“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

How inventor par excellence Thomas Edison can inform your creative work.

Thomas Edison, inventor of  the commercially practical incandescent lightbulb (among other things) and natty dresser.

Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb (among other things) and natty dresser.

What can we, as writers, photographers, artists, and bloggers learn from American inventor Thomas Alva Edison? Plenty, as it turns out. Edison is famous for many inventions, including the phonograph, a commercially viable lightbulb, and the motion picture camera.

His success resulted from trial and error, and many, many failed experiments before creating a lightbulb that could last 1200 hours, just as an example. He could have stopped. He could have given up. He chose to frame his work in a positive light:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Edison’s philosophy is particularly compelling to anyone who does creative work:

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration.

How many rough drafts, spoiled drawings, and blurry photos have you created before that stroke of serendipity? Are you looking at a failure, or an important stepping stone toward a masterpiece?

If you’re waiting for inspiration, you might be left waiting, giving up time that could be better spent creating. Get writing, get your watercolors out, pop your camera in your pocket and do a photowalk in your neighborhood. If you focus on being consistent with process, inspiration will find you, and what you produce will show it.

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  1. I do think that citing Edison as an example for writers and artists is inappropriate to the point of being counter-productive – demotivational in fact. Hard work and determination alone will not make you Thomas Edison. Hard work and determination alone did not make Thomas Edison Thomas Edison. He needed capital and he needed a workforce. He needed the physical and intellectual resources of others. If you’re not in any position to command such resources, you should look elsewhere for inspiration.

    For sure, he was a very inventive guy – and took an important role in many of the inventions that bore his name. But I think an inspirationally creative individual needs the humility and honesty to acknowledge the gifts of others. Edison lacked that kind of generosity of spirit and by failing to respect others, he forfeits a deal of respect himself, as his shabby treatment of people like Dickson and Tesla demonstrates.
    If you want a relevant example of perspiration over inspiration – how about Anthony Trollope – a man who got up at 5am, wrote several thousand words before breakfast and then put in a full day’s work at the post office.


  2. He did not invent motion picture cameras. However, he did patent nearly everything about it so much so that he temporarily stunted the growth of the film industry because no one could use their own cameras.

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  3. You unwittingly stepped into a veritable hornet’s nest on this one, Krista.
    As you have seen, there is great controversy with regards to Edison, especially among the supporters of Tesla.
    I do understand the intent behind your article though – and it makes sense to me, regardless of the source.
    I am a highly intuitive type and, for those brain-children fathered by true inspiration, I find that sleep is as good a mother as any. They are born fully and perfectly shaped.
    However, no person (or writer) can rely on only one method.
    My husband and his parents often want to “show” my daughter how her toys work. I have often indicated my disagreement with this approach – saying that, learning how NOT to do it (I am speaking of 3-D “puzzle” type toys here) is just as important as learning HOW to do it.
    So, often, I do post simply to get a “draft” out. Then I go back and edit and edit and edit all over again, until it resembles something I am satisfied with and proud of.


  4. I liked his quote, but still can’t get past him not actually inventing the lightbulb..


  5. Until something changes within you nothing changes around you, so then without a change within there can never be a change without.


  6. ❤ more inspiring than Bill Gates' "life's not fair get used to it" schtick…I bet he only started saying that after he got rich and began to take over other companies!


  7. I’ve found 10,001 ways that will not work. But, like Edison (and Tesla), I’m always getting closer to the best way of making my Realist Idealist hunch work. It’s the nature of innovation.


  8. Very true, there are paths to success we just have to find them. Look at it this way, failure is like drawing a short straw, except you are the only picker in your world and there are no limits to how many times you pick. Would you stop at drawing the first short straw?


  9. All of the sentiments in this are good, try and see what works, don’t be afraid of failure, sometimes inspiration will be completely unexpected…the only problem I have is applying this to Edison. He claimed credit for inventions that were not really his (like the light bulb), he threatened others (which is why movie studios are in Hollywood – far away from his NY thugs who would smash unlicensed cameras).

    This got me a little riled I had to write a rebuttal…but Edison will try to take credit for that as well.


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  10. Edison was no hero. The 1903 film that he made of his infamous execution of the elephant Topsy in Coney Island is still horrific and has been referenced in many films and literary works. Michael Daly’s Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant (2013) says the electrocution was Edison’s way of venting his fury over having lost the AC vs DC battle with Westinghouse, as well as his opportunity to film the first death of any kind.

    The movie is filed in my brain under “Why I Hate Thomas Edison” despite his invention of the electric light bulbs on view in the wondrous “Coney Island, Luna Park by Night” filmed by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Manufacturing Co. in 1905.


  11. Positivity is the key.This is what that keeps one going.Endurance,Perseverence and Dedication will take you a long way.Edison- A Legend.


  12. Thomas Edison is absolutely right, As an painter, writer, musician and a teacher of several subjects including creativity I always say that my achievements have been due to perseverance and lots and lots of mistakes. An incalculable number of them. In fact mistakes are very important to me because usually is from mistakes that inspiration for new ideas and breakthroughs stem from.


  13. I know Thomas Edison’s quote well, yet reading it in this post has calmed me down and inspired me to keep on trying.


  14. As an educator, I love this quote. I constantly urge my students to develop their grit, praising them when they demonstrate this Edisonian tenacity.

    As a writer I love that this idea, too, because it gives me the liberty to fail with abandon. Thanks for posting!


  15. As I’m currently writing a book on Thomas Edison, I find that his neat little sayings are oversimplified (as might be expected). Edison actually had difficulty focusing on the very projects that could have been even more successful if he hadn’t gotten distracted by something new. Definitely an interesting guy, a major workaholic, and someone I’m enjoying writing about.


  16. This post is so true. I’ve learnt the hard way that waiting for inspiration is not like waiting for a bus: three inspirations don’t come along at once, no inspiration comes… ever. I now have a writing/blogging schedule of days and times that I stick to. If I’m feeling uninspired I still sit down to write, and as soon as I start, hey-presto, inspiration comes.