Welcome to this issue of "Dr. T's Timely Tips" by Dr. Tony Alessandra. Please send your feedback to info@alessandra.com!

A True Genius Has the "Courage to Fail"

Visionary geniuses, or at least a lot of them, are downright proud of the fact that their ideas have no clear application to the real world. You will certainly find several people like this if you talk to people in the math department of a big university. On the other hand, people in the applied mathematics department, or in the engineering school, take great pride in the real world uses of their work. Moreover, despite what the visionary might think, applied genius is in no way inferior to pure theorizing. In fact, our world depends completely and totally on people who not only have ideas, but who can translate ideas into material reality.

This kind of "Applied genius" is epitomized by Thomas Alva Edison.

All told, Edison patented more than 1,093 inventions. That is an average of one new patented invention every ten days of his adult life. And he didn't even patent any of his inventions that could be used in the medical field, so everyone had access to them. How could one person have all this?

In order to understand what Thomas Edison said and did, we need to know a little about who he was and where he came from. He was born in Ohio in 1847, and his family moved to the small but busy city of Port Huron, Michigan, when Tom was seven years old. Although not wealthy, both of Edison's parents were accomplished people in their own ways. His mother was the descendant of a prominent New England family, and had professional training as a teacher. His father was a businessperson who loved Shakespeare and other great writers. In fact, he loved them so much that he soon began paying Tom a dime for every book he read.

From the first, Edison was not exactly an easy boy to deal with. Like Einstein, he did not start speaking until much later than usual -- about the age of four, in Edison's case. However, once he started, he rarely stopped. Moreover, his favorite was the question: "Why, why, why?"

It is interesting to wonder how a boy like Edison would be handled in today's educational environment, but in the 1850s, the solution was very simple. At the age of seven, he was kicked out of school. From then on, his formal education was handled by his mother through home schooling.

Applied genius is within everyone's range. For Edison, it was a matter of looking at the world around him, and asking himself the same few questions about everything he saw: How can this be improved? What is the logical next step for this object? Most importantly, what can I do today toward taking that step?

Edison did see himself as a theoretician, but his theories were more along the lines of, "What would happen if?" Edison really worked by trial and error. To get where he wanted to go, he liked to grind it out. Some of the best-known stories about Edison describe the thousand or so different substances he tried as filament for the light bulb. Finally, he hit on the right one, which was tungsten.

Today, mainstream science would criticize this approach for wasting a lot of time. It lacks "elegance" -- which is scientific jargon for the simplicity of a well thought-out experiment. Edison, however, was not interested in that at all. He actually enjoyed all the mistakes and dead ends.

Here is what he said: "Just because something doesn't do what you planned, that doesn't mean it's useless. Surprises and reverses should be an incentive to accomplishment. If I find 10,000 ways something will not work, I have not failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is just one more step forward."

Let's think about how some of these ideas can be applied to your own life. Are you a person who likes to plan things out in advance -- perhaps years in advance -- before you take action? On the other hand, do you like to wing it? In other words, are you a theoretician and a planner? Or a "doer" who is determined to reach the goal by any means necessary?

In his own work, of course, Edison never felt that he encountered failure. He had an amazing way of reframing failure so that it actually turned out to be success. If something did not work, he had succeeded. He had successfully learned what was not the answer he was looking for. He was not surprised when this happened. It was what he expected. He was going to lose more often than he was going to win -- but he knew he would win eventually, because he knew he was going to go on.

This was Edison's approach, and it is really the essence of applied genius. You may not always be able to control the outcome of what you undertake, but you can always control your responses to the outcome. You can always change the frame of an event from negative to positive -- and the more you are able to do that, the more successful you are going to be.

Here's to more personal insight,


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Thomas Edison, "Wizard of Menlo Park", (1847-1931)

Edison himself once famously said: "genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." Nikola Tesla, possibly Edison's most famous employee who went on to be a great scientist and inventor in his own right, said about Edison's method of problem-solving: "If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor."