Science Learning Tips from Thomas Edison

light bulb
Photo: Wikipedia user KMJ
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Thomas Edison had two powerful secrets. These Twin Pillars of Excellence led him to his most famous invention and his most important invention.

You haven't heard these two science learning tips, but you’ve probably heard of Thomas Edison. You've probably also heard about his first 1,032 attempts to make a light bulb.

Each one was an epic FAIL.

There are two important lessons from Edison's experience. Actually, three lessons.

The third lesson was 1,032 ways not to build a light bulb. This lesson helped Edison find the one right way to build a light bulb, the design that finally worked. But the first two lessons are far more valuable.

Edison succeeded because he applied these first two lessons, the Two Pillars of Excellence. He used these two pillars throughout his life, and they made him rich and successful.

Edison's First Lesson

Thomas Edison didn’t quit when his first light bulb did. He changed the model, tried using different kinds of materials and filaments. These new lights sputtered and sparked and burned out in minutes.

Next he tried different kinds of glass. FAIL.

He changed the electrical current. FAIL.

He played with the voltage. EPIC FAIL.

Edison stayed up late. He got up early. He came up with ten new designs. A hundred new designs. In the end he tried to make a light bulb more than 1,000 different ways. Not one of them succeeded.

There’s a legend that someone asked Thomas Edison why he kept trying to make a light after more than 1,000 failures.

“I haven’t failed,” he replied. “I’ve learned 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb.”

In the end, one of his designs really worked. The rest is history, as they say.

Persistence almost always pays off. (Or it should, and we’ll get to that in a minute.)

Don’t ever give up. One of the best science learning tips ever. When you’re stuck trying to learn physics or memorize the structure of organic chemicals, when you’re looking for a way to pay for college or trying to invent something, keep on trying. Never give up. Persist, and you’ll succeed.

Persistence, if you didn't guess this already, is the first Pillar of Excellence.

Edison's Second Lesson

Persistence has an important partner that most people ignore. It’s true that success often comes after unflagging, pig-headed persistence. But if that’s all you’ve got, you’re just being pig-headed.

The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Imagine if Edison's second light bulb was an exact copy of his first failed attempt. The exact same bulb would fail in the exact same way.

And if Edison persisted like this, he would have made 1,000 light bulbs, all failures for the same reason. If he never tried anything different, he would never get a different result. Insanity.


Picture of mad scientist
Picture: JJ at the English Language Wikipedia
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(Here you can invoke a mental picture of the mad scientist, a mop of wavy hair flying in the breeze, big bloodshot eyes glaring at a burned out bulb, ranting, “glow, glow, d*mn you, glow!”)

Fortunately, Edison tweaked his design each time. He thought about why each light bulb failed, and then did something slightly different for the next design. As a result, he learned 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb. And also one way that worked.

Reflection is the second Pillar of Excellence. Without it, persistence is weak and possibly counterproductive. Keep going, keep trying, but also take time to reflect. Learn from your mistakes.

Do It Like An Engineer

Edison's greatest invention was the research lab. This is still how engineering works today. You think about a solution to a problem, and then test it. If your solution doesn’t work, you reflect on new ways to solve the problem. And you persist in trying new solutions until you get it right.

The Two Pillars of Success are: Reflection and Persistence. If you can master both of these science learning tips, each one multiplies the power of the other one.

Don't persist in doing the same thing. Persist in learning from your failures. Persist in tweaking, tinkering, and innovating. Keep these science learning tips in mind the next time you’re struggling over a physics problem. You’ll advance by leaps and bounds in anything you do for the rest of your life.

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