The biggest problem with ideas comes down to one word. Six letters. That’s it. That’s what it all ultimately depends on.
But hold on, let’s not skip to the ending just yet. We have a bit of time for a story first.
If I ask you what’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say Edison, you’d probably say a light bulb. And when I say Tesla, you’d probably say…the car company. But, do you know who that company is named after? Have you heard of Nikola Tesla?
You may have heard his name in passing in school or college or in some movie. You might know that he created the famed ‘Tesla Coil’ which blasts out cool-looking streaks of electricity and makes your hair all frizzy and standing up when you touch it. But that’s not all. Not even close. It doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Nikola Tesla was a great man. A true genius. Albeit a flawed one. He had an eidetic memory, meaning he could remember and access just about everything he ever saw, read, or experienced. And this isn’t the only way in which his brain was like a computer – it was also as fast and powerful as one.
He was born and raised in Austria. He studied engineering and physics. In the early 1880s, he started working in telephony (i.e. the connection and deployment of telecommunication services). He didn’t really start making real strides until he came to the US in 1884. There, he invented the AC (alternating current) induction motor as well as the Tesla Coil. He also came up with other amazing inventions such as X-ray imagers and one of the first ever wireless-controlled boats.
On the other hand, Edison grew up in the American Midwest, working as a telegraph operator. He had a much earlier start, establishing his first laboratory in New Jersey in 1876. He would go on to establish many more. He was also a prolific inventor, holding patents in many countries, including 1,093 in the US alone.
Now, reading this, you might think that Edison was indeed superior. But you’re missing a vital bit of context. See, the main conflict between the two stems from their skirmish in the 1880s, known as the ‘War of Currents’. The battle was to determine whose electric system the world would run on – Edison’s DC (direct-current) or Tesla’s AC (alternate-current). We won’t go too much into detail, but basically in DC, the electric current only flows in one direction, while in AC, it changes direction intermittently.
Now, there are only two things you need to know about this war. One is that AC definitively won the war. It trumped DC at the Chicago World’s Fair and became a massive phenomenon soon after, all the way until today.
That’s good, right? That means Tesla won.
No, because the second thing you need to know is that Edison died happy, rich, and healthy, surrounded by a loving family. Whereas Tesla died depressed, destitute, and alone – not even knowing that his technological marvels would go on to power the world and inspire geniuses like Elon Musk for the rest of time.
Why is this? Well, like I said, it comes down to one word. That word is belief. Edison believed in his ideas. He hired a huge team of assistants and employees to propagate his ideas and work to every corner of the world. He did everything he could to make them grow. Meanwhile, Tesla was perpetually unsure and even scared of his ideas. He wasn’t able to give them the attention and focus they deserved and treated them like some distant, estranged relatives, rather than his own children, which they really were when you think about it.
You need to believe in your ideas. It’s that simple. And yet, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Ever since we are young, we have to face people who may not believe in us, may not think much of us, may belittle us, put us down, or so on. This can be teachers, bullies, even some friends and family. It’s hard in such a fragile young age to not let this penetrate your mind with an inner self-critic that harshly chastises and criticizes every minute detail of anything and everything you do.
But you need to kill that voice. That’s the only way. It’ll all make sense soon enough. As Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots looking backwards. This is succinctly explained by this short excerpt from his exceptional Standford commencement speech from 2005:
It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned Coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward 10 years later.
Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
Your ideas need honing and perfecting of course, but they are all from your mind and they need to all be valid in your mind for them to ever bloom into massive successes.
This might mean shutting everyone else out, including the nagging voice in your own head. This might mean early mornings and sleepless nights. This might mean missing out on everything else and even forgetting what the outside world looks like. This might mean sacrificing everything and putting yourself under the gauntlet for the toughest, most daunting quest you have faced.
There will be days when you will have doubts. You might question why you’re even doing any of this. If nothing means anything and you’ll soon be gone, then why not just go to a beach and string up a hammock and make the most out of the rest of your short existence on Earth sipping mojitos and listening to the waves crash? But I can tell you right now, that you must do it. You have to do it. You need to do it.
Because it’s worth it.