When we walk in a room and switch on a light, we can be thankful for an unlikely genius named Thomas Alva Edison. Moving pictures and audio recordings are also a result of this one man’s perseverance. With very little formal schooling, and numerous mishaps and failures, few people expected young Thomas to amount to anything at all. But…he had a mother who looked past his shortcomings and saw his potential. He spoke with affection about her, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

Thomas was a curious boy and his mother had every reason to be discouraged about his actions. He burned down the family stable and was kicked out of school, yet his mother Nancy, a devout Presbyterian with a formal education ,was able to put her education to good use by teaching “young Al.”  Thomas was an ambitious entrepreneur and started a small business selling newspapers on a local train, but he lost his job because he nearly blew up one of the train cars with his science experiments. His life was marked by many other failures and mishaps, but oddly that’s not what we remember about him. We remember him for his successes. Aren’t you thankful for the influence and leadership of his mother who taught him to look at each failure as an opportunity to learn and grow and discover new things.

Edison had a unique drive and perseverance that kept him learning and growing despite his mistakes. He didn’t allow discouragements to linger, rather he pushed forward with curiosity and commitment. On the 50th anniversary of the electric light bulb, Henry Ford organized a celebration of his dear friend Edison. President Herbert Hoover spoke about the variety of ways that the electric light had made life better, “It enables our towns and cities to clothe themselves in gaiety by night, no matter how sad their appearance may be by day. And by all its multiple uses it has lengthened the hours of our active lives, decreased our fears, replaced the dark with good cheer, increased our safety, decreased our toil, and enabled us to read the type in the telephone book.”*

The light bulb represent countless hours in the laboratory filled with failed experiments and frustrations. When asked by a reporter with the New York Times about the seemingly incredible difficulties associated with developing the light bulb, Edison responded, “I have not failed 700 times. I’ve succeeded in proving 700 ways how not to build a light bulb.” What an extraordinary perspective! Can we look at our mistakes as successes, or are we so caught up in the disappointments and frustrations that we can’t see the positive aspects of our failures? As leaders, let’s determine to look at life with and attitude that includes the joy of learning and the opportunity to discover the lesson behind each challenge and mistake.

*Herbert Hoover: “Address on the 50th Anniversary of Thomas Edison’s Invention of the Incandescent Electric Lamp.,” October 21, 1929.

This is an excerpt from Positive Leadership Principles for Women.


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