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Learning from the Mistakes of Thomas Edison
Book: The Wizard of Menlo Park by Randall Stross
Thomas Edison was an ingenious inventor.
I recently finished reading The Wizard of Menlo Park by Randall Stross, a book on Thomas Edison’s life. I marvel at his inventive genius at changing the face of many industries. He is, of course, famously known as the inventor of the electric light bulb, but Edison also invented the phonograph (an early rendition of the record player) and the kinetoscope (an early version of the motion camera).
Undoubtedly, we can learn a lot from his abilities to follow his curiosity and create world-changing inventions. However, like all humans, Edison too was fallible. He made mistakes and we can learn from some of the mistakes he made. There are probably many essays focusing on Edison’s ingenuity, so in this essay I want to focus on learning from Edison’s mistakes.
"Our Vice Chairman, Charlie Munger, has always emphasized the study of mistakes rather than successes, both in business and other aspects of life." Warren Buffett
"I would argue that what Warren's done, and what I’ve done to a lesser extent, is to learn a lot from other people’s mistakes. That is really a much more pleasant way to learn hard lessons." Charlie Munger
Don’t Ignore Family
Edison was the quintessential inventor who was always in his lab working day and night. He barely gave any time to his wife and children and only slightly began to appreciate the importance of family after the loss of his first wife. He mourned her death and felt lonely after she was gone, even though he never spent time with her.
Longing for a partner, Edison found himself another mate and got married to Mina. Despite wanting a wife, Edison was never a family man. He spent weeks away from Mina and his kids working on his ore mining project. Mina was understanding of Edison’s nature and knew that his laboratory work gave him ultimate joy. For Edison, his family was not a top priority and it seems like he was okay with that decision. He thrived in his inventions. But it is worth noting that his letters to Mina did reveal how lonely he was.
Unlike Edison, most people do seem to care about their families. They do not by choice make a decision to deprioritize family; but somehow with the busyness of life, they fall into a pattern that leaves them with little time for family. One of the biggest regrets people have on their deathbed is not spending enough time with family and loved ones. Don’t let yourself have this regret.
If you do care about family, don’t habitually fall into a rhythm that leaves you with no time for loved ones. Don’t ignore your family. If it helps, you can draw inspiration from Paul Graham and set a reminder on top of your to-do list.
Don’t ignore what customers want
Edison had earned the reputation as “the world’s greatest inventor and world’s worst businessman.” Edison was poor in business dealings and did not profit from the commercialization of his inventions the way others did. He thrived in works of technical nature and did not enjoy the process of gaining customers. Edison also didn’t understand what customers wanted - he lived a life very different from the common man and couldn’t relate to them. He violated Y Combinator’s mantra Make Something People Want several times!
“Edison could not take the pulse of a public from which he was isolated. First, cloistered within Glenmont and his new lab in Orange, and then even more isolated in unpopulated mining country, Edison was not well situated to listen to a mass consumer market clamoring for the opportunity to spend money on popular music. Work was the only form of fun he was personally familiar with; it took him a long time to even consider marketing the phonograph as a device for entertainment.”
Edison’s phonograph business suffered because he ignored what customers wanted, or rather he didn’t even understand what they wanted and didn’t care to for a long time before he began to relent bit by bit.
Similarly with the kinetoscope, Edison was unaware of what customers wanted:
“It was clear to everyone but Edison that the kinetoscope, once it was ready for release, would be a tremendous source of fun of all kinds — the silly, the spectacular, and the ribald.”
And the largest blunder that Edison made in his inventor-business career was not recognizing the potential of the projector as an extension of the kinetoscope:
“For that, the images had to be freed from the confined spaces of the kinetoscope box. They needed to be projected so that a roomful of people could enjoy them at the same time. Anyone who spent time with the exhibitors (customers) would have seen the problem in an instant. Edison, who had seventy-ton rollers on his mind, missed it completely.”
The invention of the kinetoscope allowed people to see motion picture one at a time. The projector was the next step such that people would be able to see the picture together. Edison’s employees told him about the potential of the projector but he dismissed it as silly. He got beaten out of the commercialization of his own invention — a competitor company capitalized on the projector. And this was all because Edison had too many projects going on to see how customers used the kinetoscope. He didn’t listen to his customers.
Don’t let fame get to you
With the invention of the phonograph, Edison became a hero. He was all over the press. People came in packs to visit his laboratory. And even though this was the most opportune time for Edison to further the development of the phonograph and commercialize it, he was “distracted by the attention that came with celebrity.”
“With no other invention did he have as open a field without competition; he was perfectly positioned to move forward. He had become renowned. Financial backers were standing at the ready, impatiently waiting for the machine to be “perfected” and made ready for sale, and were willing to accept a small, toylike placeholder in the meantime. He had at his disposal his own development lab and complete machine shop, with a staff that took orders from no one but himself. He had all the materials that he conceivably might need at his fingertips. But just then, when the whole world seemed to be focused on him and his mechanical marvel, Edison simply could not muster the focus to complete its development. The moment passed before he realized it, and it would be ten years before he would return to work on what he called affectionately his “baby.”
Edison eventually learned from this mistake and tried to work away from the public eye.
Don’t forget to value people (and your employees!)
Typical of many scientists, Edison was not the best at understanding human nature. He lost one of his best employees, Dickson, when he failed to recognize and laud Dickson for his loyalty. Dickson was being poached by a competitor to build a projection system, which was the natural progression of the kinetoscope invented by Edison’s team. Initially Dickson refused to join the competition. But when he told Edison about his decision, Edison “failed to reassure Dickson that he believed Dickson’s dealings had been perfectly honorable” and so Dickson “felt he had no choice but to resign.”
Edison failed to show Dickson that he valued him. In his famous Psychology of Human Misjudgment, Charlie Munger discusses how people want to be liked and loved. Edison failed to show this love and trust towards his most valuable employees and thereby lost them to competitors.
Of course, displaying fake love towards people is not helpful. But if you genuinely value someone, tell them you do!
Don’t cede control of your company to investors you do not trust
Strapped for money, Edison sold a large portion of his electric light company to a group of secondary investors. He thought he’d still retain control of the operations, but he was wrong. Eventually he was ousted from his own company!
Don’t let your obstinacy get in the way of reality
Edison went into the ore mining business out of curiosity. But no matter how much he tried he couldn’t get his idea to work. Edison was obstinate to let go. He wasn’t seeing reality. However, his failure in ore mining did lead him into cement production.
Are these mistakes simply a consequence of great invention?
Perhaps these weaknesses and mistakes are the consequences of creating great inventions. What I mean is that, in order to create great inventions, your mind probably needs to be entirely focused on solving tough problems. And the byproduct of that is that your mind has no energy to think of areas unrelated to your invention. For Edison, this meant that he faltered in areas such as family, human nature, and business affairs, all of which took time away from him working in the lab.
Maybe being a brilliant scientist comes hand in hand with neglecting other areas of your life. I do think this is true in the case of many eminent scientists and entrepreneurs. Einstein wasn’t a family man. Neither is Elon Musk. I’m not saying it’s good or bad; I’m not casting moral judgment on how people choose to live their lives; I’m just pondering on the tradeoffs that come with creating world-changing inventions.
So, maybe it’s unfair to point out the mistakes that Edison made because they’re simply the result of his inventions. But that’s also a bit like saying: “Let’s not correct our errors because that’s just who we are.”
Regardless, us plebeians who are not inventing at the level of Edison can certainly learn from his mistakes. It always pays to avoid errors and correct them. After all, we’re fallible and knowledge progresses through error-correction.
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