Yesterday would have been Thomas Edison’s 169th Birthday. In honor of his birthday, February 11 is also known as National Inventors Day.
Edison made his first major invention, the electric vote recorder, at the age of 21. This is often the age of new Edison Engineers as they join GE after earning a Bachelor’s degree. It can be daunting to enter the workforce at such an innovative company and work with some of the most intelligent people in the world! It can also be incredibly inspiring.
One of the most inspiring things I’ve heard while on program at the Global Research Center in Niskayuna came from the Edison program leader, Nancy Martin. She said, “I don’t want you to succeed, I want you to fail. And then try something else, and fail again. And try again, and fail again.” The reason this is so inspiring for me is that fear of failure can often hold back young engineers. “Am I going to ask a question that I should know the answer to? Does my math and thought process make sense? What if I made a mistake? What if I’m just flat-out wrong?” Sometimes the fear of doing something wrong chokes out any remote creativity left in the back corner of our engineering minds. But if Thomas Edison could let go of fear, then so can we!
Thomas Edison’s creativity led him to massive successes, as well as failures. But can anyone rattle off a list of his failures? Not exactly. It’s the successes those failures led to that are remembered and that, more than 100 years later, make him a symbol of innovation to not only an entire company of 300,000 people, but also to the entire world. (In case you were wondering, Edison’s failures included a talking doll whose screeching voice was terrifying to children and a house constructed of solid concrete.)
Edison is credited with saying: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” As unhygienic as this Edison phrase sounds, I think it is safe to interpret perspiration as determination. If we first begin a problem by assuming that there IS a solution, then determination is the only thing required to find it. According to Edison, he found 10,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb. I believe that qualifies as determination! Would you have stopped at 100 failed attempts? At 1,000? Imagine what we could accomplish collectively if we did not stop trying until we found a solution. We have the potential to create things far beyond our time. For Edison, that was capturing motion pictures, recording sound, designing power utilities and building the first industrial research laboratory.
Edison’s legacy tells us that any single person can accomplish truly amazing things. And his legacy also tells us that these amazing things can fundamentally change how we look at the world. One person… one Edison… one engineer, can create a legacy.