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The Genius Gift of Thomas Edison – Limitation Inspires Innovation

In The 4 Essentials of Entrepreneurial Thinking, I wrote a chapter on famous failures, highlighting one of my first mentors, Thomas Edison. Ranked #1 in Life Magazine’s hundred people who “made the millenium”, Edison wasn’t just a visionary inventor with over a thousand patents. He was the founder of fourteen companies and in every sense of the word, an entrepreneurial thinker who taught us that limitations inspire innovation.

In my study of Edison, I soon learned that there were few people who didn’t fail big before achieving success. But there’s a difference between those who fail and those who learn from experience. This was our greatest gift from Edison. After all, he didn’t invent the light bulb. He made it long lasting after countless experiments. He didn’t invent marketing but he understood the importance of solving a need. Technically deaf, he wasn’t born with a silver tongue but was certainly famous for quotes.

“I have not failed. I have discovered 10,000 ways that won’t work.”


Ready … Set … Whoops?

In high school, I failed a chemistry exam and a friend called me “Edison.” Knowing nothing about the famous inventor, I made a trek to the library assuming he was a gifted scientist. Boy was I wrong. 

Edison was the youngest of seven children who didn’t learn to speak until he was almost four. He was a hyper and inquisitive kid like me, and so disruptive, that an early teacher told his mother he was “too stupid to learn anything.” She opted for home-schooling. Edison was not only considered dumb and dyslexic at an early age, he was technically deaf by his teenage years. His groundbreaking research in sound recordings with a hearing impairment was possible by inserting a piece of wood between his teeth in order to listen to vibrations. 

“Deafness has its advantages.” said Edison. “My own deafness enables me to
concentrate my thoughts as I’d never be able to do if distracted by noise and conversation.”

His limitations clearly became his greatest assets. Today, insight to Edison legacies such as the phonograph, electric automobile, and long-lasting light bulbs, can be found through the Edison Innovation Foundation where his personal letters and company records still exist. From his factory of workers, thousands of notebooks were discovered, documenting everything from inventions to business theories and marketing ideas. At the core, we find a system of intelligent failure and resolve. And in his whimsical quotes, we find oceans of inspiration.

“Hell, there are no rules here … we’re trying to invent something.”

Edison was known to dance when experiments failed, working into the night with teams who shared his passion. We see the same principles in highly innovative corporate cultures who compete in the 21st century. So whether you’re a student, artist, tech wiz, small biz guru or global leader, the Edison thinking model proves that limitation is your inspiration for innovation.

This blog is from a chapter in The 4 Essentials of Entrepreneurial Thinking
Essential 1, Skill 7 – Never Quit – Failure is Your Friend (also see blog on Abraham Lincoln)

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How to Unleash Your Entrepreneurial Soul

Cliff-ECourse-Book-ThumbIn The 4 Essentials of Entrepreneurial Thinking, I set out to dispel a few myths about born entrepreneurs and the genius-at birth-theory. I analyzed innate talent, I.Q vs E.Q, great teachers, supportive parents, private coaching, soci0-economic advantages, and the value of a college degree. While each of these are a substantial leg-up, well-educated and privileged people often fail miserably in life, careers or business. We also know underprivileged people who came from poverty, had life trauma, or physical and emotional challenges, and managed to excel (Oprah, Richard Branson, Jackie Robinson, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller, Steve Jobs, The Beatles).

We can draw only one conclusion … From classroom to boardroom and battle field to playing field, we’re all entrepreneurs.

Be it an artist, athlete, high-tech CEO, or barista in a coffee shop, each of us is destined to boldly go where others only dream once we tap into the entrepreneur’s mindset. Yes, we all have it. We’ve all lied awake at night with a driving force that says, “There’s a better way.” At the core is imagination and a mission to improve the human experience. For most leaders in their field, the inspirational spark wasn’t a gift at birth. It came from a poet, book, movie, friend, parent, musician, or teacher. Sure, Mozart was extraordinarily musical, Bruce Lee was freakishly Kinesthetic, and Picasso was, well, Picasso. But each of us has a unique spark … and it can ignite with the simplest questions:

What if ? Why not ? When can we start ? Who do we know that’s been down this road?
What worked? What didn’t? What lessons were learned? What’s the best use of my time?

