Work Quotes and Misquotes: Thomas Edison

Well, Thomas Edison would know about hard work!


Thomas Edison has been misquoted as saying he tried 5,000 times to create the light bulb before succeeding. Sometimes the number has been reported as 10,000. But there is no evidence of him ever saying such a thing.

According to a publication from Rutgers University, The Edisonian – Volume 9 Fall 2012, the misquote may be based on the following statement he made in an  1890 interview in Harper’s Monthly Magazine

“‘I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed three thousand different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. My chief difficulty, as perhaps you know, was in constructing the carbon filament, the incandescence of which is the source of the light. Every quarter of the globe was ransacked by my agents, and all sorts of the queerest materials were used, until finally the shred of bamboo now utilized was settled upon. Even now,’ Mr. Edison continued, ‘I am still at work nearly every day on the lamp, and quite lately I have devised a method of supplying sufficient current to fifteen lamps with one horse-power. Formerly ten lamps per horse-power was the extreme limit.'”

Another candidate for the misquote of the thousands of hours of work on the light bulb (again according to The Edisonian, and from Edison: His Life and Inventions) is:

“This [the research] had been going on more than five months, seven days a week, when I was called down to the laboratory to see him [Edison].  I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters.  I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question.  In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: ‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’  Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results!  Why, man, I have gotten lots of results!  I know several thousand things that won’t work!'”

Regardless of exactly how many experiments his lab did, it’s evident there were quite a lot.

So, my favorite quotation attributed to Edison is the simple one in the poster above. Unfortunately, I can’t find any evidence he said that either!

But I can find plenty of evidence that work is essential to success.  How about you?

Changes and Resolutions

ResolutionsThere is an inspiring and sentimental story I’ve heard and read.  It’s commonly used by speakers and preachers, and I’m not sure it’s completely true.  But I’m going to tell it anyway.

The Story of Annie

In the late 1870’s, a young girl, known to most as “Annie” was living in an almshouse, which also served as a mental hospital.  Annie was half-blind, subject to fits of anger and was being kept in a cage to keep her from harming herself and others.  She could also take notions of ignoring the presence of others and refusing to communicate or follow any instructions.  She lived in dark and filth.

An old nurse had a fondness for Annie.  She saw some spark in her.  And she knew how hard life had been for her.  So she took to visiting Annie each day at lunch.  She’d talk to Annie about mundane things, just the usual makings of conversation.  Annie would apparently ignore her.  Undeterred, she came back day after day.

One day, the old nurse left a brownie outside the girl’s cage.  The girl ignored it, but when the nurse came back the next day, the brownie was gone.  So, each day after that, the nurse would leave a brownie.

After a while, the staff started noticing changes in Annie.  Within a few months, Annie was released from the cage a changed person.  More communicative, cooperative, in control.

What is particularly poignant about the story is that the girl in question was Anne Sullivan, who went on to become a teacher of the blind and to mentor Helen Keller.

The Point of the Story: Small Actions Lead to Big Changes

This story has been used to make a variety of points.  The point I want to use it for is what it says about change.

I’m writing this article just after the turn of the new year.  This is a time when many have made great promises about the great changes they have resolved to make during the coming year.  (Most of the resolutions are about weight loss, but that’s a different story.)

Change doesn’t happen in huge chunks.  Annie wouldn’t have been better changed by a plate of a dozen brownies once a week.  Big change happens with consistent repetitions of small changes.  And the right changes.  At the right time.

By “small changes,” I mean “small actions.”  Change is an active process.

Also remember that the brownies were not the only small changes.  Everything started with the nurse consistently, patiently using her lunch time to visit Annie.  Giving the girl evidence of being cared for every single day.

Make Small, Action-Oriented Resolutions and You’ll Be Successful

If you want to make changes in yourself, start with some small activity that, combined with other activities, will eventually lead to the larger change.

If you want, for example, to lose weight, you might start by finding out how many calories you eat each day and limit yourself to 200 calories less.  So, if you eat 2500 calories a day now, you could just limit yourself to 2300 until you are comfortable with that.

As another example, if you want to be a good time manager, but you live pretty chaotically now, you could start by learning to write down one — just one — item you want to remember to do each day.  You wouldn’t start by trying to keep a full-fledged to do list.

