Stop Parrotting The Industrial Era Lie: Genius Is 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration

This saying has more to say about the man most famously attributed to this quote — Thomas Edison — than being a matter or scientific fact as i will show. What prompted me to write this was a highly respected work collegue who parroted this out amid nods of approval from the CEO. What saddened me was these otherwise bright people actually believed that genius was pure hard work in terms of time and physical effort put in to realise a single piece of innovation. I knew from study of real geniuses and experience as an inventor/innovator that genius could be had “on tap” and that such a quote was complete nonesense. The person repeating such a statement was merely reinforcing self-held beliefs about themselves and the fact this statement had been repeated ad-nauseam for over a century did not make it true.

Upon closer scrutiny, it is clear that Edison himself did not come up with this statement as it was already in circulation before his famous quote to the press. That Edison repeated this quote on numerous occassions was a reflection of his thinking which in fact he clearly outlined:

During all those years of experimentation and research, I never once made a discovery. All my work was deductive, and the results I achieved were those of invention, pure and simple. Accordingly, a ‘genius’ is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.”

In fact Edison goes further and admits to his plagiaristic tendencies and outright theft of intellectual property:

Everyone steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot, myself. But I know how to steal! They don’t know how to steal!

The time this quote was made is also relevent to this analysis. The United States was in an unprecendented period of ascendancy as a military and industrial power on a global scale soon to eclipse the United Kingdom as the dominant industrial nation. This period also known as the second industrial revolution was one in which huge industrial complexes required legions of pliant worker bees whose sole value to the enterprise was their physical labour and ability to work on the mass production lines mindlessy repeating tasks without any intellectual input to the production process. You see the thinking part was for the “genius” overlords of industry who knew best and their so called genius was mostly based on trial and error as Edison frankly admits. Edison was a CEO not a genius and to call him a genius is to obfuscate true genius and to misdirect individuals into simply following a path of trial and error — this approach is extremely wastful and encourages a mass of error producing trials and little else.

So if genius is NOT 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration then what is it? Let me posit: Genius is 90% inspiration and 10% perspiration.

This is what the real genius Tesla had to say about Edison on his death:

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. The New York Times (19 October 1931).

So what does constitute true genius? A proper discussion on this is outside the scope of an article on Medium but i will finish by leaving this quote relating to ingenuity by probably the greatest genius of the 20th century and one of the greatest geniuses of all time — Nikola Tesla:

“My method is different. I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything. “

Knowledge is Power

Phil Sanchez
London, UK

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