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.