebrities’ names instead of stations are on the London Underground map. This new version does the same for Birmingham. I quickly found James Cook on the map – he was the stop before Stewart Lee. A well deserved accolade. However, I could not see how this meant that we had something (more) in common. Much to my surprise, I did find my name over at ‘the rough end’ on the Reality TV line. I’m so pleased that those appearances on Big Brother’s Little Brother and Trisha  (as a life coach) paid off over my long, hard years of study. However, curiously, I’m flattered. I suppose it’s better than being on there for being a serial killer.

Whereas James Cook is over on the Tony Hancock end (with Lenny Henry), I’m on the Robert Kilroy-Silk end along with Enoch Powell and Bill Oddie. Although over on my side we have William Shakespeare and Bob Carolgees. Being on the Reality TV route I suppose I must clutch at straws.

This bit of nonsense and whimsy has made me think of the importance of ‘just doing something’. Everyone who knows me knows that I take any opportunity to encourage people to continue learning. I also constantly seek out new learning opportunities and new challenges, particular when they scare me. I often make the point:

We live and we learn!

Life will teach you lessons whether you like it or not.

So, why not set your own agenda?

I like to take control of some of my own agenda for my learning. Setting learning goals that stretch us contributes to happiness and builds confidence and esteem. I often say that it doesn’t matter what you learn as long as you actively continue to do so. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a stand-up comedy course but I can heartily recommend it. You might want to learn a different language, learn to play a musical instrument, learn to bake or tap dance or polish up on computer skills or wood whittling. It doesn’t matter that none of these may not gain you a ‘prestigious’ place on the map of your city. It will, however, transform your own internal landscape. Never underestimate the power and knock on effect of learning something new. Don’t let others put you off. Just do something for you. Learning something new. Yes that’s my feedle attempt to get off Reality TV and on to William Shakespeare line. Yes I have a long way to go, but trying will be fun.

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