Highly successful people master these questions, then focus on their unique abilities. And you’ll never ask a silly question like, “Will I need to work overtime?” The answer is, “You bet! You’ll work your ass off! At that moment of clarity, you’ll unleash your entrepreneurial soul!

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Remembering Steve Jobs – The Crazy One

He was a dreamer and a misfit who built one of the most endurable brands in history. He took us through revolutions in computers, music, and entertainment. He even master-minded one of the most popular advertising campaigns in history: Think Different: The Crazy Ones (featuring 17 iconic figures from Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso, Bob Dylan and John Lennon to Richard Branson, Muhammad Ali, Ted Turner, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart and Martin Luther King, Jr.).

And on October 5, 2011, we lost Steve Jobs. He left behind an entrepreneurial spirit we may not see for a long time. His biography (Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson) reveals the saga of a complex soul who vacillated between genius and madness. In Isaacson’s words, we discover a “deeply emotional, sometimes mean, anti-social human being … who lived in his own altered reality.” But we also discovered a creative mind with a passion for what’s possible and no space for mediocrity.

When he passed away, I thought about one of the essays I wrote in The 4 Essentials of Entrepreneurial Thinking. I had a little fun comparing Gates to Jobs and Mozart to Tiger Woods in order to dispel the myth of born genius, born entrepreneur, and take on a bit of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier Theory that suggests 10,000 hours or 10 years of practice are secrets to success (yes and no in my book).

Most of us know the stories of Apple founder Steve Jobs and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Volumes have been written about both juggernauts so I can offer little to their biographies. But there’s a unique lesson I picked up watching a 2010 Apple commercial comparing PC to Mac. In its cheeky ad campaign, Apple pokes fun at the ongoing glitches of Microsoft’s operating system. Apple had similar bugs throughout its storied past, but since Microsoft’s PC is known to crash more than Apple products, the audience gets the joke. The commercial is clever but I came away with a totally different take than the one intended. It starts with a hip-looking kid i jeans (Jobs), standing next to a geeky, older guy in a suit and glasses (Gates). The next 60 seconds goes something like this …

Kid Mac: “Hello, I’m a Mac.”

PC Gates: “And I’m a PC. Hey Mac, did you hear the good news? Windows 7 is out and it’s not gonna have any of the problems that my last operating system had. Trust me.”

Kid Mac: (suspiciously): “I feel like I’ve heard this before, PC.” For the remainder of the commercial, we see PC Gates in decade-old leisure suits, insisting each new version of Microsoft’s operating software won’t have the previous problems.

PC Gates: “Windows Vista won’t have any problems Windows XP had, or any problems Windows ’98 had, or any problems Windows ’95 had … or any problems Windows 2 had. This time it’s gonna be different. Trust me (winking).”

What I gleaned from this time-capsule wasn’t that Mac was better than PC, Apple better than Microsoft, or Jobs better than Gates. My epiphany was that neither guy ever stopped innovating. Microsoft was still working out the kinks on Windows 7.0 when I wrote this. By the time you read this, the latest versions of iPads and iPhones will be in stores for at least 12 months anyway (trust me, wink-wink).

So as we remember Steve Jobs, we have to ask, “Was he a genius or just crazy enough to be obsessed with a passion for excellence?” After all, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was the original tech guy but could never have created Apple Computers the multi-billion dollar empire without a crazy sidekick. Jobs was the visionary and marketing guy who told us everything was “insanely great!” For Jobs, crazy was as much about form and beauty as function. And for that reason, he was more of a poet and artist than Gates even though both were crazy enough to think they could change the world.

Fortunately, Jobs left behind some of that crazy poetry, mantras that almost every artist and entrepreneurs alike know…

“Think different … Don’t be trapped by dogma and other people’s thinking … Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition … They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

With all his foibles, we admire Jobs not because of his perfection, but his imperfections. He told us to never stop asking, “What if ?” To that end, we classify him as modern-day Mozart who played with passion and practiced with purpose.

For any of us to harness the essential legacy of Steve Jobs, we can’t wonder rest on our laurels. If the goal is “insanely great,” then the crazy question is “What’s next?”

Thank you, Steve. (R.I.P.)