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.
I 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.
- 2 Metaphors for Learning: The Baby and the Fly
- Experiments in Personal Development: Feedback Not Failure!
- The Oatmeal: Why Nikola Tesla was the Greatest Geek of all Time
- Was Thomas Edison a hack? Historians take on claims in The Oatmeal
- Nikola Tesla Wasn’t God And Thomas Edison Wasn’t The Devil
- Response from The Oatmeal to ‘Nikola Tesla Wasn’t God and Thomas Edison Wasn’t the Devil
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.