Change is hard.  You don’t start from being like a caged animal and jump right to going to graduate school.

You’re probably eager to get on with your New Year’s resolutions.  Just remember to start from where you are now.

Luck Is More Than Just A Four-Letter Word

Recently, a friend quipped: “Luck is a four-letter word.” I started thinking about writing about luck and chance.  About randomness. About what we control and what we don’t.

What’s Your Belief About Luck?

First, I’d like you to think for a moment about what your attitude is toward luck.  What do you believe about luck.  What do you think luck is?  Or do you even think there is any such thing as luck?  Perhaps you hold with those who say you make your own luck.  Maybe you have a few superstitions about luck.  But one thing is fairly probable — you’ve thought about luck and you have opinions on it.

Attitudes about luck have a wide range, as is proven by the various sayings we have about it.  They seem to vary from “Curse the luck!” to “Bless my lucky stars!”

How about these expressions: “Just lucky, I guess”…”Good luck and God bless”…”Having any luck with that?”…”Of all the luck!”…”Just my luck”…”As luck would have it”…”Luck smiled on me.”

Although I’ve heard it many times before, I particularly was struck by the poignancy of hearing the expression “You can’t beat luck” in an episode of the short-lived TV-show “Dr. Vegas.”

The gambling-addicted physician was doing a masterful job of winning game after game in a poker tournament.   At the end, the odds were so stacked in his favor that even his opponent believed it was impossible to beat him.  It came down to the turn of one card.  And in a millions-to-one shot, the one card that could beat him turned up in his opponent’s hand.  They were both astonished. And that’s when she said, “You can’t beat luck.” (She may have said “just plain luck.”  I don’t remember the exact words, and I’m not going to try to find that episode online and watch it again just to be accurate.)

Defining Luck

I agree that you can’t beat “luck” — if you are defining luck as random chance, an event completely out of your control and almost impossible to predict.  However, some who write about luck and chance from the scientist’s point of view will tell you that you need to use your words more strictly if you want to understand luck and how to control it.  You need to realize that there’s a difference between luck and chance.

Chance is random occurrences.  Luck is “being in the right place at the right time for useful probable occurrences.”  Luck is also “making the most of chance occurrences by being alert to them and their possibilities.

If you are careful about your definition of luck, you’ll appreciate the literature that explains how you control it and how you make your own luck.  You’ll also react better to harmful and disappointing chance events, accepting that they are out of your control.  But your reaction to those chance events is in your control and you can use that control to recover.  You can even use your control to transform unfortunate chance events into opportunities for growth and profit.

Learning To Control Luck And Make Your Own Luck

In my research, I came across an excellent article by Daniel Pink, on the FastCompany website, “How To Make Your Own Luck.”   If you want an outstanding and brief outline of how to change and control your luck, this is the article to read.

In this 2003 article, Pink interviews Richard Wiseman about the ideas in Wiseman’s book “The Luck Factor: Changing Your Luck, Changing Your Life: The Four Essential Principles.”  It’s a good, long interview and the four essential principles are revealed.

So much of the article, as well as the name of the book, sounded familiar.  I researched further and found that there was an earlier book called “The Luck Factor” by Max Gunter.  I was sure I had read the book and a search of my bookshelves turned it up.  Re-reading it, I discovered that both books seemed to have many of the same ideas.  Different stories.  Different approaches to studying the ideas.  But pretty similar conclusion and advice.

The Wiseman book is difficult to get in the U.S.  I had to order a used copy and wait about a week.  But Pink’s article intrigued me, so I wanted to know more.  Especially since the writer is a fellow psychologist.  The article tells the basics you need to know, but the book is good reading if you want to go to the trouble of trying to get a copy.

Gunther’s book The Luck Factor: Why Some People Are Luckier Than Others and How You Can Become One of Them is easily available here in new and used editions as well as on Kindle.

I’ll be back in a later article with more on luck and chance.  Meanwhile, take a look at Pink’s article.  (And, by the way, you may have noticed that this article was the result of luck.  A friend made an observation by chance that I recognized as a good topic for an article, and luckily, I had already read and kept a good book on it.  So, my research was made easier.  Funny how that works out.)