By Vijay Shah
The American inventor and business mogul Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was once asked how achieving the desired results helped in his career developing such life-changing devices as the phonograph, film camera and even a commercially viable long-life light bulb. He was already one of the most prolific inventors to emerge from the United States of the Industrial Revolution, at a time when scores of inventions were rapidly altering our world beyond recognition. Indeed he was the fourth most prolific inventor in modern human history and held 1,093 patents under his name in both the U.S. and Europe.
Savvy with his words, Edison was never one to miss an opportunity for a good quote, he then replied:
Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.
He was a man who had a strongly alternative and differential opinion about life matters. A freethinker, Edison was not afraid to voice his interpretation on aspects of his working life and more wide-ranging issues, such as politics and the American monetary policy. He was aware and frank about his reality as a jobbing inventor – and was very much perceptive of his humanity and limitations. He knew no-one was perfect.
As any inventor will vouch, results can be either exuberant success or utter failure and everything else in between. It is a given that even a mastermind such as Thomas Edison had his fair share of disastrous experiments. Indeed he was even fired from a job as a telegraph operator when a teenager, after he spilled sulphuric acid through the floorboards of his office and damaged his boss’ desk while working for Western Union in Louisville, Kentucky.
We live in a society which expects results. If you happen to be an inventor like Mr. Edison here, you are putting yourself under pressure to get results from your experiments – of imposing a determined pressure on yourself to get to end of your road of discovery – and to achieve that final result. You put stress on yourself to avoid mistakes and failures, and when encountering them – to overcome them. We expect our children to get good results in their school examination, we expect our employees or peers to give good results in meetings or on projects, we part with our money with businesses and individuals and expect results. Things go awry if the results are not delivered to our exact expectation. When people do not get those expected results, the other party can expect some kind of complaint, refusal of service, or personal and collective disappointment. You only have to look at the frenzy of lawsuits whirlpooling around the American legal system, or the ‘compensation culture’ here in Britain to understand perfectly this societal expectation of satisfactory results.
There is nothing wrong with expecting good results. It is human nature. If people could not be bothered to make the effort in their work, or in their inventions, we would still be roasting bison meat in Stone Age caves. Results mean progress, they mean happy customers, and put smiles on faces. The important thing though is that we can, in some cases, make room for a little failure, to put our chins up and say “Never mind, let’s try again”. If people are putting pressure on others to get good results, then it can get the job done faster, but it can also cause stress, self-flagellation, nervousness and in extreme cases, suicide, poor health and mental breakdowns. The students in Indian universities who hang themselves because of poor grades or exam pressure, the Japanese office workers who jump out of their cubicle windows because they could not handle the target-driven rat race anymore, the English husband in a troubled marriage who one day snaps and guns down his whole family…all are in part due to society’s expectations enforcing mountainous hurdles that they have no hope of jumping over.
Push yourself to succeed, to reach your objectives, but do not treat any mistakes or cock-ups as an impenetrable roadblock. Use them as a learning experience. Learn from them yourself, but when dealing with others’ mistakes, help them on their learning journey too.
We need to be realistic about what we expect from others. In certain cases, such as hospital care, it is quite right that the maximum effort is made. No-one wants their loved one to come home from a major bout of surgery with the surgeon’s gloves still stuck in their chest cavity. Here mistakes can be fatal, and precautions must be adhered to without exception. But in situations that are not exactly ‘life-and-death’, we should allow for a degree of leeway. If someone makes a mistake, do not condemn them as fit for the scrapheap, give them a chance. Point them in the right direction, so together you can achieve the right result and reach the right destination. After all, Thomas Edison made hundreds of mistakes in his laboratory experiments, yet now we see towns, educational institutions and dozens of other places named for him in his native land.
Do not let an innocent mistake define a person. We are all human, with the capacity to reach the pinnacle of human greatness, but also just as likely to have the capacity to infallibly be brought down by human error. All the world’s great and small inventors could only achieve, could only get Results, through trial and error.
It’s human to make mistakes…and that makes the good results all the more sweeter to relish….
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